Feud: Bette and Joan: Abandoned

Posted on April 17, 2017

Okay, we just did that really dramatic thing where you highlight the 800 words you’ve already written on a topic, hover over the “delete” button for a second, and then dramatically wipe the slate clean. It’s like this: We were meandering our way through another Feud review when we realized we really only want to say a few things, because anything else would be repetitive at this point.

First: the show’s problem trying to layer a feminist argument over a campy story is only getting worse as the show progresses, turning its feminism into the weepy kind and its camp into the soggy kind. Second: there is a fatal problem with the casting vis-a-vis the stated themes of the show: aging beauty vs. artistic merit. The “unattractive” artist is being portrayed by a legendary beauty who doesn’t seem to really have a handle on what it’s like to feel ugly and the emotionally stunted beauty with limited talented is being acted to the rafters by someone unloading every single ability, trick and technique she has in her considerable arsenal as a highly celebrated actress.

Let’s start with the second point: Susan Sarandon got some fabulous scenes this episode as Bette explained to Bob Aldrich about her lifelong issue with Joan and how it intersects with her own feelings of inadequacy regarding her looks and desirability. But as good an actress as Sarandon can be, she can’t help but give the game up with her own body language. Every flip of her hair or widening of her eyes doesn’t come off like the actions of a woman covering up her perceived physical inadequacies with bravado. They come off like a woman who’s used to being looked at when she flips her hair or widens her eyes dramatically.

On the flipside of that is Joan, who’s being written as this emotionally stunted beauty with no understanding of the art of acting, being nonetheless given the full Vincent Van Gogh-esque tortured-artist portrayal by Lange, who excels at playing brilliant, beset women. It becomes, over time, hard to believe that Joan would have any limits as an actress at all, given how insanely emotive she tends to be. In addition, the fudging of ages sometimes really bites the show in the ass. While Sarandon and Lange are close in age, they are both much older than the women they’re portraying at this time. With Sarandon, this might not be such an issue since she looks amazing, except she’s supposed to be playing a woman who looks…decidedly not amazing, according to the people around her and the character herself. With Lange it’s an issue because there are times when she comes off considerably older than the age Joan is supposed to be here. Then it gets even wackier with the casting of people like Hedda Hopper, who is literally decades older than both women at this time or Olivia DeHavilland, a contemporary of theirs, played by an actress two decades younger than them. These vast differences in the ages of the actors vs. the characters they’re playing might not matter so much, except the entire point of the story – and every action made by the two main characters – hinges on the very concept of aging.

Regarding the camp-vs.-feminism argument, it seems to us that the insistence on marrying the two is leaving both sides of the story weaker. You can only take your feminist argument so far when you’re talking about two women who sometimes just acted terribly toward each other –  both of whom would have probably rolled their eyes at any attempts to render their stories ones of victimhood at the hands of evil men. Bette’s side of this story is being rendered in a fairly toothless manner, given the various written accounts of the Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte set, in which she was perceived to have done the very thing Joan accused her of in this episode: using the production to enact her revenge on her. Over and over this episode, the story would skate right up to the line of showing how petty Bette could be, but then it would pull back and frame it in the standard “she just Cares About The Work” manner. The result is to make Joan look even more looney than she actually was and gives us a Bette Davis who is almost unrecognizable from the mercurial, difficult, brash, talented woman she’s remembered as. There’s too much of an attempt to explain why Bette acted badly on the set toward Joan or why she would have made the insane choice of allowing her underage daughter to marry a man twice her age. The story has no problem giving us example after example of Joan’s character flaws while shying so far away from truly delving into any of Bette’s that it’s all started to become lopsided to the point of nearly tipping over.

Which isn’t to say we’re not enjoying it. Some of the scenes this episode were beautifully acted, written and directed, the latter by Helen Hunt. And we’d argue certain scenes, especially the one where Joan unleashes the whopper of “The answer to feeling unattractive isn’t to make yourself even uglier!” on Bette, could only have played out the way it did with a woman directing it. Would a male director have the insight to direct those two actresses to pause and react in horror at how ugly the argument had gotten before continuing it? It was one of the lovelier touches of the episode, driving home the (increasingly questionable) point that Joan and Bette could have been friends if they’d just been able to put aside all the ways in which they were trained to hate each other. But as we reach the final hour of Feud: Bette and Joan, we have to admit that, as much fun as this has been, it suffers from some structural issues that keep it from going where it needs to go. What has made it the quality series it is has come down almost entirely to the performances.



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