Saturday 30/05/2020 - 07:15 pm

"Feud" Asks, Again: What Ever Happened to Roles for Women?

2017.03.04 08:19

Few Hollywood stars were as big as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and few fought as hard for their rightful place in the industry. Decade after decade, they powered through good and forgettable films with million-dollar smiles, gushers of tears and thrilling emotion. They champed at the studio bit and become immortals, all the while enduring the brutalities of business, the capriciousness of the fans and the mercenary attentions of the press. By the time each hit 50, though, the old studio system was in steep decline and these two survivors had started scrambling in the rubble.

You could write a history of women in Hollywood — in its glory and shame, and with all its attendant ageism and sexism — by charting Davis and Crawford’s careers. In “Feud: Bette & Joan,” Ryan Murphy does just that in a limited series for FX (it debuts on Sunday, March 5), which revisits their film “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” a shocker about two former female stars. Davis and Crawford weren’t playing themselves. Yet part of what still gives this nightmare of the dream factory its haunting power and pathos is they were playing industry castoffs whose struggles they surely recognized. For today’s audience, though, the real jolt might be how little seems to have changed.

Davis and Crawford were in their mid-50s (so Crawford insisted) when they signed on to “Baby Jane,” with Davis taking the role of Baby Jane Hudson, a vaudeville star turned movie actress, and Crawford playing her partly paralyzed sister, Blanche, once a far-greater screen star. A cat-and-mouse story, in which it’s not clear which sister is the cat and which the mouse, much of the tale involves a ferocious battle of wills between Blanche and Baby Jane. She wants to sell their mansion and possibly institutionalize the unstable Baby Jane, who has her own plans. Directed with blunt-force style by Robert Aldrich, it is a startlingly brutal vision of how Hollywood eats its own.

When the film was announced, some wondered if Davis and Crawford could work together, though it’s unclear how much of the chatter was old-fashioned sexism (catfight!) and whether flacks, reporters and even the filmmakers were trying to gin up a public-relations bonanza. A week after production started, The New York Times ran an article (headlined “Hollywood T.N.T”), reporting that “the possibility of stars in temperamental collision has the appeal of gladiatorial combat for the tribe of Caligula.” It isn’t only vulgar Hollywood that loves its blood sport.

Davis and Crawford came through brilliantly, despite some on-set tension. “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” was a hit and earned five Oscar nominations. All that love, though, didn’t translate into the sustained career boost it might have if the film had been titled, say, “What Ever Happened to Baby Johnny?” and starred Burt and Kirk. Times were tough in Hollywood in 1962, but worse for women. The industry had already begun shifting its focus to male viewers and away from female ones who, with female stars, had helped make movie love a habit. It was catastrophic for stars like Davis and Crawford. It has been hard on women ever since.

“Feud” may be a period piece, but take away the lacquered wigs and highballs, and it can seem all too contemporary. Mr. Murphy had scarcely finished “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” when he turned to his next series. He had been toying with an anthology series about famous quarrels, like the Broadway dust-up between Tommy Tune (of “Nine” fame) and Michael Bennett (“Dreamgirls”). At the same time, Mr. Murphy was becoming concerned about diversity, including behind the camera. Women directed 17 percent of episodic television in 2015-16 (white women directed 14 percent), which looks like a feminist triumph compared with the numbers of female filmmakers, who directed 7 percent of the top-grossing 2016 titles.

Mr. Murphy felt he “had not done enough,” he said one afternoon in December. He was taking a break from directing the episode of “Feud” that recreates Bette and Joan’s gaspingly epic struggle during the 1963 Academy Awards, down to the last flashing sequin and subzero smile. That day, the production had taken over the Civic Auditorium in the city of Santa Monica, Calif., the original site for the 1963 Oscars, and we hunkered down next to a bank of video monitors.

“I’m a minority,” said Mr. Murphy, who is gay, and he remembers what it was like when he first directed, walking onto a set surrounded by straight, white, middle-age men. “I know what it’s like to not fit in here.”

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In 2016, frustrated by the lack of female directors on his speed dial, he created Half, a foundation that seeks to fill 50 percent of the director slots on his shows with women and minorities. He had catching up to do with women. “The People v. O. J Simpson” was entirely directed by men. So were the first five seasons of “American Horror Story,” which Mr. Murphy helped create and produce for FX; by contrast, women directed more than half of its most recent season as well as episodes of “Feud.”

