There are already a lot of posts out there dedicated to fact-checking the FX series, Feud: Bette and Joan, so I won’t get into that. I didn’t care for the series at first, but I am warming up to it. It’s a biased portrayal of the actual events, but a telling tale in terms of our contemporary attitudes and toward women, beauty and aging in the entertainment industry. Human hubris loves to believe we are superior our past, but Feud reveals how little our attitudes have really changed.
I particularly dislike the way the series perpetuates the false dichotomy of Joan Crawford as physical beauty and Bette Davis as talent. Feud shows neither insight nor empathy for Crawford, but has a distinctly soft spot for Davis, although both women were reportedly terrors, and many other sources portray Davis as the more aggressive foe in their ongoing war. Feud’s portrayal of Crawford feels like another instance of ridiculing and disdaining an aging woman who can no longer wield her beauty as a strength (à la Sunset Boulevard). And in that way, is it not just perpetuating the aging of beautiful women as monstrous spectacle in the same way this cycle of horrors did in the 60s-70s? The more things change, the more they stay the same?
For historical accuracy, I prefer AMC Backstory: Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but setting that aside I cannot get enough of Susan Sarandon, Judie Davis, and Alfred Molina. And the set and costume design are to die for. I’m taking up cat-eye glasses and I might start sporting faux-furs too.
But the best thing about Feud is that it has stirred up interest in these women and the films they made in their late careers.
My Fantasy ‘Feud’ Film Fest
Of course both ladies starred in dozen of fantastic films, but riffing on the thriller-horror theme of their later careers, if I could put together a Feud-inspired film fest it would look like this:
For my money Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte are much more insightful to female rivalry and the pains of aging as a woman than Feud. Yes, they are campy thriller-horrors, but Baby Jane in particular knows all too well what it is about, and you can chalk that up to Aldrich, Davis and absolutely Ms. Crawford who gives an astonishingly brave and honest performance. She really was upstaged by Davis, and robbed (at least of a nomination) by the Academy who are always suckers for “uglified” performances (see Nicole Kidman, etc.).
I can only imagine (until someone actually releases the Crawford footage) what Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte would have been like with Crawford. Her dead-straight performance in Baby Jane balanced Davis’s over-the-top characterization. De Havilland doesn’t have the same cool ferocity to pull that off. She can’t quite see herself as a villain, and so opts instead to play into the camp. She, Joe Cotten and Davis chew up the scenery like teething tots. So whereas Baby Jane grounds it creepy campy horror in some very real female anguish, Charlotte is an all out yuck-fest. Agnes Moorhead and Mary Astor give the most interesting, side-line performances, with Bruce Dern’s role being possibly the oddest part in an extremely odd production (see also Marnie).
Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964) Whereas Robert Aldrich had some sense of psychological depth, William Castle was an all-out Horror-Ham, but somehow Crawford was game and she and Diane Baker, as her devious daughter, make this a worthy, oft-hiliarous, romp.
Dead Ringer (Paul Henreid, 1964) No co-star worries here — Davis plays twins, directed by her former Now Voyager co-star, Paul Henreid. It’s not as fun as Strait-Jacket, but with a cast that includes Karl Malden, Peter Lawford and Jean Hagen, it’ a must.
Berserk (Jim O’Connolly, 1967) OK, I’m not saying this is a great cinematic achievement, but, Crawford in tights wielding a whip at age 63 as a circus ringmistress is pretty freaking awesome. Plus as Streamline points out, the film is meta in that many of its plot points were based on actual fact. Plus, it’s another, I-hate-mommy horror tale long before Mommy, Dearest, so make of that what you will. And of course, Jessica Lange was totally riffing off this Crawford performance in American Horror Story: Freak Show.
Night Gallery “The Eyes” Stephen Spielberg has some insightful things to say about working with Joan Crawford on his first professional directing job, the pilot of Rod Serling’s new show (1969). [For some reason, the pilot is on DVD but not on hulu with the rest of the series].
The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (Leo Penn, 1978) I have only the vaguest memory of this mini-series (also starring Rosanna Arquette). It was apparently released in truncated versions on TNT, VHS and DVD. There’s a really poor quality version on YouTube. Like Watcher in the Woods and The Nanny, this comes from Davis’s golden ‘little old lady’ era, arguably some of her best performances.
Speaking of which, it’s not horror, but Davis and Maggie Smith are deadly funny in Death on the Nile (John Guillermin, 1978).
I hate the terms “psycho-biddy” and “hagsploitation.” I guess I can live with “grand dame guignol,” but I really hate the fact that there is no equivalent genre based on aging men: geezer-gore, old-perve-sploitation….