Marilyn has just written a piece about Feud: Bette And Joan. However, the mini-series about the iconic Hollywood actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford plays a peripheral role in Marilyn’s offering.
My take on “Feud” focuses more on Hollywood and its disaffection for older actresses. Things are better for mature film actresses now than back in Hollywood’s “golden age.” A look the award-winning films of the past year include names like Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Annette Benning, Viola Davis,, and Charlotte Rampling. All these ladies are AARP members. The roles essayed by these women are three-dimensional. Free of the “Norma Desmond” caricatures familiar in Hollywood films of the 30’s and 40’s.
Feud: Bette And Joan focuses on the Davis and Crawford collaboration, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? It’s art imitating life imitating art. The movie was a desperation marriage for the two legendary stars who despised each other, but had a common enemy.
The studio moguls who regarded their stars as property, not flesh and blood people. La la land titans like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner treated women like clothing. Runway fashion for a few years, and then discount goods after they turned 40.
The ladies tried hard. An over-30 Norma Shearer playing Juliet in MGM’s Romeo and Juliet (1936) drew snarky comments from critics who lauded an equally mature Leslie Howard playing Romeo. Remember Ginger Rogers playing a teenager in The Major And The Minor?
There are moments in Feud: Bette And Joan when the two actresses let their guard down and share the bitterness and hatred they feel for the people who feed the publicity machine that can never be satisfied. Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford make us believe — because they are mature actresses echoing the paths of two women who made things easier for them today.
On a very memorable afternoon in the late 60’s, Katherine Hepburn shared stories about old Hollywood. She didn’t mince words. Almost all the studios bosses were bastards in her book. She felt the same way about most directors — except George Cukor. Hepburn demanded respect, refused to play “younger” and provoked the ire of all who tried to manipulate her. She smiled at me when I told her how I routinely challenged “suits” who wanted me to be a more restrained man-of-color.
Hepburn respected both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. This was 7-years after “Baby Jane” was released. Someone apparently had contacted Hepburn about doing the movie but they were really after Audrey Hepburn. Katherine was considered too old. That little nugget is covered in the FX mini-series.
Katherine Hepburn’s favorite director, George Cukor, confirmed everything she said in a chat with me in the early 70’s. Ironically, I was alerted about Cukor’s arrival at our TV station by our lobby receptionist, “Garry, there’s some old guy named George Cukor here to see you.” Cukor also confirmed the woes faced by Davis and Crawford. He was in the twilight of a magnificent career.
Bette Davis received verbal support from her ex-husband and All About Eve co-star, Gary Merrill. Merrill. Over many Bloody Mary’s, he regaled me with stories about life with Margo Channing/Bette Davis. The feuds with 20th Century Fox boss, Darryl F. Zanuck and vain efforts to stay forever young in Hollywood.
Merrill admitted that booze made life easier but made remembering your lines harder. He said Bette Davis found life especially hard after All About Eve. It was all downhill for her, with one bad picture offer after another. Why? Merrill shook his head and pointed at himself, indicating age.
Feud: Bette And Joan resonates with anyone who has worked in front of a camera for more than a few years. Trust me. I know.