Feud: Bette and Joan — “Abandoned!”
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s glorious ego-fest is depicted in the series Feud. Scott Coblio writer and director of the 2007 film Murderess, shares his take. — Elaine F.
Episode 7 is so full of quotable lines, it’s hard not to just list them all here, suffice to say that Jessica Lange gets to say almost all of them: “I didn’t get my start in the theater like Miss Bette Davis. I broke in shaking my fringe in nightclubs. I’d come home after a gig with Scotch on my dress and I’ll always have that stain on me and I’ll always have to prove them wrong and I can’t do it on Charlotte because she won’t let me!”
Jessica Lange does this thing with her voice when she’s playing characters about to blow up, where the whole line is delivered under (rising) pressure and then words suddenly blast out like steam escaping from a cracked valve. It’s extremely unnerving. And frankly terrifying.
It’s also poetically symmetrical: Joan Crawford was at her best in confrontation scenes where she could be righteously indignant, her body frozen like a cobra, wide eyes fixed on her accuser, somehow unblinking even while tear-filled, with only the quiet, steady heaving of her chest to indicate the depth of her unspent fury. Even in Adrian gowns and three pairs of false eyelashes, something raw was happening in those confrontation scenes. The actress—not the character— was connecting with some very real sense of having been wounded, judged unfairly, cheated, ripped off, and sublimating it into performance-exorcism.
Lange is the same kind of witch, and this installment of Feud gives her many opportunities to stir her cauldron of haunts and hurts. Not least when she discovers, as shooting on Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte progresses, that Bette—now a producer on the film—intends to exploit every opportunity to critique Joan’s acting, cut back all her dialogue, make fun of her at the wrap parties and generally wreak snarky havoc whenever possible (presumably as payback for that little Oscar thing…)
Director Aldrich thinks she’s a scream (but he’s in punch-drunk divorce throes) and the rest of the crew laughs ass-kissingly along, but Victor Buono (playing Bette’s father in Charlotte) thinks it’s distasteful, and actually has the balls to tell Bette so: “You should be nice.” But Bette’s not finished. The next day she rejects an olive branch when Joan volunteers to stick around for Bette’s close-ups and deliver her lines to her (since the dawn of film-making, actors who volunteer this have been praised and revered for the inherent generosity of the act and encouraging a sense of camaraderie with their co-stars.) To turn down this offer would thus have been equivalent to saying “No thank you. I’d rather compete with you than be your friend.”
Things get worse for Crawford when she wakes up in the middle of the night to discover her trailer is the only one left. Everyone else has returned to the hotel without her. Storming back with Mamacita in a taxi, she bangs on Davis’ door and lets her have it. “What a fool I was to think I could trust you!” Bette of course just shrugs off the accusations until Joan retreats, but not without a few last barbs, each actress appraising the others’ shortcomings with an assessment we’ve all heard before: Davis was the actress, Crawford just a movie star. But before they part ways, a moment of connection: “Joan. What was it like being the most beautiful girl in the world?” “It was wonderful” beams Crawford earnestly, the wind teasing her disheveled hair. “It was the most joyous feeling you could ever imagine. And it was never enough…..And you? What was it like being the most talented girl in the world?”
“It was great,” replies Bette wistfully. “And it was never enough.”
This fleeting moment can’t last, of course, and when Joan discovers the next morning that script revisions have eliminated yet more of her monologues, it’s no more Mr. Nice Girl. “I suddenly feel very ill,” she says to the driver. “Take me to the hospital please.”
“She’s not sick, she’s on strike until Bob accepts all her loony script changes and makes her the star of Charlotte” snipes a disgusted Bette. In any case, they shoot around her, but after 12 days, Aldrich is out of things to shoot and has had enough. He comes to tell Joan she’d better be back on set the next morning or the picture will be scrapped.
Joan arrives in a wheelchair, and Bette presents her with a single red rose: “I’ve taken out the thorns.” (But has she?) Joan tries a power-play and starts making suggestions for beefing up her part as Cousin Miriam. “There should be a ball in her honor when she returns home.” Aldrich argues that Charlotte is a recluse. “She wouldn’t be hosting a ball, Joan.” “I’m not suggesting the host it,” replies Crawford. “She can be there of course. In a corner. Hidden under the stairs, watching. All we see are her big eyes….” (I freely admit to laughing out loud at that speech). No, that rose was too little too late.
Long story short, Joan goes back “on strike” and returns to the hospital, only Aldrich & Co. call her bluff, not only replacing her with Olivia de Havilland (Joan hears about this on the radio) but slapping her with a lawsuit to boot. Then it happens; she throws that one vase too many at Mamacita’s head, who honors her previous warning and walks out. Oddly, the scene ends with Joan in an oxygen tent, even though her illness was formerly only strategic. Maybe the trauma of being abandoned by her only real ally was enough to make her sick for real?
Meanwhile, tensions between Bette and daughter BD are coming to a head when Bette takes control of 16-year-old BD’s wedding (to 29-year-old Jeremy Hyman). To her surprise, instead of a “thank you,” she gets the “you’re not doing this for me, you’re doing it for YOU!” speech.
Likewise, Aldrich’s faithful Pauline has had her fill of egomaniacs and vows to retire, with the brilliant parting line, “I don’t know if this town attracts narcissists, or if it actually creates them.” So Bette, Aldrich and de Havilland go off to finish their movie, and Joan returns, Mamacita-less, to her emptier-than-ever nest, and an uncertain future.
Pet Moment: Joan autographing a photo of herself holding Anne Bancroft’s Oscar.
Pet Crawford Line: “The only bed I can find any power in is this hospital bed!”
Pet Davis Line: “Who would believe Vivien Leigh as a Southern Belle?” (Aldrich: “She played Scarlett O’Hara!”) Davis: “UN-convincingly!
Pet de Havilland Line (from Lady in a Cage preview) “Please help! I’m trapped in a small, private elevator!”