Monday, May 08, 2017

Five Thoughts on Feud

Yes, I'm aware I'm two weeks late on this, but if you knew what my actual life was like, you'd be expressing nothing but sympathy this morning for me.  I'll be honest here-I haven't been to a movie in weeks.  Quite frankly, I haven't seen a movie in weeks-I can't actually remember the last time that I've gone this long without catching a movie either in theaters or at home (literally, cannot remember), which if you can tell, messes a bit with my head.  That's how insane my work life has been in the past few weeks.  But I'm trying to be back and write a bit more on the blog (and gain control over other facets of my life in the process), and timely or not, I want to share my thoughts on the now finished first season of Feud.  Boiling below are the five main takeaways from the series.

1. This Was a Really Cool Concept...That Didn't Really Work

The problem for me with complaining about Feud is that it's a miracle that the show was made at all. In a sign that Ryan Murphy is now so powerful he can get anything greenlit (joining the likes of JJ Abrams and Shonda Rhimes in that regard), we managed to somehow get a story about two major film stars of the 1940's in their twilight years made for television, despite neither of them having a major cache with younger audiences in the way that, say, James Dean or Marilyn Monroe have today.  It's a miracle that the show was made at all, and really cool.  I love the idea that we can venture into a slice-of-life biopic for a television miniseries in such a way, and in particular about two of my favorite actresses.

I just wish it had been better made.  I haven't, admittedly, seen The People vs. OJ Simpson (which I hear just marvelous things about), but biopics are tough for television.  We know how they're going to go, so there's few surprises, and particularly with Murphy there, you can't stray that far from the ostentatious nature of the series into flights-of-fancy, which has been his raison d'ĂȘtre.  Love or hate shows like American Horror Story or Glee, but they don't let reality get in the way of a bold idea, and I frequently felt like he either repeated himself as a creator on Feud, or he made the series too muted. Take the constant back-and-forth between Crawford and Davis throughout the show.  What initially was trashy fun became boring after so many weeks-it would have helped, perhaps, if we'd occasionally gotten out of their cocoon (seen other relics of Hollywood from their era and what was happening to them at the time like Greta Garbo or Loretta Young), but the tight lens on Crawford (and to a lesser extent Davis) got boring after a while, and you mostly wanted to see where things landed rather than enjoy the ride.

2. The Leads are a Big Part of the Problem.

One of the biggest problems in the show may have been the two leading ladies.  For a while I thought the show might get around the age gap (Crawford and Davis were both considerably younger than Lange or Sarandon in real life, making it seem more urgent for them to keep working), and largely it wasn't a problem, but other things got in the way instead with this specific casting.

For starters, Lange played Joan Crawford the same way she played Fiona Goode or Elsa Mars-a woman looking back on the regrets of her life through the lens of lost youth.  The way she played Crawford, it was hard to fathom that at one time she was at the top of her field and a major movie star force.  This is partially the writer's problem-Crawford as written seemed to only get her power through her movie star beauty, not through talent or sheer determination, but that wasn't true in real life, and more importantly it doesn't really work with some of the things she demands later in the picture.  Forget for a second that she doesn't look or sound or act anything like the meticulous but always glamorous Crawford (the scene where she tells off a fan stuck in my craw as Crawford was unusually devoted to her fans to the end), and think instead about how she's constantly struggling with vanity, and yet has the audacity to march into Jack Warner's office or meet with her agents and tell them all to go to hell.  It's an easy out to blame it on her drinking, but she's hardly a believable figure, someone who has to be constantly reassured of her worth, and Lange plays her the same as she plays every other Ryan Murphy creation.  She's giving a good performance (Lange is a very good actress, and Murphy has stumbled upon an aspect of her talents that I hadn't expected based on her cinematic work), but we've been here before-this is not Lange stretching any muscles.  I won't quibble with an Emmy nomination, but the idea that she's doing something that's anywhere as close to what Reese Witherspoon or Nicole Kidman were doing in Big Little Lies is absurd.  If she beats either it will be a travesty.

Sarandon, on the other hand, is not giving a great performance.  I admittedly am sour on her after the election, and don't know if I'm going to gain back the respect I had for her, but only a fool would say the woman can't act-in the 1990's she was consistently mesmerizing.  But here she can't quite find Davis-she alternates between actually playing her (doing the voice, the walk, the very distinctive Davis persona) and then randomly throwing it out the window.  She, again, isn't helped by the writers (I didn't like her relationship with BD Hyman, and Kiernan Shipka has been better before...not to mention the writers' really want this to be the Joan Crawford Story so her screentime is oddly inconsistent), but this is more on her than them.  She can't seem to find her opinions of her daughter, herself, her costar-Sarandon is a movie star whatever else may be said about her, and that sometimes carries the day, but most of the time she was just dull in the role.  Also, the role really hinges on Davis being the talent, but not the beauty, and, well, Sarandon at 70 is still intensely attractive and foxy in a way that Davis, though lovely, never was.  It hurts your argument when she's repeatedly being called "not the glamorous one" when Sarandon herself always looks glamorous.

With neither she nor Lange really carrying the show to a special place, and the writers' slacking off during stretches of time, the show is difficult to save.  However, there is one special performer who will deserve the plaudits coming her way...

3. Judy Davis is the Best Thing about Feud

This is hardly a revelatory surprise, but man is Judy Davis so much better than pretty much everything else happening in Feud.  Davis at once gets the weird balancing problem between straight drama, melodrama, and camp that Murphy is unsuccessfully juggling, and says "to hell with that" vamping onto the screen and making Hopper into an actual character by playing her initially as a cartoon.