In December, Mr. Murphy told a room of Hollywood female power players that he was sorry: “I could have done better. I am going to do better.” He was flanked by Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, who had introduced him and, not coincidentally, are the stars of “Feud.” Ms. Lange plays Crawford; Ms. Sarandon plays Davis. His stars, Mr. Murphy said when we spoke on the set, had been interested in this project when it first came to him years ago under a different title. For him, it all coalesced at once. “I just thought, well, this would be great,” he said, “because this is what I’m feeling right now in my personal life and my business life about women’s issues.”

There’s a touch of poetry and meta madness in Ms. Lange, 67, and Ms. Sarandon, 70, taking on “Feud.” Both broke into movies in the 1970s, the era of New Hollywood, a period often sentimentalized as the greatest in American cinema, the time of the so-called movie brats like George Lucas. It was also a feminist moment, as Judy Klemesrud wrote in The Times in 1974, when there was “a dearth of good roles for women in American films.” That same year, Molly Haskell observed that while male friendship had been the backbone of the genre film, it was now “the overt and exclusive ‘love interest’” in “womanless melodramas” like “Easy Rider” and “The Godfather.”

Still, women continued to be part of the mainstream mix into the 1980s, when Ms. Lange starred in “Frances” and Ms. Sarandon was in “Bull Durham.” “There were a lot of really great parts and enough to go around,” Ms. Lange said recently. As the years passed and the big movie studios embraced the blockbuster imperative, the ground shifted. She added television to her résumé and, at some point, Sydney Pollack, who had directed Ms. Lange in “Tootsie,” told her that it was “over” because the mid-budget film, long a cinematic sweet spot for adults, had become obsolete. In recent years, her most gratifying work has been in television, now a reliable source for mid-budget, ambitious adult entertainment, and in 2011 she joined “American Horror Story.” The next year, she won the first of two Emmys for her work on that show.

Davis and Crawford seemed to inhabit different cinematic universes during their careers, even after Crawford left Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for Warner Bros., where Davis reigned. “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” proved a critical turning point for them, which was perhaps unsurprising given the career stakes, the publicity and the movie itself, with its harsh jealousies and madness. Years after, Crawford complained that she had sent Davis flowers and chocolate during production but had not received any response. In turn, Davis said of Crawford: “I hated it when she would send me flowers or little gifts, or gooey notes on that baby blue notepaper of hers.” She felt Crawford “carried this saccharine politeness to such an exaggeration of courtesy that it was disgusting and irritating.”

That these two extraordinary performers ended up sniping and bitching about each other makes for an obvious spectacle, which “Feud” indulges in even as it offers a fundamentally sympathetic portrait of Davis and Crawford. But, as “Feud” also suggests with sharp historical insight, especially when it delves into how women were overwhelmingly shut out from directing in Hollywood, the truth was always complex. Much like the suffering heroines they sometimes played, female stars triumphed and endured but also helped sustain a white, male-dominated system, a gilded-cage existence that at least some female viewers would have understood.

Some of the badmouthing that peppers Davis and Crawford’s biographies comes off as the usual jostling for status, but at times the antagonism seemed to originate from a deeper, more desperate place. They were, after all, older women working in an industry that values youth over age, especially for female stars. After “Baby Jane” opened, Davis spoke about Aldrich’s efforts to interest the studios in the project, noting that “the moguls said, ‘We wouldn’t give you a dime for those two old broads.” (Crawford told Davis “Please do not refer to me that way again.”) “Feud” hits the ageism theme hard, underscoring how female desirability onscreen comes with an expiration date; actresses of any age will probably nod their heads when they watch it.

Davis and Crawford each appeared in at least 80 feature films, a run that’s all the more remarkable when stacked against the often-thin résumés of today’s female movie stars working in the era of big-screen superheroes. Crawford was praised and sometimes dismissed as a beauty, and she seemed a slave to the public’s adoration, which cost her when she was declared box-office poison. She rebounded with “Mildred Pierce” (1945), winning an Oscar for best actress. For her part, Davis was deemed a great actress (and won two Oscars), a characterization that she embraced but had its sting. She admitted as much, once poignantly writing that part of her envied “gorgeously glamorous” stars like Crawford and thought she might never be as popular as they were. Davis then roared “But I was I!”

It’s easier for women now, though of course the hurdles remain. “Jessica and I would talk about are we going to end up doing bad horror,” Ms. Sarandon said. “Is this our fate?”

That’s unlikely. She and Ms. Lange are still stars even if some of their best and juiciest roles are now in television, where the pictures just keep getting bigger. They should take their cue from Davis and Crawford, who kept going and going even as the industry around them collapsed. Younger generations found them through television, revival theaters and drag shows, and still more will discover them through “Feud,” which even when it camps it up shows there was always more to them than funny games and fright makeup. By all accounts they were difficult women, but I bet few remember if John Wayne was a nice guy.


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