Sunday, April 09, 2017

bette & joan & anne & faye

Ryan Murphy's FX extravaganza, "Feud: Bette and Joan," has managed to top itself week after week. Compulsively watchable, the series is a party that shouldn't end and it will be a sad day when it does screech to a halt.

The show outdid itself on April 2nd with an episode titled "And the Winner Is... (The Oscars of 1963)," directed by Murphy himself who reaches something of a woozy high with his jaw-dropping vision of the backstage activities/antics of the '63 Oscarcast, a recreation that required what looks like thousands of dress extras in the auditorium and behind-the-scenes.

Bette Davis (absolutely nailed by Susan Sarandon) was nominated for her performance in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," while her co-star, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange, who turns grande-dame seething into an art), was snubbed. But there were four other Best Actress nominees...

Crawford, ever resourceful and crafty (read: street smart), made arrangements to accept the award if one of two other nominees should win - Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Page, both New York actresses, who were ensconced in Manhattan and had not planned to attend the awards.

Joan also made herself available as a presenter and the episode's standout moment comes just after she presents David Lean with the Oscar for Best Director for "Lawrence of Arabia." Lean offers a terse "thank you" and walks off the stage with Crawford, asking her where he should go.

"Follow me," Joan says. Follow, indeed.

What comes next is a lengthy and expansive tracking shot that is reminiscent of - and tops - a famous similar shot by Michael Ballhaus in Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (1990). Winding through the innards of the backstage area where there are people and more people in every room, nook and cranny, Murphy's cinematographer Nelson Cragg brilliantly captures the organized chaos of an event that is ostensibly well-organized.

In an earlier essay devoted to "Feud," I expressed some concern about how much of the show is fact versus how much of it is speculation, also questioning how well-researched it is. I'm sure Murphy and company had to fill in holes and imagine a lot, but the huge amount of research that went into the show is terribly impressive and is all there on screen.

There are tiny bits of information and trivia that only an obsessive buff would know - such as Davis' appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" to promote "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" and to sing the hilarious rock-&-roll title song written by Frank DeVol, with lyrics by Bobby Helfer.

Speaking of trivia, it will be interesting to see if Murphy can figure in another bit of information, even though it is not relevant to the period being covered in his series.

As the show details, Crawford went backstage of the Martin Beck Theater in early 1963 when Bancroft was performing in Jerome Robbins' production of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" (with Gene Wilder, Zorha Lampert and Barbara Harris). Crawford's goal was to finesse Bancroft into letting her accept the award if Bancroft should win for "The Miracle Worker." But that wasn't the end of their relationship. About 20 years later, when Paramount was planning its film version of Christina Crawford's book about her mother, "Mommie Dearest," the studio's original choice to play Joan was - ta-da! ...

Anne Bancroft.

At the time, playwright James Kirkwood ("A Chorus Line") was enlisted to do the adaptation and Franco Zefferelli was to direct. After all this was announced, Bancroft backed out and the project fell through and was reconceived with Faye Dunaway as Crawford and Frank Perry directing.

It remains Dunaway's best screen performance, hands-down, but one that, for some bizarre careerist reason, she no longer includes among her credits. The film no longer exists, see? And neither does her performance in it. Ryan Murphy could have a field day with this. More strange Hollywood stuff.

Bancroft, of course, won her Oscar for "The Miracle Worker" and after she accepted for Bancroft, Crawford posed for pictures with the evening's three other winners - Gregory Peck, Patty Duke and Ed Begley.

By hook or crook, Crawford got to hold the Best Actress Oscar that night.

Brilliant, Joan, absolutely brilliant.

Note in Passing: And by all means, check out John Greco's precise deconstruction of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" on his terrific site, Twenty Four Frames, as he strips away its layers in his astute analysis.


Tracy said...

Joe, I also don't know why Dunaway is so down on "Mommie Dearest." I guess she must think that it somehow hurt her among her peers for giving such a tough performance of a Hollywood icon. But I agree. It's her best acting ever.

Sheryl C said...

I LOVE Feud and what is most fascinating is the role Hedda Hopper played, instigating the whole Oscar deal.

joe baltake said...

Sheryl- You're right. Hedda fueled Joan, got her moving on the idea. And it worked. And isn't Judy Davis terrific in the series? Thanks for the heads-up. -J

John/24Frames said...

Joe, I agree, the Oscar episode was brilliantly done. Feud has turned into one of my favorite shows of the year. I wait for each new show with great anticipation.

And thanks for the shout out!

joe baltake said...

Anytime, John. And thank you.

Kiki said...

I watched "Feud" again last night - the entire thing in one go - and came up with a totally different point of view than when I first saw it. Yes, it was about Bette and Joan in "Baby Jane" but this time I saw it in almost Robert Altman terms. I found it more of an ensemble show, showing a year in the life of Hollywood - an ensemble like Sondheim's "Follies." That's why, for me, the "supporting cast" is more significant than Sarandon and Lange. Bette and Joan were the two pieces that the other characters - Aldrich, Warner, Mamacita, Hedda, Buono, etc. - moved around to show what was happening /had happened in Tinseltown. And I liked it a lot better.

joe baltake said...

Kiki- I'm taken by your "Follies" reference. That would be a good show for Ryan Murphy to tackle - not as a series, but as a film version of the show, a straight adaptation, perhaps done for HBO. Could be terrific. BTW, years back (no, decades), Fox had an interest in the Sondheim show with Doris Day in Alexis Smith role and Debbie Reynolds in the Dorothy Collins part. Almost too good to be true (for me, at least). Another missed opportunity. -J

van said...

I also enjoy the supporting players, although I don’t think of it as an ensemble show. I like the women a lot but the men, Molina and Tucci, are fairly embarrassing. Maybe it’s because straight men can’t play camp. Just guessing.

Tish said...

I think Molina and Tucci represent men who behaved that way back then. It may seem exaggerated but I believe sexism was much more pronounced in "old Hollywood."

Kiki said...

The first time I saw "Follies" was a Wednesday matinee in NY. And, before I left the theatre, I bought a ticket to see it again that night. And I kept watching it and watching it ... Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Gene Nelson, Yvonne DeCarlo.