Thursday, February 16, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Delicious and Vicious

"You wouldn't be able to do these awful things to me if I weren't still in this chair!"
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Jessica and Susan, Delicious and Vicious as Joan and Bette, in "Feud."

“WE IN the industry shuddered.  She is making the mistake of believing her publicity. Someone should make her see the light. She should be told that the public likes provocative feminine personalities; but it also likes to know that underneath it all, the actresses are ladies.”

This was Joan Crawford, in March of 1953, laying into Marilyn Monroe, for having worn what Crawford considered a “vulgar” gown to the Photoplay Awards, at which Marilyn received the “best new star” citation.
Miss Crawford Regrets — Miss Monroe is No Lady!
In the histories of Monroe and Crawford this is a famous tale, cited in every biography of either lady. (Privately, Crawford, who was as far from a lady as a lady can get, told friends, “There’s nothing wrong with my tits, but I don’t go around throwing them in people’s face!”)
So, it is significant that “Feud” the new eight-episode Ryan Murphy anthology series, which will focus on Crawford and Bette Davis, essentially opens with this awards dinner moment. However, Ryan places it in 1961, puts Monroe in a red gown and uses it as a tool to emphasize Crawford’s worries about aging and a waning career. (The reality was, by 1961, MM herself was worried about aging and her own faltering career!)
MM in 1961.
It’s the first in a series of adjustments and reimagining’s of  movie history and mythology that pepper the two episodes of “Feud” that were screened the other night at New York’s Paley Center, followed by dinner at the Monkey Room.

To tell any tale of Hollywood, one  runs up against all the usual problems of “ordinary” biography — faltering memories, incidents related from particular points of view — positive or negative — the temptation to enlarge any incident, no matter how banal and give it greater meaning. But the lives of actors, who are their own mythologists, create even further burdens. 

Actors spend their lives surrounded by people and publicity machinery that enhances or strips away the “tinsel beneath the tinsel.” 

And so, to approach “Feud” as the “real” story of the disdain between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and/or what really happened during the making the “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?” (and later “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” from which Crawford disengaged herself) is to ignore not just grains of salt, but giant shakers, placed hither and yon by decades of exaggerations.
Davis and (a pained-looking) Crawford on the set of "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte." Joan would soon withdraw from the film, replaced by Olivia de Havilliand.
Producer Murphy, who also directed the first two episodes, is here to entertain us with the inevitable “camp” of the tale, and the spectacle of two great stars of today (Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon) playing Crawford and Davis, respectively. In those ways, he seems to succeed.  He is also, he says, wanting to make points about misogyny, ageism and sexism, then and (alas!) now.  If, like me, you are old enough and steeped deeply enough in Hollywood lore, you just have to get over “mistakes” and exaggerations and allow yourself to be entertained.   And you have to stand up and cheer for Murphy, whose raison d’ etre is to profitably employ actresses of a certain age, handing them sirloin, rather than chuck.
Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford.
THE CAREERS of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had arrived at a similar point by the time a pro-active Crawford had bought up Henry Farrell’s little thriller, “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?” — the story of actress sisters, living together, trapped by the vapors of their past glories and unbearable secrets. It had been two years since either Davis or Crawford had made a film; much time was spent on TV. 
Crawford still maintained her glamour façade, Davis had long reveled in overdone makeup and emphasizing her aging face and body. (Even as a younger star, Davis’ directors felt her penchant for “realism” often drifted into the unnecessarily  grotesque.)  With Bette’s taste for disguise and her own unwillingness to look too bad, Crawford chose the role of Blanche “a comparatively well-groomed cripple” as one critic would later note, and Davis would play the showier role of Jane, former vaudeville child star, whose grip on reality is tenuous. (The movie, by the way, is very faithful to the novel.  Both actresses knew what they were getting into, as far as their characters appearance and motivations were concerned.)
They were miles apart as women, and “Feud” emphasizes this.  Crawford was a very good actress, who had carved a remarkable life and career for herself, emerging from a brutal childhood. For all her success, however, she remained insecure — unsure of her talent, worried always that the tough cookie she really was would assert herself, despite all the MGM elocution lessons and dictates on “ladylike” behavior. And indeed, Crawford was always far more compelling when she shook off her pretensions and revealed the highly sexed, somewhat ‘common” woman she often was in real life. Jessica Lange works her magic here, capturing the hard and soft of Crawford, and conveying the dismay of having to assert her cry for respect, when faced with Davis’s acerbic lack of respect.
Davis was an entirely different kettle of neurosis than Joan. An “independent” Yankee woman, who had not suffered much as a child, Davis nevertheless faced life as an endless battle that she was determined to win — even when there was no reason to fight. Davis could not function without an enemy, without chaos.  Both women used sex as an emotional palliative and as power plays — sleeping with their directors and leading men was probably the most they had in common.  Susan Sarandon, in an effort not to come off as a Bette Davis impersonator, only hints at Davis’s often over-mannered peculiar speaking style — a style that Davis abandoned when she was interviewed, as herself. (Davis is delightful in interviews.  Crawford tends to be insufferably insincere.)  Sarandon will likely, as the series progresses, and — Davis goes into overdrive on the “Baby Jane” set — have more impact. Sarandon’s vocal reticence is a wise acting choice.
Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta Jones also appear, as Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland, being interviewed about Crawford and Davis.  They are delightful.

“Feud” will debut on FX in March.  I hope there is an opportunity to binge watch. Because I was not alone at the Paley Center in being ready to sit there and savor the whole series — with perhaps a snack break (and/or vodka and scotch, in homage to the hard-drinking legends, Bette and Joan.)
THE “Feud” after-party was a lot of fun — well, the whole thing was a Peggy Siegal event, so there’s never a shortage of star-power.  Among the crowd — Tony Bennett, Gay Talese, Martha Stewart, William Ivey Long, Sutton Foster, Lois Smith (the veteran actress was as amused as we were, to be considered “on the rise” in that recent Hollywood Reporter article.  She adores her “Marjorie Prime” costar Jon Hamm)  Also, James Lapine, Bob Balaban and “La La Land” director Damian Chazell.  He was as charming as his multi-nominated film, and seemed quite bedazzled by the company he was keeping. He was a doll.
"Feud" Costars Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange at the Paley Center screening.
I didn’t have a chance to speak with Miss Sarandon, but I managed to be seated right behind Jessica Lange (thank you, Peggy!)  Jessica, long a favorite, said that after reading up on Joan, she had a far more compassionate view of the star.  She also did not mind our talking to her about “King Kong” (I consider her final scene, next to the dead Kong, a great and underrated movie moment.)
And Lange was happy to know that her 1998 movie “Cousin Bette” was often shown on cable.  “I loved that film, and we all worked very hard.  I was sorry it wasn’t seen more at the time, but now movies have an incredible shelf life and possibilities for re-discovery.  A lot of us are grateful for that — I know I am!”
Miss Lange retains all the vulnerability, beauty, sex-appeal and magnetism of her “Tootsie” days.  Maturity has refined her talent, enhanced her as a woman, but taken nothing of her gifts and essence.  She is a magical creature.
Contact Liz here.