Feud brings Baby Jane back to grotesque, brilliant life

THE PLANNER FEB 1CHAUVEL?? CIN????MATH????QUEWhatever Happened toBaby Jane?what_ever_happened_to_baby_jane.jpgThere is so much pleasure to be had from Feud: Bette and Joan (Showcase, Sundays at 8.30pm) you can’t help feel a little guilty for watching it.


It’s not just the cattiness that informs virtually every exchange between Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) as they make What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, though there are some wonderful moments to be had there.

It’s not just the period detail either, with its echoes of old Hollywood and of Mad Men-era glamour (a connection heightened by the fact Kiernan Shipka, aka Sally Draper, plays Davis’ daughter BD). And it’s not just the behind-the-scenes voyeurism that gives us glimpses of how one of the great works of cinema grotesque was put together in 1962, with Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) directing and Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) clutching the purse strings very tightly indeed.

What impresses more than all of that is the way Feud probes the power dynamics that quite deliberately pitted these two screen titans against each other, for the benefit of the studio, the picture, and the gossip columns, but at considerable cost to the women themselves.

In this week’s episode, the third of eight, we see just how much Bette and Joan have in common. Or would have in common, if they were only allowed, or allowed themselves, to find out.

The episode is titled Mommie Dearest, and it’s not just a nod to the 1978 memoir of that name from Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina, in which the actress was accused of a litany of abuses.

BD similarly went on to publish a memoir that accused Davis of much the same sort of mistreatment. Both women were depicted by their kids as self-centred alcoholics capable of great emotional cruelty. They don’t get off unscathed in Feud, either, but their failings are handled with a little more sympathy.

When BD lands a part in the film, her mother tries to support her but in the end is unable to hide the fact she thinks her kid’s performance is awful. But when gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis in fabulously big-hatted over-the-top form) says she hears BD’s performance “stinks on ice” and “practically ruins the picture”, Bette barks at her to get out. Good, you think; nice, defensive parenting. But then she adds as a parting shot: “She doesn’t ruin the picture. Her role isn’t important enough to do that.” Of course, BD overhears her.

Feud paints Davis as a plain-speaking perfectionist whose occasional cruelty is an unfortunate byproduct of her single-mindedness. Crawford, by contrast, is far more insecure, a woman whose self-esteem has always owed much to the attentions of men, a commodity in increasingly short supply as she nears 60.

Sarandon gets the best lines by a long shot – she comforts BD, for instance, by saying, “If Crawford couldn’t ruin the picture, nobody could” – while Lange gets the pathos. It’s harder to like her Crawford, perhaps, but it’s not so hard to understand her.

There is a wonderful scene in this episode where they share a drink, a rare moment in which the fog of animosity recedes just long enough for each to catch a proper glimpse of the other. They talk about their childhoods, their relationships with their mothers, their first sexual encounters. It’s intimate, touching, shocking and enormously powerful. And as close as they would get to being friends.

From Ryan Murphy, who also gave us Nip/Tuck and Glee, Feud is as alive to the tragic aspects of the Davis-Crawford dynamic as it is the bitchily, campily comic. Its central figures were both single mothers, worried about where the next job would come from, how they would pay the bills, the prospect of growing old alone.

The business was never going to make it easy for them. But in pitting them against each other, it also made sure they couldn’t make it any easier for themselves.

Karl Quinn is on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin.