FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN – HOLLYWOOD AND MATURE ACTRESSES – GARRY ARMSTRONG

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: Susan Sarandon (L) and Jessica Lange – December 9, 2016 – Los Angeles, CA
Photograph: Robert Trachtenberg

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 “Suits.”

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.

Katherine Hepburn.

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.

Gary 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.

36 thoughts on “FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN – HOLLYWOOD AND MATURE ACTRESSES – GARRY ARMSTRONG

    • Covert, I could/can empathize with the whole youth thing faced by on camera “talent”. I enjoyed many years as a youthful looking TV news reporter until the clock started ticking. I shared this rapport with many of the Hollywood legends I met over the years.

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        • Covert, I saw it first hand during my 40 plus TV News years. By all standards, I had a VERY long run. My genes protected what I did to my body for a long time. It wasn’t the same for women working on TV. It’s worse now when they want young, cookie cutter pretty and handsome faces instead of people with knowledge and grit. I worked during the golden age of TV News. So very, very lucky.

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  1. This ought to be interesting viewing when it reaches us down under. I’m not a particular fan of the movie but interested in the dynamic betweek the two actresses. By the way I’d love to hear more about Katharine Hepburn who I’ve always admired for being her own person no matter what.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s almost scary how well they cast the two leads in that first photo!

    Seems like everything changes so much and so fast these days!

    waaaayydaminitttt… maybe not Everything! It has been exceptionally notable on the little Aussie TV i watch these days (more channels than ever, less content than ever) that, now we have advocates for (and laws against) employing the elderly, there are some new notably ‘older’ news/current affairs reporters gracing our screens lately – all are men, mostly in their 50’s and 60’s. It is rare to find a woman over 45 doing same job, most are under 30.

    love.

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    • Hey, lwbut! It’s ironic because Marilyn and I are binge watching lots of Aussie and UK shows now because they offer more depth and range than our broadcast scripted series. I’ve noticed many familiar faces like Hayley Mills, Richard Johnson, Rita Tushingham, Joanna Lumley, Charlotte Rampling, etc — 50’s and 60’s stars — now playing age appropriate roles in “your” series.

      Our scripted broadcast (not cable) stuff rarely gives opportunity to mature actresses in age appropriate roles.
      Most of the “talent” are ‘cookie-cutter” faces, all looking the same, a handful of the same people working in different shows. I was watching “Elementary” last night with Jonny Lee Miller, an interesting Brit Actor who’s also played American roles and found the show pedestrian. Miller is always interesting but the once eccentric take on a contemporary Sherlock Holmes, working in NYC, has grown boring.

      Two exceptions — “NCIS”, my favorite TV show with Mark Harmon as the silver haired Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Gibbs is my hero! There’s also “Bluebloods” with the 70 year old Tom Selleck playing the NYC Police Commissioner. Both of these shows often feature mature actors and actresses in meaty roles. But they are exceptions to what’s being offered by those who package these shows.

      It’s like we are just assembly line churning out stuff without regard for quality.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lets not forget Helen Mirren who is still HOT, in my opinion, even in her advancing years. I think I enjoy the older actors more as they age.., Helen is one, Morgan Freeman another, Walter Mathau, Elaine May, Jack Lemmon, Jack Palance, Katherine Hepburn, Meryl Streep and others. These people really represent what perfection and versatility mean in that profession. I can’t think of really young actors who’ve begun to reach that stage yet? But I’m sure you know of a few.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yo,Bro Ben. Yikes, I forgot about Morgan Freeman. How, in the wide, wide, world of sports could I forget “God”? There’s also Samuel L. Jackson who just has to show up to make you laugh. You are absolutely right about Helen Mirren!! Meryl Streep gets enough love. Glenn Close is another cougar. She’s back on Broadway as Norma Desmond.

          I also enjoy certain actors as they age. I recently watched Mark Harmon in “Summer School”, an 80’s comedy. He was okay. Just okay. I’ve taped “The Presidio” to watch again because it gives young Harmon a chance to work with Sir Sean Connery, Jack Warden and Meg Ryan. Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs is light years better than his early work.

          I wear my John Wayne “old guys rule” tee shirt with pride.

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          • I guess the real issue here is “gender treatment” particularly the longevity of female actors vs male. We are a society where looks reign uber alles. The movie industry was tilted toward the “Male Psyche” where women were objects to gaze upon in a physical sense, but need not have an important role. The older man with a young wife or girlfriend was approved of in acceptance of this fantasy.., and the fact that the movie industry was run by mostly males anyway. Male actors were/are considered far more valuable than their female counterparts. Pretty girls are a dime a dozen, or so it was believed. Women are guilty of perpetuating this myth as well.

            Many is the time I’ve been told, by female friends, that Sean Connery is more handsome now, than in his youth, and they wouldn’t kick him out of bed. Ewwww! his chest is covered with gray hair and there’s not much, if any, left on his head. Go figure? But then again, I’m not a woman. Basically men and women see things differently, a process that becomes even more baffling as we age. I’ve had younger women tell me how “cute” or handsome they think I am at 70+. Some older women think I’m “hot” so the question of reliable eyes comes to mind.., and maybe, age related, failing eyesight, ain’t so bad after all?

            Still the imbalance stinks and these great women actors work as hard as the men, and deserve more recognition, not to mention compensation.

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      • UK shows always seemed much more realistic to me than US ones because (mostly) US show actors had beautiful people even in frumpy roles. Here in Aus we have a little in column A and a little in column B. But i had noticed it especially in news where new reporters who are female look to have come straight out of Journalism college, whereas some of the newer male reporters look closer to retirement age. Women who make it and are popular with viewers can get to stick around (for as long as they remain popular or decide to quit) but they still are outnumbered by guys of similar advancing ages.

        Still, it seems the US has come someways from the old Studio days and the contract system.

        love.

        Liked by 1 person

    • lwbut, I just addressed the age issue in TV news in a previous comment. Again, I worked during the golden age of TV News. My 31 years at a Boston TV station may still be a record. I was LUCKY and ducked many “bullets” fired by the “suits” until I burned out and was replaced by a younger face. I was just one of many veteran reporters to go in a purge that took the heart out of serious journalism in New England and across the United States.

      It’s a sorry state of affairs when news is reported by people who don’t know history.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. what a great post and i will make sure to look this up and watch the whole thing – it’s always been a problem for older women in the spotlight and it continues to this day, though as you said, there are more roles, but still many less than are offered the men

    Liked by 1 person

    • ksbeth, it IS a very entertaining series!! Judy (“My Brilliant Career” Davis is marvelous as Hedda Hopper. She’s a scene stealer.) Ditto Alfred Molina as director, Robert Aldrich, Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner and Catherine Zeta Jones as Olivia deHavilland. All AARP folks still in their prime.

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  4. Pingback: FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN – HOLLYWOOD AND MATURE ACTRESSES – GARRY ARMSTRONG — SERENDIPITY | David Falor

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