There’s a thin tightrope between art and trash. Usually, what separates the two is how skillfully they can glean truth and realism in the defying act. Like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan, that balance is always wobbling. It’s an unsteady act, achieved either through bold confidence or sheer luck. Or a mix of both. The distinction between human decency and exploitation is constantly called into question. Even outright success can have an ugly underbelly. With Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series, we’re given more opportunities to explore the various shades in which such failures and successes align. Even the greatest trapeze artists know it’s a gamble.
Upon Baby Jane‘s unbridled success, a new age of filmmaking was born. It was the dawn of “hagsploitation,” a term Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) believes he coined. It gave filmmakers and audiences a devious joy they could never enjoy before. It provided them with an opportunity to watch the lovely idols they worshiped once upon a time, the ones too beautiful and/or distant to ever screw them, get dragged through the mud for the viewer’s warped delight. It was cheap, dirty thrills and twisted wish-fulfillment. It turned our goddesses into wretched humans. The masses ate it up like bits and kibble. And at the center of such cinematic reinvention was Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange).
Given little choice but to exploit herself for such b-movie denigration, Crawford stars in low-level slasher flicks like Strait-Jacket, a madhouse sensation that performs incredibly well, but is an absolute embarrassment for Crawford. During its nationwide screening tour, director William Castle (a delightful, perfect cameo by John Waters, the Pope of Trash himself) uses her fame and humiliation to sell tickets and excite the crowds. She is a laughing stock, as far as she’s concerned, no matter how well the movie might do.
As a result, Crawford is driven to drink and towards fits of uncontrollable anger. But she’s not the only one shattered by Baby Jane‘s uncompromising success. Director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) can’t catch a break either. 4 for Texas was a total failure, and he’s unsure of himself. He’s not so much troubled by his failures, however, as he is haunted by his successes. Aldrich needs to set his priorities straight and figure out what exactly he hopes to achieve with his flailing career, which might involve doing the unthinkable: returning to work with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon).
Crawling back into his office with his tail between his legs, Aldrich returns to Warner’s office with a proposition: another horror film, entitled What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? The title reminds Warner of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, so he likes it. Plus, Warner is kinda desperate. He was once a trendsetter in Hollywood. Now, in his twilight years, he’s struggling to keep up with the changing times. Yes, My Fair Lady is a smash. But what’s next? Warner needs another surefire smash. If Aldrich can secure another hit, he’ll be back in the swing of things. After some much-needed convincing, Aldrich finds a way to get Crawford and Davis to agree to work with one another again.
The film is ready to go, but it’s not coming together at Warner Bros. Rather, Aldrich shopped the picture around town, behind Warner’s back, and secured a better deal, plus final cut. Warner, of course, is furious, but what can he do? For once, he got played. So Cousin Charlotte is happening elsewhere, but Davis and Crawford are still involved. And while time can sometimes heal all wounds, Davis and Crawford haven’t mended. They’re still bickering and belittling one another, but they know they’ll need to learn to compromise, once again, if they’re going to make another picture work in their favor. It’s a good start, but their feud is only more heated. Cooler heads can’t even be found.
Directed by showrunner Tim Minear, “Hagsploitation” ignores the glitziness of last week’s Oscar episode in order to focus on the characters, their pain, and their crippling legacies. It might not be as explosive or as juicy, but it’s a step in the right direction. It brings the humanity back into these characters, away from Goodfellas recreations, to show how fame is but an illusion and that misery is really what makes us truly human. It’s not a newfound idea, but it’s a mindful, thematically compelling approach that was mostly lost in last week’s installment. Feud: Bette and Joan is still a dramatic series that can’t quite decide how dramatic it should be, but “Hagsploitation” shows the nuanced and layered characterization of this series. Those elements aren’t always found in a Murphy series, but they nevertheless bring out the honesty that brings truth to the art.