Sunday, March 26, 2017

when the legend becomes fact, print the legend

The veracity of "Feud: Bette and Joan," the first installment of a planned anthology by Ryan Murphy based on famous rivalries, is frankly unknown.  But exactly how well researched it is or how much of it is facile speculation is really beside the point when a show is this deliriously entertaining.

This episode is based on the long-standing mutual dislike that Joan Crawford and Bette Davis shared throughout their lengthy careers that culminated when both agreed to play opposite each other in Robert Aldrich's great "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" in 1962. The alleged feud always struck me as one-sided, with Davis more guilty of hostility than Crawford.  Davis seemed forever on the offensive (apparently resentful that Crawford, to her a lesser actress, had become a huge star), while Crawford was on the defensive, forced to protect and prove herself.

No one in Murphy's version comes off looking good - and that also includes Aldrich, Jack Warner, Hedda Hopper and a seemingly catty Joan Blondell.

The driving force behind the series and the feud itself is the sexist opinion that Davis and Crawford were desperate - and, by extension, angry - because of their ages. But watching Susan Sarandon (incredible) and Jessica Lange (nuanced as always) in those respective roles snapped me out of the fantasy haze that Murphy handily creates and back into reality.

Why?  Well, Davis was only 54 when she made "Jane," while Sarandon who plays her will be 71 in October.  Crawford, meanwhile, was 56 when she filmed her role; her portrayer, Lange, is currently 66.  Both women work regularly these days, no questions asked, and Meryl Streep, who is also 66, may be the most productive actress currently working in film.

To lend another perspective to this, Jennifer Aniston is 48, a few years younger than Davis and Crawford were when they made "Jane" - and she is far from "over the hill."  On the contrary, if anything, she's going strong and, to Hollywood's (bottom-line) advantage, more appealing than ever.

Times change.  For the better.

One other observation:  After "Jane," both Davis and Crawford worked almost exclusively in what many people have dismissed as horror films.  True, Crawford made some cringe-worthy movies during that period ("Strait-Jacket," "Berserk," "Trog"), but Davis's efforts were all fairly good ("Dead Ringers," "The Nanny," Aldrich's "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte").

One could reason that, curiously, Lange's career has taken a somewhat similiar path, given her recent frame-breaking collaborations with Murphy.

But, again, no one seems to care.

In its own bizarre, unexpected way, "Feud" is a sign of progress.

* * * * *
~image: Work Wanted ad placed by Bette Davis in the
September 24th, 1962 issue of Variety, one month prior to the October-November openings of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"


Charlotte said...

Joe, the differences in the ages of JOan and Bette versus Jessica and Susan hadn't occured to me while watching the show. Interesting.

Kevin Barry said...

Warner Bros had little faith in Baby Jane and gave it a saturation booking at only neighborhood theatres in order to cash in quickly on what they saw as a dud. I saw it at the RKO 58th Street with a second feature. The movie never played a major first run house.

joe baltake said...

Interesting, Kevin. I had no idea it was dumped in New York because, in Philadelphia, it enjoyed a major run in a premiere house for a few weeks before expanding to the 'burbs.

brad said...

Hey Joe, we live in Boston and remember "Baby Jane" being given a pretty impressive opening here by Warners. It played one theater for a while and then went wider. I can't imagine it not having a similar opening in New York.

joe baltake said...

Neither can I, Brad. Perhaps Kevin saw it during its second run in New York. It was not uncommon for a studio to bring back two of its earlier releases as a double-bill. Warners did that in Philadelphia with "The Music Man" and "Gypsy" after both had their first runs.

Kiki said...

I think I'm going to go with Charlotte on the age of the stars. I had never known/cared how old Davis/Crawford were. But it was interesting in your dealing with the age situation in Hollywood.
I think you were generous to say "nuanced" about Jessica Lange's portrayal of Lucille. I never wanted to watch anything Lange was in because I never found her an interesting actor (I think Blythe Danner -- now 106 -- could have done Crawford better-- hell, I could have done it better). But on that note -- there are actors I WANT to watch and Lange has never been one of them. I have sat through many an awful series called LA Law because Linda Hunt and Alfred Molina are in it. But Feud is so delicilous!