Seriously-the best structured scenes of the show are around Davis's Hopper instigating mischief.  It's a pity that the show didn't use that, quite frankly, as a framing device, or simply made a Hedda Hopper miniseries instead, as Davis's character seems to have enough skeletons and delusions come out that Murphy's initial idea about the cruelty of Hollywood could have been filmed through her lens (plus, her legendary feud with Louella Parsons would have gone along with the title).  We get hints from Davis that Hopper is aware that her glory days are over, that she can no longer compete with the teenybopper set and is instead using the fall of her former friends to stay in the limelight, but unlike Lange or Sarandon, she knows what Hopper's public and private faces look like, and is always keeping them separate.  She hasn't survived in Hollywood all of these years giving out information like chewing gum, or not being willing to stab a friend in the back one day and ask them for a favor the next.

No one else approaches Davis.  I quite liked Alison Wright's Pauline, even though she felt underwritten and only came out as a convenient plot point to move Joan Crawford along in one direction or the other.  Dominic Burgess was initially aces as Victor Buono, giving us perhaps the most Ryan Murphy moment of the show (the XXX theater where he says that Dylan Wittrock has "loads of potential" made me do a spit take...and also start following Dylan Wittrock on Instagram), but he's never as fun or saucy as he was in that initial appearance, and the writers quickly forget about him when he isn't feeding plot change ideas to Davis.  Stanley Tucci and Alfred Molina have their moments, but neither win you over quite like Davis does-there's not enough fire or time spent with them for us to see something special happening.  That being said, no one is as bad as a pair of actresses who should know better.

4. The Interview Aspect of the Show Was Abysmal

Interviews as narrational devices are lazy, and have become aggravating in recent years (The Office was an actual documentary, something they acknowledged within the confines of the plot, unlike Parks and Recreation and Modern Family).  Here it's a part of the plot, but totally unnecessary.  All it did was frame up the story, which the writers could have done anyway, and took away from building on supporting players like Buono or Pauline that might have made the experience a little bit fuller.

It has to be said, as well, that Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones (playing Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland, respectively) are dreadful in their parts.  Bates seems to have become contractually obligated to appear in all Murphy shows, but what was the point of having Joan Blondell even in the series other than to show off that the writers have heard of her?  We never get a background look at her, she's not in Baby Jane or Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte-hell, why not have Bates play Agnes Moorehead instead?  It made zilch sense, and she phones in the role, never really breathing any extra life into it even though you can hardly blame her since the writers don't seem to care.

CZJ at least has a character that factors into the plot, but man is she out-of-practice.  She's beautiful, and arguably the only person playing someone relatively age appropriate of the leading ladies (de Havilland and Zeta-Jones both being in their mid-to-late forties for pivotal scenes in the picture), but she finds nothing in de Havilland other than what is on the paper.  It gets so bad that when she does her Lady in a Cage impression it's hard to tell whether or not she's acting poorly on-purpose to mock the film or whether this is her actually acting.  For someone who has (and earned) her Oscar, this is a travesty-if she wants to continue working, I'd honestly recommend a tune-up with an acting coach of some sorts.

It wasn't all bad in this department-some one-scene-wonders played quite well within the context of the show.  I liked Sarah Paulson's work as Geraldine Page, even if she played it a bit too naively for a woman who had been working in Hollywood for a decade, and Serinda Swan nailed Anne Bancroft's "serious actress" bit with Crawford, in what I'd argue was the best scene featuring Lange outside of the finale. But these weren't consistent roles, and felt necessary to the writing.  The fact that Bates and Zeta-Jones had so many extra lines was infuriating, and made me wonder if they were cast before Murphy had an idea of what he was going to do with the show.

5. The Show Never Solves the "Biopic Problem"

I have never been a fan of a biopic, and that's because only the best of biopics can overcome the "I know what will happen" angle.  The finest biopics, in my opinion (think something like The Social Network and Wild) aren't afraid of making their subject seem more human, more flawed, and manage to be so interesting you forget that you know how this is going to end.  Most biopics, however, don't achieve this and simply strive for accuracy and imitation, but to me that's not interesting, particularly when it comes to television where "what comes next" is so vitally important to keep you tuned in week after week.

With the exception of Judy Davis's comic relief, this problem is never overcome.  You can claim that most audience members aren't going to know the minutia of whether or not Davis won that Oscar or if Crawford would stay on at Charlotte, but let's be honest here: me (gay, cinema-loving me) was Ryan Murphy's intended audience here, and I knew what was coming.  Despite this, the film never focused enough on things I wouldn't know the resolution to when it came to its cliffhangers and plot points.  Even when it fudged with the truth (Davis and Aldrich's imaginary affair), it didn't do so in a way that helped add drama or tension to the actual plot.  Putting more unknowable things (perhaps making Pauline's struggle a bigger part of the show) would have solved this problem, but mostly I felt listless, knowing that Crawford's film Trog would be a huge black-eye on her career, or that neither of these women would ever really have a major comeback chance after Baby Jane.

All-in-all, then, I left Feud underwhelmed.  I can't say I disliked it, because I would have given up on it if I had, but the intrigue factor (and the occasionally light moments) were really all that kept me going.  When Murphy next season tackles the Charles/Diana feud (a more recent affair, and one that has a lot more chances to be needlessly tacky and controversial considering how Diana died and how many people featured in it are still alive) I'll be sitting that one out, as the show didn't have me hooked.  But I'd still like to discuss if you have thoughts-share them below in the comments section!

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