Making History. Fox. Sunday, March 5, 8:30 p.m.
Time After Time. ABC. Sunday, March 5, 9-11 p.m.
Feud: Bette & Joan. FX. Sunday, March 5, 10 p.m.
Last month, as the Oscars approached, Camille Paglia took to the pages of the Hollywood Reporter to mourn the loss of “the mythic grandeur of old Hollywood and its pantheon of celestial stars.” Fortunately, their viciously overweening ambition, viperish appetite (and aptitude!) for malice and general capacity for epic bitchery is still with us in FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan, producer Ryan Murphy’s loving miniseries homage to Hollywood harridans.
Bette and Joan, of course, are Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who for more than four decades were the Hatfields and McCoys of Hollywood, squabbling over men, money, roles and awards. Their scorched-earth war came to an end only with Crawford’s death in 1977 and Davis’ parting shot: “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good. … Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
Murphy, who’s sliced and diced American culture in everything from the teenage twee of Glee to the racial Rashomon of The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, is an aficionado of old Hollywood, particularly its divas. (He once decorated his Laguna Beach mansion to resemble the infamous murder-scene beach house in Crawford’s 1945 melodrama Mildred Pierce.) And he uses his note-for-bitchy-note recreation of the Crawford-Davis rivalry to construct a raunchy elegy to the milieu from which they came, in which the glamour that nostalgistas like Paglia celebrate was a facade covering a ulcerated mess of raging egos and rampaging ids, venal ambition, and whimpering neuroses.
Feud‘s launching pad is the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the 1962 Grand Guignol tale of two aging and half-mad actresses whose careers were cut by an auto accident in which one (played by Davis) was driving and the other (played by Crawford) was left a paraplegic.
It was the only film in which the two actresses ever worked together, and it happened only out of raw survival instinct. Davis and Crawford, though they had three Oscars between them, were well into middle age and could no longer find work in a Hollywood that was increasingly wielding youthful sexuality as a weapon against the relentless incursion of television. Crawford, financially battered by the death of her Pepsi-Cola executive husband, had been reduced to making a string of failed TV pilots; Davis was trying to launch a stage career, to harsh critical reaction.
Despite misgivings all around, they teamed with a director whose own career was floundering. Robert Aldrich had developed a reputation as box office poison in the wake of his disastrous The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (which among other problems had none of the lasciviousness the title suggested). Their vehicle: a macabre horror novel, the one genre that television, still held on a tight leash by the FCC, wouldn’t touch.
Just how dementedly awful things would get on the set was apparent even before shooting got underway. At a staged photo opp where Davis and Crawford were to sign their contracts, they pushed and shoved one another, each trying to grab the position on the left side of the table so her name would be first in the caption.
From there, matters quickly descended into Crawford strapping a 50-pound weight beneath her clothes for a scene in which Davis had to drag her unconscious body from a room, Davis “accidentally” kicking Crawford’s head as they shot a fight, and on into circles of Hell that Dante could never have imagined.
Eventually the malice was so apparent that their attempts to play nice when reporters were around weren’t fooling anybody. In one scene of Feud, studio mogul Jack Warner, who would distribute Baby Jane, snorts as he listens to their florid pledges of mutual love and respect at a damage-control press conference. “I haven’t seen this much shit since my last bowel movement,” he cracks, to which the dour Aldrich retorts: “What year was that?”
It’s Feud‘s contention that Warner and Aldrich were egging the actresses on, in hope that all the backstabbing would not only get the movie some welcome publicity but goad the actresses themselves into better performances. “Pure naked rancor!” marvels Warner one night as he watches the daily rushes. “I love it!” That’s a cherished Hollywood conspiracy theory and conceivably has some truth in it.
But as Feud acknowledges, Davis and Crawford don’t exactly make great poster girls for feminism. In one scene, they gang up to force the firing of an actress in a small Baby Jane role who has committed the grave offense of being young and cute. Both products and enthusiastic practitioners of a Hollywood star system in which behavior is governed only by box-office receipts, the actresses’ relationships with other women tend toward the bare-knuckle, even within their own families. (Several scenes in Feud hint at the famously fractured relationships that would eventually lead their daughters Christina Crawford and B.D. Hyman to write lurid tell-all family memoirs.) You needn’t be quite as gender-cynical as the actress Joan Blondell (played by Kathy Bates) —”No matter how liberated, women will do what they always do when they’re cornered, eat their own and pick their teeth with the bones,” she observes—to think that male misogyny may not be the main culprit here.
