Finished Twilight’s Last Gleaming, and observing how often in this period Burt played in looser narratives that basically amount to ensemble pieces, and this whilst still being perceived as a box-office powerhouse and not because he needed to (as might be the case with Cattle Annie and Little Britches, say). And by this I don’t mean all-star pony shows like Judgment at Nuremberg or even Airport, but films like The Scalphunters, The Hallellujah Trail, Ulzana’s Raid. He’s a central character but he’s not the whole show like he was in Elmer Gantry or even The Train. These are more expansive more inclusive narratives. The other observation is how often they are direct commentaries on then current US politics, The Vietnam War (this one, Ulzana’s Raid), racism (The Scalphunters,Valdez is Coming) incipient fascism at the highest levels of government (Seven Days in May, Executive Action). It is a point of view of cinema as the US’s national theatre, there to spark a discussion of current ideas, though in Burt’s case to increasingly diminishing audiences. The other observations, on the film itself: a) has there been any other film with this much split-screen? b) The film believes that merely telling the truth and having it circulated is enough to create social change. Does anyone believe that now?
Burt Lancaster. I was idly glancing at the TV when Apache (Robert Aldrich, 1954) came on, and there´s a love scene there with Jean Peters that´s as sensual and perhaps more deeply felt than the famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). Then, I saw the beginning of Jim Thorpe: All American (Michael Curtiz, 1951) where again he plays a native person, a natural athlete, where his very grace in movement is a reproach to the system: ´when they win it´s a great battle, when we win it´s written up as a massacre’. Then the acrobatics in The Flame and The Arrow (Jacques Tourneur, 1950) are as joyous and exhilarating as any musical number. these bits made me think that whilst we tend to emblematise US culture through cinema as Brando or Marilyn or James Dean, Burt Lancaster is the star who best evoked how America was seen at home and abroad in the middle of the last century: the strength, dynamism, beauty, the plenitude expressed by his figure, the freedom in his movement, the chiclets teeth that gleamed like a new Cadillac and the shock of wavy hair that evoked the wildness of ranges and forests and beaches. And that he evoked all of that — and one only has to see what Anna Magnani says about him in Bellisima (Luchino Visconti, 1951) to know that he did, whilst still condensing a critique, truly makes him stand out for me, though perhaps others will say the same of Monroe, Taylor, Holden, Brando et al. A morning thought.
When Shelley Winters took on small roles because they were great parts, she had herself billed as Miss Shelley Winters, like Miss Ruth Chatterton or all the other stars of yesteryear with pretensions to being great artists. The appellation never felt pretentious on her, partly because she was a great artist, partly because she was the kind of gal who told her audience about her annual trysts with Burt Lancaster.
In the great scene below Miss Shelley Winters as ‘Dixie Evans’ reveals how the studios in the classic era exploited bit players like her, women who were already damaged in some way, hired them for their figures, kept them hanging around with bit roles, exchanged sexual favours for the expectation of larger roles that never came, and used them to entertain visiting dignitaries. Cheaper than hiring hookers. Odets knew how to write, albeit a bit floridly, and he was part of that world and knew what he was talking about. And Shelley had been one of those girls for a long time before her eventual success, and had roomed with Marilyn Monroe: she also knew and she could certainly act it out and communicate it.
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.