The final episode of FX’s Feud is as long as it is abrupt. At the 1978 Academy Awards, there’s a documentary film crew set up backstage — the show’s illusive but important framing device finally revealed — and characters we’ve come to know across eight episodes sit down on a golden couch to tell a story; a story about Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and her work.
Pauline Jameson (Alison Wright) is there. Living a new, happier life in documentary film, she recounts her last meeting with the star who once told her and her feminist aspirations to go to hell: “She seemed very much tossed away.”
Holed up in a new Manhattan apartment, as immaculately clean and well decorated but significantly lesser-than her Los Angeles estate, Joan is alone. But as she scrubs her own floors, burns herself on the microwave and spits blood into a sink, viewers are reminded that even when surrounded by others, Crawford has, by Feud’s account, always been a woman apart. The chores and habits are the same, now simply unaided or un-catered to by others. Film work or house work, what’s important is how that work, and thereby she, is perceived. Even when no one is left to look.
As Joan records her thoughts for a new lifestyle and manners book (a small moment of pride in an episode rife with desperation), she recounts the many strict ways in which she’s always comported herself. And for its immediate absurdity to contemporary ears, it feels a truly honest account of how seriously Crawford lived life her way; from the physical ugliness she sees in saying the word “no” (your lips purse up in an unflattering way) to her very close relationship to fabrics (new outfits are “new friends”). That is, with the exception of the very first notion she speaks into the tape recorder: “I always say, treasure yourself.”
In every moment of Feud, Lange’s Crawford has displayed herself impeccably, tended to every loose hair or wrinkle and held her head high in increasingly oppressive and cruel situations. She takes immaculate care of her body, her image and her career. But treasure herself? No. Joan Crawford treasures the work.
In addition to the book deal, the ever-committed actress takes a role in the infamous Trog. To her agent, it’s a bit of extra career-suicide. To this new, old Joan, the B-movie is a chance to play a scientist like the Marie Curie role she always wanted, and without Mamacita by her side, an adventure even; because the new Joan, who bends more willingly and seemingly settles for less, is really still the old Joan, just with less people to rely on.
A particularly Ryan Murphy-esque sequence sets Crawford’s late night, alcohol and dementia induced wanderings through the Trog set to The Doors’ intensely melancholic The End. What initially seems an absurdly on-the-nose song choice to illustrate the legend’s imminent demise is, upon deeper contemplation, a near perfect choice for a show that seeks to legitimize melodrama, camp, horror and the woman’s picture all at once.
Consider The End’s other most prominent use in American film — the introduction to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Feud, as episodic television drama about the infighting of two Hollywood divas, is (in most eyes) a natural opposite to the hyper masculine war epic lauded by critics. But as real life Vietnam war footage plays on her television, Lange’s Crawford echoes Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard in more ways than one: depressed, heavy drinking, ambivalent sadness toward the mission and contemplating the inevitable death that awaits. Both the war film and the soap opera confront the end of days, yet the one that graces the screen with a cast of men is the one garnering the greatest respect. It’s one of Feud’s greatest strengths — to ask the audience to question the genres, the conflicts and the genders that have been historically dismissed.
To that end, it’s Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess) and the gay community he represents — consistently providing the voice of truth, a Greek chorus of sorts — that gives Feud its most deeply complex relationship. Still a fixture in Bette Davis’s (Susan Sarandon) life, Victor is the one who tells his friend of Joan’s cancer. He suggests that she call despite their past fights: “Nothing good can come from comparing yourself.” He is, of course, right — not just about the two women, but about how their life’s work is and will continue to be perceived in camp depictions well beyond their natural lives.
Post-Baby Jane, Davis and Crawford both benefit from and suffer the attentions of a new gay fandom that reads their work as camp. Davis, inviting a portrait artist to stay for dinner, responds with a playful but frustrated eye roll after learning of his homosexuality. Accepting the man himself, but lying to her daughter about the nature of their relationship, it’s perhaps not the kind of attention she’d imagined receiving. Crawford, at her book signing, perceives the affection of camp fans as mocking, and some of it is. But it is also, as a man with a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? photo points out, in solidarity with their characters’ abilities to overcome great odds and survive.
The women’s animosity to their rising camp stardom is understood by Feud and even sympathized with — it isn’t what they’ve worked for, not the traditional, hetero-normative, American dream. But it’s the symptom of a larger, systemic problem that pits the “new Queens,” as a comedian at the Dean Martin roast puts it, against the old ones. Feud may not get intersectional feminism right, but it does manage to point out the limited spotlight Hollywood has for anyone other than white, heterosexual men.
In Crawford’s apartment, late at night, viewers are treated to one of the series’ most surreal and impactful creations. Awoken by noises, a cancer-ridden Joan becomes her glamorous self again, joining Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), and Davis in her living room for a game of cards. “Why am I so happy to see you?” Joan asks dream Bette. “Nostalgia,” Davis replies. And isn’t that the strange truth; a feeling that’s both sweet and sad, longing and unkind. It’s precisely the relationship both women had with the industry that would make them legendary. And it’s over as swiftly as it began.
Joan’s death is sudden and off screen. It’s announced by an Associated Press reporter who calls Bette to ask for a comment. History paints a sad and minimal response from the star: “Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” The show, via Sarandon’s rather excellent acting choices and its half-true storytelling nature, gives an imagined visual to that response. Emotions invisible in the curt statement are made wholly apparent in her face when she receives the news: pale, and still, and all communicated through those famously emotive eyes.
Davis, who would live until 1989, outlives Feud’s timeline, but that survival is by no means a picnic. Meeting with daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) for lunch, the heavy-drinking Davis is accused of hitting one of B.D.’s children for misbehaving. She passes it off, “I swatted at you 1000 times, did I traumatize you?” There are no words, only a cold goodbye. And is often the case with trauma, the relationship between them is over, but the memory of it is surely not.
In the wake of her rival’s death, Davis makes an impromptu visit with her impaired and seemingly forgotten daughter, Margot. She tells of reading her deceased mother’s letters, full of disparaging words that convince her that the woman she thought was her “best friend” never felt the same. And she outright refuses to speak to the documentary crew about her the infamous “feud.”
The title of the final episode suggests female friendship as being the overarching moral of Feud’s story. If only the champagne in Crawford’s dying dreamscape could have come to fruition, all would have been forgiven, all could have been different. But that “starting over” doesn’t happen; the champagne never arrives for Bette and Joan, and the only toast that occurs is after her death, over a sickly sentimental, two second blip of the in-memoriam segment in the Oscar’s green room: a room that once belonged to the Queen of Glamour herself.
Those two-seconds, a horrified room of stars realize, is all any of them will ever get. That for all the work that has come before — with all its drama, pain, and struggle — this is the inevitable and inescapable result. I don’t know if Murphy, the writers and directors have accomplished that end. But what they have done is depict the reality of the American Dream and the insufferable work that goes into it, particularly for those this society may refuse to fairly represent.
Creating ourselves, inventing identities, toiling away for the appreciation of others: for women, gay men and every marginalized person that the show did not represent (people of color, gay women, etc.), this is the real harrowing work of achieving that dream. Looking and not recognizing herself in a gossip column, Joan asks, “Is that really how I look?” It both is and isn’t, with her frailer, less conventionally attractive image heightened to absurdity and projected as truth to the outside world. For Joan, “If that’s how they see me, they’ll never see me again.” I think Feud believes we should take another look, turn on another spotlight or two (or three, or four) and see people beyond the work… for all the things they are.
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.