BETTE vs JOAN: TEAM TALENT vs TEAM LOOK
I’ve been entranced and horrified by FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan. This miniseries, by mega creator Ryan Murphy, has so much to recommend it: Drama! Head Kicking! Aging! Sex! Throwing things! The consequences of throwing things! STANLEY TUCCI AS HISTORY’S GREATEST MOVIE MONSTER, JACK WARNER! And for all the lush camp value on display, the show is telling a very sad story about two women who were contained by the strictures of a terribly sexist society.
Joan Crawford, portrayed beautifully by Jessica Lange, is 100% slotted into the “Team Look” category. Joan was a glamour girl, the original flapper (don’t take my word for it, just ask F. Scott Fitzgerald) who had her back teeth removed in her twenties to give her cheekbones. She changed her image several times, married the 1920s equivalent of... let’s say young Brad Pitt, if he came from a super famous family instead of Iowa corn people. Before she came to Hollywood, she was forced to clean at the boarding school she attended for tuition. This psychologically and physically abusive environment played into her desperation for fame and money. Understandable!
Bette Davis, on the other hand, had a self-possession that insulated her from a lot of this pressure. Bette had 100% faith in her talent. She, too, had a rough upbringing, but she came to Hollywood from the stage and so had confidence. What she didn’t have was conventional beauty.
I think that says a lot about the standards here. In Feud: Bette and Joan, Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis tells a story about Jack Warner shrieking “Who would want to fuck that!” at her first screen test.
The Tucc is loose!
Everyone wanted to fuck Joan, and no one wanted to fuck Bette. In fact, Bette made a pass at Joan’s husband, the fantastically named Franchot Tone, and he flat turned her down.
But here’s the thing. As Bianca del Rio as Judge Judy said: Beauty fades. By the time the two made Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? both were well passed their primes. “Feud” the show makes a great deal out of the fact that the men in charge set the two women at each other, which was of course Jack Warner’s idea. But they were primed for it anyway, having been at opposite ends of the look/talent spectrum. They were also known for been arch and dare I say, bitchy, in an entertaining way. And let’s face it: they were both Aries (the most martial of all the signs, according to the senior astrologer of the English department in which I work) so conflict was inevitable. I mean, Bette hit on Joan’s Franchot Tone!
There are many notable moments in Feud. I particularly like Bette Davis’s embrace of her gay co-star and her admission that she knew she’d made it when gay men started impersonating her. But my favorite moments happened in the devastating final episode.
The episode is bifurcated: half for Joan and half for Bette. In the Joan half, she does a terrible B movie, writes a book, and runs straight into both her declining health and her standing in society as a campy joke. She sees pictures of herself in one of the gossip rags and is taken aback. “If that’s how they see me,” she says to her maid, Mamacita, “I’ll never work again.” And she quits the biz.
Bette has a similar moment, when she is drawn by an artist. She flirts with him until he tells her he’s gay, and then she gets serious. He sketches her, and she asks to see it. It’s clear that she sees herself in the harsh picture. “Yep, that’s the old bag.”
(Real talk: I guess we are not supposed to like Susan Sarandon anymore? Because she’s a big old Bernie Bro and acted bad during the election. OKAY BUT...I like her ANYWAY! She’s fucking awesome in this role.)
In that moment, we see Bette’s resolve to look at herself in the face and keep going. And she does. Of course--SPOILER ALERT--everyone dies. In the show. But also in real life, just in case you didn’t know. Everyone gets old and dies and that is quite sad, both on the show and in real life. I think it is interesting to compare this moment with a moment in 2016’s most lush and boring period drama, The Crown. Winston Churchill has his portrait done and it makes him look old, which he is, and he carries that bitch out into the garden and BURNS IT. Because the makers of the extremely boring The Crown never met a postscript they did not want to immediately marry, the viewer is told: this is considered a lost masterpiece of the 20th century. Blah blah blah The Crown. Shut up. But, clearly, we have a nice comparison of the vanity of men and women. Joan retreats, Bette embraces it, and Churchill burns it. He has the power to do so, because he is the fucking prime minister of ENGLAND. Deal with it. The women don’t have the power to destroy the unflattering pictures, so they must deal with it in their own ways.
I admire Bette, because of course I do. Team Talent and all. I also think this is a more sustainable way of being. It is corrosive, but living in the world is corrosive. Having that spark to carry you, something that you control, I think, is one of the only ways through. It doesn’t mean that Bette was happier than Joan in the balance. It does mean that she had a reserve that couldn’t desert her.
So, if you haven’t watched it, check out Feud. It is great and funny and sad. I want to shout out some of my old Hollywood sources for this: Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast You Must Remember This and in particular, this episode in her Joan Crawford series and Shaun Considine’s book Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud.