Originally published in Sight and Sound; London Vol. 9, Iss. 7, (Jul 1999): 41-42,3
Feud is super trashy but great fun. The feud in question is the one that started when Joan Crawford and Bette Davis first got together to star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1962). The film is worshipful of stardom in general and these two in particular. Joan Crawford admires Davis’ talent; Davis admires Crawford’s beauty and her professionalism. They’re both, in different ways, each other’s equal. And so they’re jealous of each other. On the one hand, the series aspires to be an examination of what Hollywood does to great female stars past a certain age, on the other it seems the work of worshipful fans hanging on to every gossipy tidbit (many of them from Shaun Considine’s Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud) and offering a retort to the matricidal work of the two stars’ daughters: Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest and B.D. Hyman’s My Mother’s Keeper) with the aim of rescuing their reputations. And it succeeds. After Feud, wire hangers will not be the first thing we think about when we think of Joan Crawford.
I think the series miscast. Susan Sarandon, seventy, but meant to be playing mid-fifties, looks no more than 40. I love her and she’s very attractive in this but actually not very good; she mimes Bette without having the volatility or danger that Davis had. Sarandon is so warm, still sexy, and rather maternal in spite of all the mother-daughter conflict shown in the film. What makes her a star is so different than what made Bette a star that she’s bad casting (though extremely watchable).
Jessica Lange gives a terrific performance, but not as Crawford. She’s too soft. Crawford was never that. She lacks that tough, almost mannish quality that Crawford brought to her most memorable parts. It’s good to see her vulnerability accented. But everyone’s vulnerable. What made Crawford special is the zeal and focus with which she fought for her place in the movie firmament in order to transform Lucille Lesueur into Joan Crawford. Crawford had been a dance hall girl, a ten-cents a dance dancer; she’d done porn, gotten to Hollywood as, I think, Eddie Mannix’s girl. She was not this soft, almost yielding creature presented here. At least not by any account I’ve read. Lange does show great depth of feeling in the role she plays. She’s creating someone much more complex than Sarandon. But it’s not Crawford. Nonetheless, Lange and Sarandon are stars playing stars and thus extremely watchable (alongside Judy Davis, Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci – I don’t get the casting of Catherine Zita-Jones as Olivia de Havilland).
The series never becomes good but it does become compulsively watchable as it unfolds. It’s fun in all kinds of ways. I loved pointing out the anachronisms: was Joan Crawford ever really called an ‘Icon’ to her face? Did her agent really speak to her about ‘branding opportunities’? As one can see in the cut and mix videos that fans have done, it’s also great fun to compare the depictions in the series with the actual events as filmed. This clip of Susan Sarandon/Bette Davis singing the theme song from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a favourite.
The fun, however, is laced with something nastier: there’s a slight air of misogyny infusing all the admiration and worship and slightly camp approach in Feud. Why this project anyway? On the one hand, it’s to remove the tarnish spewed by two vengeful daughters and revarnish two film immortals for posterity. On the other: Take two gay icons, add a touch of fading glamour, show them in their decline, posit them as antagonists and create a bitchfest in which fur may fly. There’s a nasty edge that constantly threatens what is otherwise a bubble of fandom and good will. Camp and misogyny need not overlap but there’s a magnetic field around which the two terms seems to attract each other in the presence of gay men; and there’s something about that overlap in the show, not very overt, more like an overhanging air, or a slight infusion. One feels it all through Feud.
In Soderbergh-world, the big city is full of dangerous lesbian killers that prey on soft decent men like Jude Law: Law restores law and re-balances Sodebergh-world by making sure nasty lesbians end up in jail or the insane asylum where they belong, just like in movies from 1945. Side-effects is a handsome, expert film; it’s got interesting things to say about drugs and pharmaceutical companies; but the most entertaining element in it is also what makes its representational politics so very nasty. Law is no longer pretty but who cares about pretty when he can play human and swayed and slightly weak but pushed to fight back and sometimes all of these things simultaneously and transparently? He is superb. Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones seem to relish playing, respectively, women who are not quite in the distress they first appear to be; and women who are not quite in as much control as they initially seem: both are terrific. Channing Tatum is likeable but out of his league; the film itself is occasionally superb but generally unlikeable.
Rock of Ages is really bad, really camp, hugely enjoyable: Alec Baldwin throws himself into a crowd like a happy hippo into a mud pool and ends up in Russell Brand’s arms; Mary J. Blige gets a head-to-toe makeover for each shot she’s in (and plays the ‘manageress’ of a strip joint, of course); Bryan Cranston enjoys a caning from his stenographer; and Tom Cruise and Catherine Zeta-Jones go completely OTT as the slithering sex god and the mayor’s wife trying to ban heavy metal. The film is very poorly directed, visually and rhythmically, but the actors are great. This is what people who don’t like musicals think musicals are like but no less enjoyable for that. Julianne Hough wastes her second chance at stardom.