Feud‘s spectacularly venomous bitchfest elements will undoubtedly get most of the attention. (One of my spies at FX, after seeing rough cuts of the first several episodes, confided: “This show does for women’s issues what O.J. did for race relations.”)
But Feud is so much more than that. Murphy has brilliantly captured a panicky moment of tectonic shifts in a Hollywood beset by the accelerated aging of its first-generation stars and executives, the collapse of the studio system, the burgeoning growth of television and the first tremors of the cultural earthquake that Baby Boomers would set off. (“I can’t play Elvis’ grandmother!” cries Crawford as she tosses away a script from her agent.)
Befuddlingly boneheaded studio bosses. (Hey, we have Natalie Wood under contract for another picture, let’s cast her as Davis and Crawford’s hot young next-door neighbor and then make Baby Jane about her.) A rapacious Hollywood press corps that plays by rules that sound like Donald Trump’s most grisly fantasies about reporters. (Columnist Hedda Hopper, badgering Crawford for a juicy quote, threatens to dump her entire scandalous, though mostly unconfirmed, dossier of rumors about the actress into print. Crawford, horrified: “You wouldn’t print all those lies!” Hopper, shrugging: “Gotta print something.”) Feud has it all, from the baleful to the blockheaded.
Just as he did in his O.J. Simpson miniseries, Murphy has cast his show to perfection. After a few minutes, it’s nearly impossible to remember that Jessica Lange (as Crawford) and Susan Sarandon (as Davis) ever had lives apart from the women they’re playing.
The confusion is only magnified in the artfully constructed, McLuhanesque moments when they’re slipping in and out of their Baby Jane characters on the movie-within-a-miniseries set. Those elated smiles: Are they the glee of Crawford and Davis at their exuberant overplay of Baby Jane‘s popcorn melodrama? (“There’s so much ham up there,” cracks a delighted Jack Warner, “I’m going to have to go see my rabbi this afternoon to atone.”) Or the glee of Lange and Sarandon at their exuberant overplay of Crawford and Davis? The art of acting has never been more palpable. And Hollywood history has never been more hilarious, or horrifying.
If Feud, in its own cracked way, is honoring Hollywood’s past, the week’s other debuts are reliving it, in more ways than one, none of them good. On Sunday, Fox and ABC debut at least the fifth and sixth time-travel shows in the current TV lineup. And just to rub your face in the fact, they’re doing it in overlapping time slots.
ABC’s Time After Time is a lock for this year’s Emmy in the “Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Idiocy” category, being not only part of an insanely overworked genre but a remake of the 1979 film of the same name. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, the movie had H.G. Wells not only writing a book about a time machine but actually building one, only to have it stolen by Jack the Ripper, who promptly zooms away from 19th-century London to the happier hunting grounds of modern-day New York.
Freddie Stroma of Game of Thrones as Wells and Josh Bowman of Revenge play the roles that Malcolm McDowell and David Warner handled so incredibly well in the film. The new fellows, it must be admitted, have a certain amount of charm as bewildered Victorian Brits suddenly immersed in a world of killer drones and internet snuff videos. And producer-writer Kevin Williamson (The Following as well as the Scream movies) knows a good bit about how to write suspense, but honestly, what’s the point?
Fox’s Making History at least has the decency to be a spoof. It stars Adam Pally (The Mindy Project) as a dorky college custodian who discovers the secret to time travel. He promptly whisks himself back to 1775 Massachusetts, where his sensitive-guy poetry—all stolen from 2017 song lyrics—endears him to Paul Revere’s gorgeous bear-hunting daughter (the amusing Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl). Except their romance so dismays her pop that he forgets to warn everybody that the British are coming, and the American Revolution never happens.
The main consequence of this in alt-2017 is that Starbucks serves only tea, apparently the worst nightmare conceivable to the millennial mind. But go ahead, write your own King Donald punchline here.