FEUD: Bette and Joan

It Was Never Enough: FEUD ‘Abandoned‘ (Recap)

Feud has been, and continues to be, all about surface. Whether it’s the lavish costumes, exquisite replication of sets, gossip columns fueling the narrative or even the faux-documentary framing device, the FX series is most of all obsessed with artifice. In this camp depiction of Hollywood history, it’s not that honesty matters less than appearances, but that some universal truths are easier found in looks than in depths. So, in this second to last episode of the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford saga, it is no surprise that those surface details are what finally erode what’s left of each character’s relationships.

Now in Baton Rouge filming Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, whatever “alliance” had been struck between Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Crawford (Jessica Lange) back in Los Angeles is all but abandoned. Davis, now an associate producer, sits one tier above her co-star; a position that Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina) and the studio may see as empty, but both Davis and Crawford know is anything but. “I’m going to enjoy watching you learn how meaningless Bette thinks this title is,” Joan sneers in his face. That prediction proves true, but its realization is joyless for most everyone involved.

Davis sits in, cuts lines, whispers notes to Aldrich and throws nightly cast parties that don’t include Crawford. The final straw for Joan: being left by the cast and crew in her trailer, the assumption being that Davis orchestrated her abandonment. Whether she did or didn’t isn’t the point – it’s the resulting confrontation that matters.

Joan accuses Bette of “making herself uglier,” her acting being visible as acting (it’s uncouth, over-the-top, too much), while Bette lobs Joan’s over-the-top glamour back at her (she’s un-relatable, cold, an industry relic). They’re paltry, surface level details, but they’re also truths. For all their differences, both women are much the same; each a full fledged production in their own right. And it’s that campy, exaggerated depiction that Feud uses to mine an ironic truth out of a contrived moment: How did it feel to be the most beautiful? The most talented girl in the world? “Wonderful,” says Joan. “Great,” admits Bette. But for neither, and for no woman whose very being is created by men in Hollywood, will that ever be enough.

At home, B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) makes her own play for freedom with an engagement to her boyfriend, Jeremy (David Foye Bauer). While Davis initially balks at signing away her 16-year old daughter to a man 13 years her senior, after her producer credit doesn’t lend her the kind of power she’d envisioned, she flips – “You can get married, but I’m in charge.” From chimes — “not funeral bells” — to a precisely orchestrated first kiss, Davis aims to produce perfection — if not at work, then in her own home.

Crawford, on the other hand, returns to a hospital room at Cedars-Senai. Resolute in her determination to shut down production on Charlotte, she feigns a respiratory illness and tests the studio’s resolve, setting herself up for a lawsuit if only to prove a point: that she is just as powerful as Davis, and an irreplaceable cast member not to be ignored.

The effort ends about as well as Davis’s wedding planning (B.D. marries her beau the moment the papers are signed — no regard for her mother’s desire for a show). Crawford is replaced on the picture by none other than Olivia de Havilliand (Catherina Zeta-Jones), left to suffer the consequences of her own stubbornness and a system that values production over people. Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte will go on, but Joan Crawford’s career and reputation, will not.

As Joan is left wailing in her hospital room — not physically ill, but now surely in mental ruin — abandoned by Mamacita (who followed through on her promise to leave the next time something was thrown at her head), it’s a moment of pure melodramatic pain. Is it over-the-top, exaggerated, unbelievable? Perhaps. But it’s also an authentic illustration of a very real feeling; entrapment and despair.

Back in Baton Rouge, Aldrich can’t stand to hear Bette’s gripes and moans about the difficulties of being a woman in Hollywood any longer. “Do we have to go through this melodrama right now?” he laments. Yes, Feud tells us, we absolutely do.

Because the women of Feud are melodramatic — all exterior details themselves — emotions and drama are worn on the characters’ sleeves. The men are also melodramatic, for that matter. And these characters are not important despite these qualities, but because of them. Surface and stylization need not lack substance — Feud may not be the most honest depiction of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis as human beings, but it provides an authentic depiction of the way it feels to be a woman trapped in a system that isn’t made for them or by them. It’s a universal truth of Hollywood that remains: it is never enough to be the most anything, even if it’s for others and not for yourself.

Alex Landers (@1CriticalBitch) is a critic and playwright writing about women, feminism and truly tasteless horror movies. She received her B.A. in cinema studies from the University of Illinois and an M.F.A. in dramatic writing from Florida State University, believing that great filmmaking is always entwined with great criticism. Also a visual artist, Alex spends time working and painting in Chicago and the east coast of Connecticut. You can read her film criticism weekly at onecriticalbitch.com and get to know the full scope of her work at alexandralanders.com.

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