An interesting thing is happening with Feud as it progresses through its first season. We noted in our review of the first episode that Ryan Murphy has taken a surprisingly nuanced, non-campy approach to depicting the lives and motivations of these two iconic women. In the second episode review, we noted how the show’s increasingly gay male-camp point of view is situated side-by-side with a feminist point of view regarding women being vilified and victimized by a patriarchal culture that devalues them in direct proportion to how sexually desirable they are. And now here we are at the third episode, in which the portrayals of each women deepen and become more nuanced, even as the show gleefully embraces high camp and humor. In other words, the show started off subtle and underplayed and has become both deeper and broader as it has progressed. We don’t even know how such a thing was managed and we suspect that, in somewhat typical Murphy fashion, it may be difficult to maintain, but it’s hard to argue with the results right now. This was the best episode of the series by far; heartbreaking, funny, infuriating and tense, it was a hugely entertaining hour of television packed to the rafters with quotable lines and great performances.
The episode wore its intentions on its sleeve, so to speak, from the jump. You don’t title an episode of television partly about Joan Crawford’s mothering techniques “Mommie Dearest” unless you have some things you’d like to say in response to the original book and film of that name, which came from the autobiography of Joan’s daughter Christina, and which did more to damage the posthumous reputation of Joan Crawford than any other thing ever written or said about her. To the majority of the public, Faye Dunaway’s shrieking, wild-eyed performance is the definitive Joan Crawford. And it would seem Ryan Murphy has a distinct problem with that.
It was all a rather open attempt to offer more nuance regarding Joan’s parenting than the original Mommie Dearest did. While there’s only the slightest tip of the hat to the idea that she may have been an abusive mother, Joan’s approach to her children is presented as complex, easily misunderstood and rooted in her own horrorshow of a childhood. She is shown to be a deeply, perhaps chronically wounded woman who still thinks, well into her middle age, that her childhood rape at the hands of her stepfather was consensual; who still thinks an adult man raping an 11-year-old girl is an act of love. In addition, that crater of damage at the core of her being yawns wider at the prospect of aging without love, career or family to define her. She has no husband, finds her career increasingly exploitive and humiliating, and faces an empty house every day. Both her desperation as an actress and her shortcomings as a mother are all bound up in these scenes – especially the one with Mamacita while getting ready for bed. Between that and the astonishingly well-acted scene discussing her rape with Bette while downing martinis and chain-smoking, we’re presented with a Joan Crawford so fundamentally damaged by forces outside herself that it makes it hard for the viewer to judge her shortcomings too harshly.
At the same time, we’re shown a Bette Davis with similar, but somehow opposite problems. Bette struggles to make connections with her children while Joan alternately smothers and ignores hers. Bette talks of a life of emotional and sexual repression in response to Joan’s life of seeking comfort through it. Both women are lonely and frightened by what the future has in store for them. Both women are shown to have children who may not love them all that much but might have good reason for it. Where Joan is shown as a too-controlling and stern mother, Bette is shown as a somewhat distant one, confused about how to relate to B.D. and utterly unsure of how to even make the most basic connections with Margo, the developmentally disabled daughter she put in an institution. The inclusion of Victor Buono’s life and choices struck us as a bit heavy-handed – especially the rather awkward “mother” angle shoved in to make it thematically sound – but it illustrated how Bette is drawn to talented people like a moth to a flame, and implies that some of her troubled relationship with B.D. comes down to not respecting her for being untalented. On the flipside, Joan’s enmity toward Christina is implied to have something to do with her being ungrateful. To Joan, that is the worst thing a child can be. And apparently for Bette, she rates “untalented” largely the same way. Not that she was nasty to B.D., but she sure was dismissive of and reckless with her feelings.
All of this nuance centered around the rigidly stated theme of motherhood eventually gives way to the kinds of Grand Guignol melodrama we’ve come to expect from a Murphy show. The good feelings between the actresses evaporate when Crawford opts to go ahead and let Hopper publish a nasty piece on Davis, which of course culminates in a huge argument on set, ending with the hilarious line and delivery “And it was Gloria Swanson who was robbed in 1950, NOT YOU, BITCH!” from Lange, channeling a furious and cornered Crawford. Lange is doing stunning work this season – and this episode alone will probably make her Emmy submission reel – but we remain tickled pink and fascinated by the ways she modulates her voice and pitch. The delivery of that line was so odd that we couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it. And we’re not sure how she manages it, but she can turn on a dime from being so wounded and insecure that you want to hug her to so repugnant that you almost can’t help curling your lip up at her.
In addition, Sarandon gets better and better with each episode. Her Davis impersonation is better than ever, but she’s also finding some true complexity and vulnerability in this portrayal. The scene in the restaurant with the two of them was simply a tour de force of two mature, seasoned, been-there actresses bringing all the intensity and A-game acting they can muster to the work, just to match the other one. They both have an amazing chemistry with the other. It’s possible the acting and incredible costume design (we picked up on something very curious this week, which we’ll talk about in our upcoming Feud Style post) are dazzling us to the point that we’re not seeing the flaws clearly, but for now, that balance of high camp and nuanced character work just keeps getting better.
All our Feud: Bette and Joan coverage can be found here.
[Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner/FX]