Kevin Barry said...

Here's a link to the opening day newspaper ad in NYC. Bette Davis actually appeared at selected theatres. Bosley Crowther's opening day review in The Times also mentions the neighborhood release on a double bill. It is quite possible that after the successful engagements in NYC, Warners gave it more respect later in other cities. If you can make it there, you know, you can make it anywhere.

joe baltake said...

Kevin! Many thanks for the researched info. However, I was not able to open the link to John Greco's jpg. (I'll try playing around with it to see if I can access it.) Still, it's jaw-dropping that Warners would give "Jane" such a disrespectful opening in New York. It is far from a B-movie, quite arty in its own way - particularly the evocative way that Aldrich shot Davis's fade-out dance on the beach. Studios have often made inept decisions based on shortsighted, prejudiced opinions by people who should know better.

joe baltake said...

Kevin- I went to John's Twenty Four Frames site on "Baby Jane" (which ran on August 8th, 2010). John runs two ads for the film which make it clear that the film's RKO engagement was a "preview engagement," presented "ahead of its normal release date." That's the wording in the first ad. The second ad describes the presentation as a "Hollywood preview engagement," with an appearance by Davis for a Q-&-A session with the radio personality Fred Robbins.

This special RKO engagement of "Jane" muscled out the film that was currently playing there, "The Count of Monte Cristo," a Warners release of a 1961 Italian import starring Louis Jourdan and Yvonne Furneaux.

It's apparent to me that this is not a "dump." It seems that Warners thought enough of the film to give it a special preview in New York (with appearances by Davis) prior to its opening there.

The ads run by John do not provide a date. It would take a trip to a library to view the New York Times from 1962 on microfiche in order to find out exactly when these two ads ran - and to also find the ads for the film when it began its regular NY engagements.

I'm will to be the rent money that when "Baby Jane" opened officially in New York, it was in a major house in Times Square and perhaps another on the East Side.

Bill from Philly said...

Whoa! I don't understand all this talk about about how "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" opened in New York, Joe. Your post is about the four actresses involved in the two films and the impact (or lack thereof) of their ages. You don't discuss the way the studio released the film at all.

Kevin Barry said...

Thanks, it would be interesting to know if the film ever got the NYC presentation it deserved. By the way, the IMDB lists the running time for the Monte Cristo film at 180 minutes! (Apparently there were cut versions, as well). Baby Jane itself was much longer than the average releases at that time, so that would have been a long double-feature. I'm fascinated by the movie ads, posters, roadshows, elaborate displays, and general showmanship that movies received in those days.

joe baltake said...

Kevin- I'm a sucker for ads, posters and pressbooks from old films as well. Not so much the more recent ones. As I said, it would take a trip to a library to nail exactly how Warners unveiled "Jane" in New York. Still, the "special RKO preview" intrigues me. Warners did the same thing at the same theater for another '62 release, "Gypsy." That preview included the song, "Together, Wherever We Go." Wish I had been there.

Bill- Kevin started this conversation and I'm happy that he did. It provided some compelling information.


Sharon said...

You have more knowledge of the real relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis than I, by far. However, in terms of longevity, I believe Bette leaves Joan far behind. Joan Crawford fit her times better than Bette fit hers, yet today, Bette Davis even has a pop song written about her (Kim Carnes' Bette Davis eyes) and it's a zinger! Admittedly, I've been a much bigger fan of Bette Davis than Crawford and never quite understood her popularity and appeal. There is something forlorn and bitterly determined about her and her movie roles that have never drawn me to her, while Bette Davis — even in her very young years — always seemed absolutely valid. Bette didn't just project strength, she embodied it. She blazed in every role I can think of, whether portraying an admirable woman or a demon. I find her riveting and continue to seek out every movie possible to watch, some seen again and again. Even in secondary roles, such as in The Rich Are Always With Us, below Ruth Chatterton and George Brent, she stands out.

