Feud and the Working Woman’s Trap
Five episodes into Feud: Bette and Joan and we have covered the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, its release, and subsequent trip to the Oscars in 1963. We’re now at the point where Bette Davis and Joan Crawford should be swamped in offers, careers reignited thanks to the box office success of Baby Jane…but they aren’t. The problem faced by the two actresses was never one of talent or appeal, but age. Despite Baby Jane breaking box office records, despite multiple Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for Davis, the roles have dried up for Crawford and Davis. Their film gives them a moment in the sun, but then they’re pushed right back into the shade.
The tone of Feud hasn’t altered since the premiere episode—it’s still strikingly modern in its period setting. The episode “More, or Less”, especially, borders on ham-fisted in its treatment of Women’s Plight In Hollywood, as Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman, continuing to be this show’s MVP) recites census figures that illustrate why more movies for, by, and about women should be made. Half the population will be female, so should half the movies be, by Mamacita’s flawless logic. Of course we know that is not the case, not even fifty-plus years later, but Ryan Murphy REALLY wants us to understand how unfair it is, and he’s so heavy-handed about it that Mamacita is one second away from turning into camera and saying, “This whole system is bullsh*t.”
But it IS bullsh*t, and though Feud finds time to indulge in the bitchy back-and-forth of Crawford and Davis—often fueled by Hedda Hopper’s pernicious and calculated interference—the meat of the show is a multi-faceted examination of how ageism and blatant gender bias effectively ends their careers. After Baby Jane, director Bob Aldrich goes on to make 4 for Texas with Frank Sinatra, who is an absolute MONSTER on set but gets away with it with no repercussions, because Crawford and Davis are bitches for being ambitious and demanding, but Frank Sinatra is just a man.
At least he can get work! Crawford can’t, and Davis is relegated to guest-starring roles on TV shows—not quite as prestigious as that is now. And this is where Feud really shines. Crawford and Davis are women of not only talent but tremendous drive and energy, and they are completely stymied by their industry and the male-dominated environment in which it marinates. Crawford and Davis are backed into a corner, lacking options and opportunities, and they each lash out, too frustrated to do anything else.
There are moments that show they could be, if not friends, then at least friendly—especially the moment when Davis learns Crawford was sexually abused as a child by her stepfather, and begins to understand Crawford’s drive and need for approval and adoration—but yet they consistently fall back on tearing strips off one another. In the Oscar episode, Crawford goes to great lengths to make sure she is the one accepting the Oscar if Davis should lose, even though she’s warned that everyone will see that as the petty move it is, and won’t want to work with her. But they already don’t want to work with her, so what does she have to lose? She does indeed accept on behalf of Anne Bancroft, who upset Davis that night, and Davis has to watch as Crawford collects the trophy.
Feud is entertaining—especially that Oscar episode—but Ryan Murphy resists the worst of his melodramatic impulses and the more doors close to Crawford and Davis, the sadder the show becomes. At this point, Crawford and Davis are like tigers in a zoo—that they should be caged in and limited by false boundaries feels inherently wrong. It’s frustrating to think about all the things they didn’t do, all the movies they didn’t make, simply because Jack Warner, and other men like him, decided they weren’t f*ckable anymore. Bob Aldrich also gets stymied, but he, at least, is still working. He longs for a shot at a “serious” movie, but though he doesn’t get it, the work doesn’t go away, either. It’s a stark illustration that while men might not get exactly what they want, women too often don’t get ANYTHING.
In a way, Feud has become a great companion piece for Big Little Lies. If you’re watching one but not the other, I recommend viewing both, together, because even though they’re in different eras, they echo one another about the boundaries placed on women and the potential hazards that arise when those boundaries are transgressed. Lies focuses on the domestic side of things, but there is strong thematic crossover. Crawford and Celeste, for instance, are both survivors of intimate violence who sublimate their trauma in ways that result in their seemingly perfect facades. And together these two shows make a rather depressing case study of how much things have not changed for women in more than half a century.