It’s as if this mini-series was made with me in mind; everything about Feud: Bette & Joan is pure perfection, created with plenty of nods and winks to those nerds in the know and the vintage fashion loving, old Hollywood obsessing viewer at the fore.
Exploring the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, brought to a head during the filming of their only shared project Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), and its aftermath, Feud gets under the skin of these two formidable women in a way that only eight beautifully written 45 minute episodes can. Thank goodness this was not squished into two hours in the cinema! This feels like the golden age of television, fused with the golden age of Hollywood and the whole thing is available for you to binge watch on the BBC iPlayer (click here to get stuck in).
Both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were a part of the first generation of stars to grow old on screen; beginning their careers at the dawn of the ‘talkie’, ingenues at the tailend of the 1920s and in starring roles by the early 1930s, their successes in middle-age (All About Eve (1950) for Bette, as a fading star being pushed out by a younger actress, and Mildred Pierce (1945) for Joan, as a mother to an ungrateful teenage daughter) were unprecedented. Both actresses had pushed their luck with starring roles into their forties and now, with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, into their fifties.
The key issue stressed at the very outset of this mini-series is the lack of interesting roles for women over the age of ingenue. If such roles were to materialise, they were once in a blue moon and hard fought for. Gloria Swanson, the star of silent cinema who had played the forgotten actress to perfection in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) never took a starring role again, despite a Best Actress OSCAR nomination. In Feud, we see Bette and Joan fighting for this project and for subsequent roles, which are not being offered to these aging stars.
This constant battle is the same for both women, so why the feud? The story is beautifully scripted and sensitively told, performed to perfection by two incredible actresses in Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. When both actresses were nominated for Best Actress at this year’s Golden Globes, I wondered how any judging panel would choose between them – I am convinced that they split the vote, resulting in a win for neither actress (no shade thrown at the actual winner, these two were stiff competition!).
Could it be that the publicity generated by a very public feud, conducted mainly in the press, was priceless promotion for this low-budget production? As if I needed to give you any more reason to watch this wonderful series, Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers’ Studio, is played by Stanley Tucci. It is very much implied that the studio engineered the start of the feud with a few printed slights, which developed into an insecurity between the two actresses which endured until their deaths and permeated their legends.
When you think of either actress, you think of the other; you think of the feud, the bitching, the rivalry. With quality roles for women so limited, it is perhaps inevitable that these two actresses would be in competition. The fact that the whole thing became so public was of benefit to somebody, but not necessarily to Bette and Joan.
One of the saddest aspects of the show for me is the notion of how far we haven’t come.
Hollywood is still a ‘boys club’, we have seen that much made painfully clear over the past few months. The portrayal of Bette and Joan is so sweetly and sensitively done, that any one of us would like to reach back through time and sit down with both women and team them up AGAINST the studios. It was great actresses who eventually broke down the power of the studio system by their defiance (Bette Davis was one, Olivia de Havilland was another – winning a similar case to one that Davis had mounted and lost years earlier – as was Elizabeth Taylor, a former ingenue who arguably shagged her way to destroying the studio system). We are witnessing the power that women can exert over the most powerful in Hollywood if they stand and fight together, I hope that it leads to lasting changes.
I would love to bake a cake for everyone involved in producing this fantastic series. Chris and I binged our way through it over Christmas and then I binged it separately a second and third time. I finally watched Whatever Happened to Baby Jane after watching the series and it is my sincere hope that enjoyment of Feud will encourage more to delve into the delicious depths of classic Hollywood, and remind all women that we are stronger together.