I may remember this wrong, Joe, but fell in love with her as a teenager when I saw, I think, a movie titled Beyond the Forest, in which she plays a doctor's wife who despises everything domestic. She's a witch with scathing hatred for domesticity and she was a revelation to me! Even if I have the wrong movie, I remember her feminism: her determination to live beyond the secondary expectations for women and female traditionalism. I loved her and wonder why she is not heralded for her very early, very out-spoken feminism.

Joan Crawford's Mildred Pierce is the only role that, for me, is a perfect match of role and actress — playing a hard-scrabble woman with nothing but a noble determination that drives her rise to fortune, even as her life in every aspect fails to bring happiness. She gave an honest reality to that terribly sad woman, who made the best of very limited choices. One admires her for her courage, even when her life taints every dream with gall and sorrow.

joe baltake said...

Sharon- Frankly, I always preferred Crawford to Davis. Bette was a little too theatrical for me. I’m always aware that she’s ACTING. Comparatively, Joan was naturalistic. Besides “Mildred Pierce,” she’s terrific in “The Women,” “Autumn Leaves,” “The Best of Everything,” “The Caretakers,” "John Guitar," "Sudden Fear," "Queen Bee" and “Grand Hotel.” She’s particularly charming in “Grand Hotel.” And that face!

That said, the star who I really drives me up the wall is Katharine Hepburn. I know! Blasphemy!. But I have a deep aversion to her and her lock-jaw line readings and her mannered performances. Funny, both Bette and Hepburn thought they were superior to everyone else and were rarely generous to other actresses. Hepburn seemed to enjoy putting down Ginger Rogers, a truly versatile performer compared to one-note Katherine. Rogers could do anything.

Finally, one more dislike: Bogart. More blasphemy. A truly overrated actor. But that’s just me. I know that, as a card-carrying movie buff, I’m supposed to like Hepburn and Bogart, but I don’t. (Can you imagine me trying to get through "The African Queen"?)

End of rant.


van said...

Joe- Richard Brody of "The New Yorker" magazine also sings praise of Crawford in his review of "Feud." I realize that Davis had the grandstanding role in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" but It's Crawford's quiet, dignified acting that is the standout performance in that movie.

joe baltake said...

Van- My response exactly. True, Crawford is overshadowed by Davis in "Jane" - who wouldn't be? - but hers is the superior performance. It's a comment how people - including the Academy voters and critics, who should know better - respond largely to the obvious.


Sharon said...

There has been a major change in aging which is very apparent today, especially when compared to the 1930s and 1940s. People wore clothing and hair in styles that emphasized maturity. Today's fabrics and clothing designs, and most especially in hats and hairstyles, along with other factors result in actual slower aging, and aged appearance and attitudes.

Age - and its perception - is an astounding, chameleon-like factor, and I suspect you and I will live long enough to see even more traditional examples turned on their heads. We've already witnessed Nicholas Cage, at age 19, cast as Kathleen Turner's husband — 10 years her junior — and as Cher's lover in Moonstruck — 18 years her junior.

Marilyn Halprin said...

Sharon brings up an excellent point. You mention how Jennifer Aniston is just a few years young than Davis and Crawford were when they made "Baby Jane." Aniston, at 48, dresses is a youthful way. Davis and Crawford, even years before "Baby Jane," wore tailored suits and matronly gowns. They were young but they looked older. Their hair was permed and marcelled. Aniston's is free-flowing, girlish. At this point in her career, I can't imagine anyone thinking of her for "Baby Jane," but Crawford and Davis looked older than their years and were thought to be "old broads."

MGoetzeler said...

Feud is delicious. Loving every minute. New found love for Alfred Molina. And Judy Davis! Oh, if tv could only be like this always!

Blythe said...

I never liked Jessica Lange (something about her face and attitude) and she is AWFUL as Joan! Plays her like Jackie Kennedy! When she confesses her dead husband with $2,000,000 in debts, she is NOT angry, vicious, vindictive, she's not JOAN. You always want to hold a benefit for her. Sarandon should have done both roles with a split screen and body double! Supporting cast superb and I've always loved Alfred Molina.