TV Review: “Feud”–“The Other Woman” (S1, Ep. 2)

There’s nothing quite like settling in with your Boyfriend to catch up on last week’s episode of Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud: Bette and Joan. In the episode, titled “The Other Woman,” the tensions between the two women continue to ratchet ever-upward, exacerbated by the machinations of the men running the show (Robert Aldrich and Jack Warner) and by the malevolent Heddy Hopper and other gossip columnists who are only too eager to exploit the escalating tensions between the two women for their own financial benefit.

The strongest part of the series continues to be the performance from Lange and Sarandon. While Lange manages to convey the bruised and aching heart of Crawford–battered by decades in Hollywood at the mercy of the men in charge–she also shows the inner core of iron that allowed this working-class girl to become one of the most prominent stars of classic Hollywood. For all of her vulnerability, there is still a harshness to her, one that only bursts out of her at moments of extreme stress and anger, as when she commands her current husband to leave.

For her part, Sarandon continues to bring a similar amalgam to her characterization of Bette Davis. Her voice has the same sort of tough hoarseness that was Davis’s trademark, and she also manages to convey a similar blend of steely strength and aching vulnerability. Sarandon’s Davis is a woman caught in an impossible position; her belligerent daughter has already begun to turn against her, reminding her in a fit of the fact that she is no longer young. Yet she also is a woman single-mindedly devoted to her craft. Unlike Joan, who seems to be more committed to her star status, Davis sees herself as an actress, a distinction that has, in the historiography of both stars, become the accepted wisdom.

As with the pilot, this episode of Feud continues to highlight its awareness the hypocrisy and cynicism that seethes beneath the glossy surface of Hollywood life. Hollywood cares for nothing more than the accumulation of further financial gain, and it is willing to destroy the lives of the women who, it must be admitted, are key to its very system. Even the redoubtable Hedda Hopper, along with her truly glorious hats, can’t seem to find in herself to have any innate compassion for her fellow women. It is only when Joan promises to let her in on some juicy gossip for her noxious columns that she agrees to be her ally, and it is her machinations that lead Aldrich to betray both women in his own relentless pursuit of career advancement.

While they only appear only briefly, both Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones deliver strong, precise performances as Joan Blondell and Olivia De Havilland. Both of them act as a sort of Greek chorus, offering the audience a sense of the conflicted position women occupied (and continue to occupy) in the entertainment industry. They are the source of one another’s greatest strength and yet they are repeatedly encouraged by the industry to tear one another apart in the media and in the eyes of the public.

All in all, I found this to be an extremely compelling piece of television. Love him or hate him, but Murphy has a knack for churning out stories that help us to understand and empathize with powerful women who are punished by the societies in which they live. It remains to be seen, however, whether Feud can continue threading the precarious needle it has set itself. Is it possible to critique a system that encourages women to hate each other by providing a pleasurable drama about…women hating each other?

Only time will tell.

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