Arts & Style

‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ explores ageism and sexism in Hollywood

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 classic film starring Golden Age Hollywood icons Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It is one of the pioneers of the horror genre. Crawford and Davis star as sisters Blanche and Baby Jane Hudson, respectively.

But as the movie depicts a terrifying narrative of insanity and jealousy, there is an even more epic drama unfolding behind the camera—a decade-long bad blood between Hollywood’s best actresses for a lonely spot on the pedestal of fame.

Lange, who plays Crawford, and Sarandon, who plays Davis, star in Murphy’s new anthology about celebrity rivals.

FX’s new series “Feud: Bette and Joan” is the first anthology in Ryan Murphy’s new television series dedicated to celebrity rivalries. Murphy comes out as a superstar from his universally praised “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and the “American Horror Story” series, making him almost singlehandedly responsible for making anthologies the new “it” genre.

In “Feud: Bette and Joan,” Murphy decides to bring in all of his best talents and create a suspenseful love letter to the classic Hollywood drama. This homage portrays the events of one of the most iconic fights in entertainment history with grotesque precision.

Murphy writes and directs the pilot, and his work stands out not just for its aesthetical attributes, but also for its precision and thorough development. Murphy’s biggest accomplishment, however, is his masterful ability to put together a stunning and stellar cast.

Murphy’s constant collaborator Jessica Lange plays Crawford, who is tired of poor roles. She is dreaming of another Academy Award. After being offered really ordinary scripts, she finally comes across a horror gem—What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

She pitches the idea to the director Robert Aldrich, played by Alfred Molina, who agreed to write and direct a film with an older female as a lead—something that was on the edge of a taboo.

Crawford then offers the title role to her nemesis, Davis. Portrayed by Susan Sarandon, Davis is also searching for her breakout role on the silver screen and she agrees to play Blanche, the antagonist in the film. Realizing that the peak of their fame has been gone, they try to put decades of mutual disdain to the side and decide to show Hollywood that they still have it.

Lange and Sarandon’s performances are not inferior to the stars of the original picture. Lange portrays Crawford as a soft viper, sleazy and classy in her glamorous gowns. Being a less decorated actress than Davis, Crawford is ready to be ruthless to get her colleague’s recognition. “I will get her respect,” says Lange in one of her scenes, “even if I have to kill both of us for that.”

Davis perfectly balances out Lange’s bloody gentleness. Her character is bold, fierce and has no time for sneaky games. She delivers punches and she breaks walls. With every flick of a cigarette lighter, Davis is ready to burn bridges like there is no tomorrow.

Yet, as every strong woman who has to fight her whole life, she wants to be vulnerable. Sarandon’s portrayal of Davis comes to life with touching versatility worthy of a two-time Oscar winner and 10-time nominee, whom Davis was.

Other talented actresses provide supporting roles. Judy Davis plays Hedda Hopper, a celebrity gossip columnist with a venomous tongue and hawkish desire for the public to know the truth.

Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones portray Golden Age Hollywood actresses Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland, who provide periodic commentary on the infamous feud from the perspective of 1978. Murphy’s beloved Sarah Paulson makes a short appearance as Geraldine Page.

In “Feud: Bette and Joan”, Crawford and Davis are told that their time has passed, and these headstrong ladies refuse to accept such a status.

The trouble is, they have hated each other for many years and that chronic disdain for each other plays into the hands of the studio. “Keep them at each other’s throats,” says the sexist head of studio Jack L. Warner, played by Stanley Tucci.

Warner is ready to make the production into a bloody war if only to sell tickets. The highly publicized rivalry made the film a box office hit, making Crawford and Davis prominent again, but only for a short period of time. The studio walked away with money and Oscars, and the ladies were left with nothing.

The men in this film are obviously intimidated by women and do not want to lose their power. They are ready to sacrifice true talent in order to maintain the patriarchy. Suddenly, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? shapes into another question: “what ever happened to good roles for women?” The answer has yet to be discovered.

Talking about blunt ageism and sexism in Hollywood, all of the actresses in this film are not just delivering scripted lines, but they are telling a real story of a problem that still exists. Neither of the series’ female stars had a good leading film role in more than 10 years.

Bates, Lange and Paulson were resurrected by Murphy in his television projects, while Sarandon is stuck playing mothers.

The issues that “Feud: Bette and Joan” open up are not just history that needs to be remembered. It is a relevant problem of representation that still poisons Hollywood.

Thankfully, television has been embracing older woman by giving them deeper roles that not only challenge performers, but also show that women of certain ages are just as good as younger newcomers, if not better.

April 3, 2017

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