With their boisterous, aggrandized, larger-than-life personas, both on-and-off-screen, it’s hard to find the lines between reality and fiction even within Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s actual lives. That puts FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan in a curious position, one that allows the creators to twist the truth with curious, if sometimes uneven, results. Melodrama is key to Davis and Crawford. With every waking second, they’re almost always ready to put on a performance, be it for the cameras or for their own validation. That doesn’t mean their emotions are false per se, but it’s hard to figure out if there’s sincerity to their actions. With “Abandoned!,” the penultimate episode in Ryan Murphy’s newest anthology series, Feud wants to set a few things straight. Whether it’s true to life or not, this dramatization is most definitely on Davis’ side. Is Crawford a tragic figure of the Hollywood system or simply a victim of her own hubris and ill-gained vanity? The systematics can be argued if you wished. But whether you pity Crawford or await her karma like dessert at the end of a long, overstayed dinner, her demise is being served.
Production on Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte is in full swing in the heart of the South, but Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) just started her first day on the set. It doesn’t take her long, though, to catch up with what’s going on between director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). Their not-so-discrete affair is fully blooming, and Davis’ influence over their latest picture is certainly not ignored by Crawford. As an associate producer on Sweet Charlotte, a “vanity” title that becomes the real deal, Davis holds story power and creative input over the script, which often involves cutting Joan’s role down to size. Of course, Crawford won’t let her meaty part be diminished lightly. In her latest diva scheme, Crawford goes the extra mile to fake an illness, which delays the already-ballooned production in a pitiful attempt to have either Aldrich meet her nonsensical demands or get the film shut down entirely. Whichever might come first.
20th Century Fox is concerned. Investors are insistent that Crawford is, in fact, not sick. Davis knows for certain that her co-star is completely faking it, and she’s not shy to tell anyone either. But Crawford commits to the ill-pursued part (if you catch my drift), even with the threat of serious, career-ending legal action hanging high over her head. So long as it ruins Davis and Aldrich in the process, she doesn’t give a damn anyway. If Davis is ruined too, then she’ll live destitute with the riches of Davis’ poverty in mind. Naturally, however, life doesn’t play in Crawford’s favor, as Davis’ good friend Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is prepared to sweep in and save the picture for good. Crawford, of course, is devasted, but it doesn’t matter much. She put everything on the line, and she suffered the consequences. Not even Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) is willing to help her now. Crawford is now truly alone, and it’s all her fault. She never did learn.
While it’s not easy to sympathize with Crawford and her self-perpetuated downward spiral, Lange truly sells the part, allowing you to see the actual emotions admit all the ostracized, overblown self-pitying. It’s truly a remarkable performance at its finest, and it’s crucial to Feud‘s success — even when the show doesn’t always have its feet on the ground. As one might expect, however, Feud is at its best when it allows female directors behind-the-camera, and that’s proven handily with Helen Hunt. Her graceful, assured, sometimes compassionate direction is only matched by her actors’ confidence. It’s a skillfully handled episode, one that comfortably lands the emotional climax of the series (I must assume) with what will likely amount to an extended epilogue next week.
With the final episode airing this Sunday, it’s hard to say for sure just how far Feud will go with Crawford and Davis’ story. Certainly, there are multiple different angles and various different ending points which are all worth considering, though Feud has the liberty to going far with the scope in which they wish to examine this embittered, long-spanning feud. But with Davis walking away with her head high and Crawford left empty and deeply miserable by her own accord, Feud has drawn its line in the sand. It’s only a matter of time before we see this one-time starlet watch the sunset fade away.