In the end, Feud: Bette and Joan was a beautiful lie. A lie told in service to the art, a lie told to secure the legends for another generation, a lie told to placate the audience, and ultimately, a lie told by the auteur to the auteur. But it was still a lie – and one that we’ve been mulling practically non-stop for the last half-day, which is fairly indicative of how successful a lie it was.
The first lie: Feud was never really about a feud. There were times when the dialogue could become too unsubtle, too on-point, but there’s nothing wrong with dropping a mission statement somewhere in the mix. “Feuds are about pain,” said Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia DeHavilland. Whether you agree with that or not, there’s no denying that the show held tight to that theme, all the way to the end. Feud really was about the various pains of two women who seemed to hate each other while also seeming to have every reason to feel just the opposite about each other. Feud was, in many ways, a tragedy, based solely on its thesis; that these two titanic women could have been great friends if they’d only been just a little different with each other. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had such similar experiences, both in their professional and private lives, that it seems obvious in retrospect how much likelier an alliance should have been for both of them. Feud makes the point – very hard in this final episode – that each of them almost needed the other, and might have found some measure of contentment in their old age if they could have found a way to bridge their divide.
That’s the second lie of Feud.
Ryan Murphy wanted to craft a response of sorts to Mommie Dearest and also to pay tribute to the seemingly kind and benign version of Bette Davis he met briefly at the end of her life. For the purposes of this story, as well as for his agenda for the portrayal of each actress, certain concessions needed to be made, leaps of faith launched, and connections drawn more sharply than they may have been in life. None of this is a criticism. This is a mark of most biopics; this need to take the vastness of a person’s life and describe it solely according to themes applied to it posthumously by the biographer/director/screenwriter. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were certainly figures in each other’s lives – and even somewhat important ones, at times – but because Feud wanted to say more about them than just “They hated each other,” it tended to make each of them loom larger in the other’s eyes than they really were – and also to neatly ignore that each of them had a history of feuding with actresses, making their feud with each other one of a series, rather than the life-defining relationship the show tended to portray. That in itself is not a criticism, but it was a reason for padding the basic story well past the point it needed to go. In other words, we critique Feud not for being a lie, but for being a lie longer and more drawn out than it needed to be. In the end, it would have probably benefitted from a six-episode run with a tighter focus.
Still, it was a pretty lie, wasn’t it? Even if Crawford and Davis themselves would have objected to the ways in which their stories were told, Feud paid them both the ultimate compliment by having their portrayals rendered at the hands of two actresses at the top of their games, doing some of their very best work. In other words, in the end, Feud was about the performances, which the real Joan Crawford and Bette Davis would have almost certainly loved. Jessica Lange was utterly, devastatingly heartbreaking as a woman at the end of her life, not knowing who she is, whether any of her pain was worth it, or even if her own children have any affection for her. Forgotten, fading and eventually battling dementia, she gave us a Joan Crawford more pitiable than monstrous. We’re not sure if Murphy managed to successfully counter the portrayal of Joan in Mommie Dearest, but Lange gave us a stunningly delicate and precise elegy that stands as an aging actress’s own treatise on aging and dying. In Lange’s hands, the story stopped being about Joan Crawford and simply became a sad story about decline and endings.
Sarandon seemed to get better as Davis with each passing episode, until her portrayal at the time of the 1978 Academy Awards was so perfect that she seemed almost completely lost in the character. All throughout the series we kept forgetting we were watching Jessica Lange, but in these last two episodes, we wound up having to remind ourselves more than once that we were watching a portrayal of Bette Davis and not Davis herself. Somewhere along the line, Sarandon nailed Davis’ particular form of pain-masking bravado. Sarandon has said in interviews that she found it difficult to let go of herself in this portrayal, but you could really see how she managed to accomplish it by this final episode, which is, perhaps not coincidentally the episode where she finally gets to portray Bette Davis at the same age she is. She finally gave us a Bette Davis with context. Not merely a bitchy quip-generator possessing a way with a cigarette, in Sarandon’s hands, she was shown as a woman abandoned by her children, unloved by her dead mother, and in many ways, as alone as Joan Crawford was at the end of her life. She gave us a Davis perfectly positioned to take us to an ending of reconciliation more emotionally pleasing than the reality.
And that is the biggest lie of them all.
We have been struggling mightily with something we keep wanting to call a fantasy sequence; the choice to depict Joan in the throes of her end-of-life dementia, imagining a reconciliation not only with Bette Davis, but also with Hedda Hopper and Jack Warner, standing in neatly for the whole Hollywood machine. Our first impulse is to say that it was manipulative in the extreme; a too unsubtle way to ease the audience into the sad ending to come by denying the truth of the story. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis never reconciled and never expressed a wish to be friends with the other. The tragedy of their story, as Feud positioned it, is that they could have been great friends but never managed it, for a variety of reasons, from institutionalized misogyny to their own host of issues and problems. As lovely as that “fantasy” was, it felt like a last-minute fumble born out of a fear that the story had gotten too depressing. Rather than depict the truth of the tragedy, we got to see them both looking glamorous and beautiful, fully expressing their affection and support for the other. Yes, it illustrated Joan’s dementia in a devastating way, but it also tied the story up in a much tidier bow than the reality. As we keep noting, that level of fabulism isn’t necessarily wrong in a biographical context, and the scene itself was beautifully written, directed, shot and acted. But it tended to soften the tragic nature of the show’s themes.
Still, go ahead and shower these two with every nomination and award available to them. Joan and Bette demand it.