Apr 24, 2017

TV Retrospective: "Feud: Bette and Joan"

Scene from Feud
Last year, producer Ryan Murphy received acclaim for American Crime Story: his first foray into nonfiction anthology TV. Its acclaim rippled through the enter year while receiving every award imaginable. However, it would be forgivable to ask if its success was merely a fluke for a producer known for his schlocky, sometimes baffling, TV series like Glee and Scream Queens. However, it was with his second nonfiction anthology series Feud that he revealed a deeper truth. Murphy's best work comes from the restraint of reality, especially if there's a moral to be tacked onto it somewhere. While Feud's inaugural season isn't quite as good as American Crime Story, it does manage to show the tender side to a feisty figure in TV culture through a familiar story of Hollywood royalty, but with a timely subtext about aging women on film. It may be profane and salacious at times, but Murphy has finally proven himself to be something greater than a provocateur.
The general story regarding Feud relates back to Murphy's early career. During his days as a journalist, he reportedly interviewed Bette Davis in her final years. He shows a passion for her that is unmistakable. Davis (played by Susan Sarandon) has a tough outer shell that spits insults at anyone standing in her way. Her quips give her a notoriety that is only matched by the pettiness of Joan Crawford (played by Jessica Lange), who has also aged into obscurity by the early 60's. There's a lot that can be asked about why both have a bitterness towards the press and each other. It's a theme that resonates proudly beyond the show's title. So, why are they mean? It's a defense mechanism against an industry that prefers actresses young. Anyone over 40 is likely doomed to bad B-Movies and certain depressing objectifying.
It's a theme that doesn't explain itself until the final episode. However, there are moments throughout that suggest that the feud in question comes from a desire for relevance. In "And the Winner Is... (The Oscars of 1963)," Crawford is seen bribing the Best Actress nominees with hopes that she can accept the award on their behalf. It's seen as a publicity stunt, and one that bothers Davis deeply. She wants to win that third Oscar: a moment that never comes. Instead, Crawford gets a moment to relish holding an Oscar before a crowd of cameras, smiling alongside the youthful talent. Davis' internal struggle becomes clear. She didn't want the award, but the chance to be relevant in ways that people her age couldn't be. An Oscar warranted respect from people, and to see her rival holding it was both retaliation and their own personal self-esteem struggle.
Following the film that the first half of the season focuses on, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the duo get stuck together. The film's success causes Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina) to want to start an aging actress B-Movie genre called "Hagsploitation." It causes Crawford to do movies like Trog, where she is humiliated. The struggles of working with each other were nothing compared to the loneliness that followed. A few kicks to the stomach or a few nasty jabs were one thing. It came with the territory. However, it was the sense that the world was turning its back on their talents when two decades ago they were major stars was depressing. Neither had lost the ambition to do film. They just got stuck in that position.
As much as it is a reenactment of historical accounts, Feud has a more compelling subject on its mind. It doesn't rely on catty fights that would be the centerpiece of other Murphy shows. Instead, it explains why two professional actresses would fight in the first place. One could make the argument that it was all an act, and that they were secretly friends. It all stemmed from an insecurity that defined their public personas. As the final episode's title cheekily points out, "You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?," there's a different way that this story could've gone had they not been seen as fading stars. Maybe Davis wouldn't have to cling to her nastiness. Maybe Crawford didn't have to make degrading movies in her autumn years. While it wasn't cinema alone that connected and isolated them, it was what their legacy would be; and it was difficult to be on the irrelevant side of that coin.
Feud is thankfully further proof that Murphy works best in nonfiction. While his fiction has produced some entertaining romps, there's a sense that the maturing creator wants to explore a side of culture that only he can find the seriousness in. It's because of him that a generation will like see Bette Davis and Joan Crawford not as some actresses with a dated style of performance, but as flawed individuals. This show redefines what jealousy can look like between two women on a show. It can be funny, but it's inherently sad at the end of the day. One can only hope that now that Murphy has two great first seasons of nonfiction anthology TV to his credit that these series can continue to produce inspiring content. Until more is seen, it may as well be time to celebrate the rejuvenation of Ryan Murphy: an artist who now finds deeper meaning in camp culture. 

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

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