Feud: Bette And Joan Ends With Great Regret And Greater Beauty
The only thing missing from this finale -- which takes us through the final decade of Joan Crawford's life -- is a cool, refreshing Pepsi-Cola.
In the end, it seems, Feud wasn't so much the story of two actresses catfighting their way across a decade of Hollywood filmmaking. Nor was it a voyeuristic peek through the windows at campy old broads Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, spilling their most salacious secrets and traipsing through the greatest hits of gossip about them. In the end, Feud was a requiem for two actresses who put up with indignities, and who had their insecurities preyed on by the people who could profit from them and the public who couldn't get enough of them. In the end, as surprised as I was to discover it, Feud really wasn't about hatred. It was about pain.
The season finale begins in 1969, situating Joan Crawford uncomfortably adjacent to the New Hollywood, with its Easy Riders and cross-eyed Jack Nicholsons. It ends at the Oscars of (sigh) 1978, just after Joan has passed, where the assembled players of this little production -- Bette Davis, Victor Buono, Olivia de Havilland, and Joan Blondell -- watch her face flick by for two seconds in the In Memoriam montage and raise a glass to a true Hollywood icon. As it turns out, this Oscar ceremony has been the setting for those frame-story talking heads from Blondell and de Havilland, and this week we get additional testimonials from Buono, Pauline Jameson, and, at last, Mamasita.
The whirlwind tour takes us past some compulsory moments: Crawford filming her final picture, the trash classic Trog; a heavy-handed reference to Christina Crawford writing the book that would become Mommie Dearest; a shout out to the infamous paparazzi shot of Crawford and Rosalind Russell at the Rainbow Room that would be Crawford's last public appearance; Davis's famous hatred for, of all people, Faye Dunaway; and that notorious quote Davis supposedly gave after being asked for comment after Crawford's death: "My mother always said don't say anything bad about the dead, only good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good."
But the heart and soul of Feud's finale is the scene where Joan imagines late-night drinks among her, Hedda Hopper, Jack Warner, and a late-arriving Bette. It's a scene that's rather masterful for allowing Ryan Murphy to elide the boundaries of what actually happened in order to get his leading ladies to a moment of fleeting catharsis. For the first time, we see Joan stand up for herself -- not just to Warner and Hedda and Bette but to the Hollywood system that exploited her insecurities until the day she died. "The expression is not 'unite and conquer,'" Dream Warner tells Joan. "Why did I need to be conquered?" Joan asks in return. It's a marvelous scene, walking a razor's edge but ultimately arriving at a resolution in fiction that neither Joan nor Bette ever arrived at in fact.
The super-sized finale episode probably packs in too much. For everything it does deftly -- the opening montage of Life with Joan, alone on her plastic-wrapped furniture with her purse dog and her red hair, absorbing the bewildering updates from Vietnam on the news and momentarily brightening up when she'd come across an old movie of hers on TV -- it does another thing clumsily. ("This Is The End" in full is probably one cutesy music cue too much.) But the good far outweighs the bad. Crawford signing her lifestyle book for fans, getting her first glimpse at the young gays who are starting to worship her for being a survivor. "What do you know about survival?" she snaps, still never able to see past her own horizon to the pain of others.
We see Bette's epilogue, too, but it's more of a mixed bag. She kept working. She had friends like Victor Buono around to help her keep perspective. She was treated horribly by B.D., but we see her sweetly doting on Margo. Bette Davis lived to the age of eighty-one, giving her final fully completed performance opposite Lillian Gish in The Whales Of August. She was a legend until the very end. Murphy clearly doesn't see her as the tragedy that Joan became.
The real tragedy, as Murphy lays it out, is that Davis and Crawford couldn't have been allies -- true allies who saw in each other the same kind of determination they had in themselves. It's not like they didn't know it. After being told of Crawford's cancer, Davis says Joan won't die: "She's a cockroach, like me." But they were never able to bridge the gap of their own resentments. Murphy ends this deeply satisfying and moving finale with a flashback to the first day on Baby Jane, with Bette and Joan sharing a rare moment of honesty, each one hoping the film will bring them closer together. It would, in fact, do the very opposite. But that last image we see is of two women united by strength and fleeting optimism.
- Bob Aldrich
Aldrich is absent from the finale, though the epilogue is kind enough to let us know he reached a career peak later on by directing The Dirty Dozen.
B.D. and her husband and their born-again Christianity do not get a very sympathetic portrayal from this miniseries, especially in terms of B.D.'s harsh treatment of her mother. No wonder they put Kiernan Shipka in that ridiculous hair.
- Joan Blondell & Olivia de Havilland
Our erstwhile narrators get to show up and raise a glass to Joan Crawford, but it's not great that they get so thoroughly shown up in the narrator department by Pauline, Victor, and Mamasita.
- Jack Warner & Hedda Hopper
Too bad we didn't get these two share a scene before this dream sequence. Judy Davis and Stanley Tucci are a scream together.
- Pauline Jameson
It's heartening to learn that Pauline managed to build a career in the comparatively more gender-balanced field of documentary filmmaking. Also, she gets to verbalize what seems to be the series' secondary message: call your grandmother!
- Victor Buono
Ever the sage, Victor is a good friend to Bette, talking her off the ledge as she rails about getting slighted by Katharine Hepburn. And while she doesn't go through with it, he does encourage Bette to give Joan one last phone call.
- Bette Davis
The best Bette moment outside of Joan's dream sequence comes after she's commissioned a homosexual artist to draw her portrait. She gets a look at the unfinished work -- an accurate depiction of the real Bette's face -- gives a forceful nod, and says, "Yep. That's the old bag." Also for God's sake watch this clip of Bette Davis explaining her hatred of Faye Dunaway on The Tonight Show:
Also, her favorite movie of 1977 was The Turning Point. Which, yes, perfect, absolutely.
- Joan Crawford
"She seemed very much tossed away," Pauline says of Joan's later years, and boy do we see it. The scene at the dentist's office when she explains "the buckle" -- the dental procedure where she had six molars removed in her youth in order to improve the shape of her cheek -- will haunt me to my grave. "I'll stop worrying about how I look," she says, "when they dip me in formaldehyde." Less scarring is Joan's moving reckoning with her daughter, Cathy, as a way for the show to nod to Joan's documented history of abusive parenting.
The true hero of this piece, if we're being honest. The moment when Mamasita returns to Joan's doorstep and offers to come by a few times a week might have been the most emotional moment of a very emotional finale. Jackie Hoffman for Emmy, let's get that campaign rolling.