Review: “Feud”–“Pilot”

Let me begin by saying that I’ve been looking forward to Ryan Murphy’s new FX anthology drama Feud: Bette and Joan from the moment that it was announced. As a long-time lover of classical Hollywood, of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and of women’s pictures, this seemed like the perfect mix of everything I loved. And indeed, if the first episode is any indication, it will more than fulfill my expectations.

When it comes to playing abject (anti)-heroines, no one excels like Jessica Lange. Since her several-season run on Murphy’s other successful series American Horror Story, Lange has become acknowledged as one of the leading actresses of her generation, a woman able to not only inhabit her roles but to bring to her flawed characters a deep well of humanity. In Joan Crawford, that most contradictory of classic Hollywood actresses, she finds a character worthy of her tremendous abilities. Within a little more than an hour, Lange has managed to show us the dark depths of Crawford’s tortured soul.

While I personally strongly dislike Susan Sarandon, she does an extraordinary Bette Davis. This is the tough-as-nails actress who took no prisoners and drank and swore with the best of them. And as Joan Blondell says, she always puts the professional before the personal, and as a result she is able to attain heights of acting glory that remain the envy of her nemesis and co-star Crawford. There is no question that Davis was a better actress than Crawford, and in Sarandon she has found a fitting avatar, a woman unafraid of telling everyone in her path what she thinks of them.

Indeed, it seems to me that part of what makes Feud such a compelling show is the fact that a high-profile series has provided a vehicle for two aging actresses. And the series goes out of the way to show that Bette and Joan, for all of their acrimony, actually have far more in common than any other two women in their world. They are both vestiges of a Hollywood system that made use of their talents while caring little for their welfare (as evidenced by Stanley Tucci’s reprehensible Jack Warner). Yet, precisely because they are products of a system that sets women against one another and that has already left them behind, they also find that they can never express any true affection for one another.

Whatever his failings as an auteur, Murphy has a keen eye for a story about the relationships among women, and he knows how to make these stories truly emotionally resonant. One can’t help but be reminded of Billy Wilder’s extraordinary work in Sunset Boulevard, or the many women’s pictures produced during the height of classic Hollywood (the ones in which Crawford and Davis made their reputations). As with those other films of yore, Feud immerses us in a world of pathos, sadness, and delicious poison, so that we can’t help but take pleasure in the seething hatred that slowly re-emerges between these two powerful women.

Murphy also has a keen eye for colour and decor, which is readily apparent with his new outing. The hues seem to pop off the screen, sometimes a little too garish for comfort, a searing reminder of the larger-than-life personalities and heightened emotions these two women experience as they find themselves in a maelstrom of vitriol and ever-deepening and decidedly mutual loathing. They can’t seem to escape from their surroundings, bound together in a cycle of destruction that threatens to consume them both.

All in all, the pilot of this show hopefully bodes well for a thrilling and delicious season of venom and vitriol. Could you ask for more?

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Home from the Hill” (1960)

Though it was not a phenomenal success when it was released in 1960, Home from the Hill is nevertheless a very compelling film, a fitting entry in Vincente Minnelli’s existing body of work and a film that indicates his ongoing concerns with the American family and the terrible price exacted by the expectations American culture puts on its men to behave in certain ways.

The film follows a fairly typical melodramatic plotline.  Captain Wade Hunnicutt (Robert Mitchum) is a philandering millionaire who lives with his embittered wife Hannah (Eleanor Parker) and his weakling son Theron (George Hamilton).  Meanwhile, his bastard (though largely unacknowledged) son Rafe (George Peppard) behaves as a true Hunnicutt son should, though his illegitimacy keeps him from ever becoming an heir.  Though his son impregnates local girl Libby (Luana Patten), he does not marry her, prompting his surrogate father/brother Rafe to do so in his place.  He then proceeds to raise the child as his own, a marked contrast to his own father, who steadfastly refuses to recognize him, even as he is dying of a gunshot wound (delivered by Libby’s father, who believes that Wade, not Theron, got his daughter pregnant).  In the end, Wade’s wife Hannah, who could never bring herself to forgive his transgressions, finally finds solace with Rafe and Libby.

Through the combination of Wade’s own toxic version of masculinity and Theron’s inability to live up to his father’s gendered expectations, Home from the Hill paints a picture of the tortures inflicted by the impossible ideals of American masculinity and as such is a compelling glimpse into not only the Hollywood of the 1960s, but also into the cultural and social tensions that were finally beginning to break out onto the surface of American society as a whole.  With the keen eye of someone who existed himself on the fringes of traditional American sexual mores (regardless of whether or not he had sexual encounters with men, none can deny that Minnelli had a distinctly queer sensibility), the director manages to shine a piercing light into the swirling and seething darkness at the heart of the midcentury American family.

Perhaps no actor could portray hysterically psychotic masculinity like Robert Mitchum.  From his sinister roles in many films noir (in which even his “heroic” characters contain a hint of menace) to his tour de force performance as the crazed, murderous preacher in The Night of the Hunter,  Everything about Wade screams masculinity, from his avaricious need to sleep with every woman in town to his den, which is adorned not only with his hounds, but also with the trophies of the many animals he has killed and the guns he has used to kill them.  What makes Wade such a terrifying figure is the fact that he is utterly sure of his own righteousness; his masculinity, his essential maleness, seems to be above reproach.  Part of this has to do with Mitchum’s performance and star persona, of course, and it is precisely Mitchum’s particular brand of poisonous charisma that makes Wade such a pleasure to encounter, even as we marvel at his un-self-reflexive cruelty.

Wade's den is a projection of his own toxic, hysterical masculinity.

Wade’s den is a projection of his own toxic, hysterical masculinity.

The film does make some gestures toward rehabilitating Wade and his family, mostly by holding out the promise that he can make peace with Hannah, and perhaps despite ourselves we do want to see these two broken, bitter people find a measure of peace with one another.  Ultimately, however, the reunion and resuscitation of the original nuclear family is a longing the film cannot fulfill.  In the end, there can be no salvation for the dark male figure that has caused so much misery and suffering, both among his immediate family and among the other people of the town, and it is precisely because he has sown his oats a bit too freely that Libby’s disgruntled father strikes him down.

In many ways, Home from the Hill can be viewed as a fascinating companion piece to one of Minnelli’s most famous and well-regarded works, Meet Me in St. Louis.  However, while that earlier film expressed a largely benevolent view of the post-war world by refracting it through the prism of nostalgia, this later film is much less sanguine in its opinion about whether the world is a fundamentally bright or bleak world.  The fact that Theron flees town rather than live in this broken world is the ultimate sign of the irresolvable tensions the film has evoked.

Home from the Hill is a brilliant illustration of the ways in which the melodrama–the genre most associated with the female spectator and with “women’s issues”–can also express the profound ambivalences that lie at the heart of the construction of the American male.  And as with the best melodramas (particularly those directed by the great Douglas Sirk), the ending has more than a little menace to it, as the camera lingers on the red tombstone as Hannah and Rafe walk off into what we can only hope is a more balanced and loving family than the one that preceded it.

Score:  9/10