Feud: “And the Winner is…”

Posted on April 03, 2017

Kittens, we don’t know about you but this episode was a delicious gift of high drag, laser-sharp scheming, weapons-grade bitchery, Hollywood myths come to life, and two modern titans acting on a level that would have made the women who inspired them begrudgingly admit that these two dames sure know how to tear through a script.

As with so much of Ryan Murphy’s work, there are contradictions that pile up on contradictions in Feud, none more so than in this episode. He’s always been a creator who sought to blend earnestness and cynicism in ways that rarely worked, but felt explosive when they did. As a gay man shepherding the story of two cultural icons of the gay male community through events that have been whispered about in gay bars for generations, passing into legend several decades back, he cannot help but indulge in moments of extreme camp when telling it. But as a successful creator in 2017, he’s also trying to provide a more complete picture of the lives and motivations of two women with personalities so extreme they literally lived their lives as caricatures of themselves. He’s trying to blend that which would seem to be unblendable on the face of it: traditional gay male camp with feminism and the depiction of complex, sympathetic female characters. In most ways, what he’s doing here is no different from the time he attempted to stop anti-gay bullying by singing classic rock on Glee or when he tried to make a point about racism by offering gory scenes of black people being tortured while telling a Stevie Nicks-inspired tale of fashionista witches in American Horror Story: Coven. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But the attempts were always admirably audacious, which is why they’re so explosively entertaining when they succeed. A different director of this episode might have simply dove into the camp end of the pool and stayed there, or they might have tied themselves in knots trying to justify every scheme, nasty word, or drink too many. Murphy splits the difference and doesn’t fuss over it because he’s basically made his career straddling that exact same line.

He’s stated in many interviews that his inspiration for this series came from his getting to meet and interview Bette Davis for several hours near the end of her life. And yet,so much of the series – the bulk of it, we’d argue – is spent on his own personal diva, Jessica Lange, digging deep into the soul of Joan Crawford and pull something out dark and wriggling to show the world. Despite that, it’s clear that the show is attempting to rehabilitate Crawford’s image, or at least give it some nuance, in light of the rather extreme portrayal of her provided by Mommie Dearest. Let’s walk through that again: A tale inspired by a personal meeting with Bette Davis, that nevertheless tends to focus more on rehabilitating the image of her rival, by having an actress practically defined by her ability to go to the dark places portray just how twisted up a mess she really was inside. None of that makes sense on the face of it, nor should it really work all that well. But damn, if that wasn’t a ridiculously entertaining emotional roller coaster ride of an episode. And part of the reason it works so well is not just because Murphy trusts Lange to do what needs to be done with the material – as he should, since they’ve been working together for many years now – it’s because he also clearly has learned to put that same trust in Sarandon to find the wounded, scared core of a woman defined by ballsy fearlessness. Crawford spitting out her hatred of Davis for making her feel so insecure and Davis exhaling her breath like a bullet after watching Crawford sweep past her to accept the Oscar were the two most amazing moments of acting in the episode, each provided by one of the leads; each perfectly suited to their strengths. No one can spit venom quite like Lange and Sarandon perfected her wide-eyed look of horror back when she was singing about how much she wanted to be touched in Rocky Horror Picture Show. For fans of the actresses, these moments were basically placed on silver platters under spotlights. An underline – in glitter pen – to remind you why these divas are playing these divas.

We’ll have more to say in the “Feud Style” post to come – and even more in this week’s podcast – but for now, we’ll move on to random observations:

– Of course the long scene of Joan’s extensive preparations for the Oscars was the highlight of the episode, and Murphy spared every second of the running time he could to lovingly depict it. Except for some minor differences in the jewelry, they absolutely nailed Crawford’s look that night:

 

 

– The show doesn’t seem to go too far with this theme – for which we’re thankful, because it could veer into vaguely insulting territory – but each of Joan and Bette’s allies (Hedda and Olivia) also had infamous feuds with female rivals. Hedda only mentioned Louella Parsons in passing several episodes back, but quite a bit more time was spend on the Olivia DeHavilland/Joan Fontaine feud this episode. It’s fine to point out a motif or theme, but if too much is made of it in this case, it could come across a little offensive, as if all women have powerful, life-long rivalries with other women.

– It’s no surprise that we’ll have much to say on the costumes this episode, but attention must be paid to Joan’s superior caftan game.

– It’s always fun to see Sarah Paulson, and she looked absolutely adorable here, but she didn’t even come close to capturing Geraldine Page’s particular form of awkwardness. Similarly, Serinda Swan gave a lovely and touching performance as Anne Bancroft, but she didn’t look or sound anything like her.

– The entire episode was stocked to the rafters of semi-lookalikes playing famous people, most of whom only vaguely looked like them. The standouts were Patty Duke, Maximillian Schell and Gregory Peck.

– It was fun to see Catherine Zeta-Jones in an array of Olivia DeHavilland-inspired costumes, but she’s another one who isn’t really coming close to playing her like the real person. Mimicry isn’t expected here. Lange certainly isn’t doing it. But if you’re not going to mimic, then find some sort of truth. CZJ’s portrayal seems a little shallow to us.

 

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