[As the Emmy nomination process draws closer, we’ll be revisiting programs that have completed their seasons to provide a snapshot of their strengths and weaknesses as true contenders.]
If there is one thing you can say about “Feud: Bette and Joan” it’s that Faye Dunaway’s performance in “Mommie Dearest” is no longer the definitive portrayal of Hollywood screen legend Joan Crawford. Over eight hour-long episodes, Jessica Lange delivered a tour de force that somehow made you sympathetic for the notorious Crawford, warts and all. Something Dunaway’s classic campy turn struggled to do.
Lange’s work is an artistic accomplishment that consummated in the series ender, “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?” which was wonderfully directed by veteran TV helmer Gwyneth Horder-Payton and written by Gina Welch. The episode found Crawford no longer in her Brentwood estate, but in the lonely solitude of a Fifth Avenue apartment in New York City. With Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) only making sporadic visits, she’s more alone than ever and Horder-Payton and Welch depict this era in her life with mundane precision. These small moments of Crawford struggling with cooking by herself or her blind desire for any new role that finds her in the b-movie “Trog” are actually more powerful than the showy dream sequence most viewers will remember from the episode.
Having begun to succumb to possible dementia due to a battle with cancer, an elderly Crawford wakes up one night to hear laughter in her living room. She discovers two key figures in her life: Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) sitting at a candlelit table as they were decades before reminiscing about old times. She joins them – transformed into her former glamorous self – as the final member of the party arrives, her rival Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). Eventually, Warner and Hopper leave and Crawford has this imaginary opportunity to make peace with her longtime rival. When Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) finds her in the living room she awakens, back to reality and once again alone.
Even though it’s clear series co-creators Ryan Murphy, Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam want to try and give Crawford a peaceful if not happy end they don’t distort the character they’ve created with Lange. Crawford’s refusal to make any more public appearances after being horrified by a photo taken of her that appears in a New York newspaper is indicative of her lifelong vanity, and her interactions with well-meaning fans at a book signing are callous at best. And yet Davis, who was often seen as the “right” side of the feud in the public eye, ended up giving her an incredibly emphatic moment after learning of her “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” co-star’s death. She coldly told the Associated Press:
“My mother told me you should never say bad things about the dead, only good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
Sarandon, who frankly was overshadowed as the series became much more about Joan than Bette, is quite wonderful at that moment. The second she hangs the phone up with the reporter she subtly conveys a painful regret that she might have made a mistake with such a harsh quote. Of course, Bette’s own life was full of hardships (the series doesn’t go into depth about her battles with cancer and stroke in her later years), but in her later life she’d transformed herself into something of a caricature that would make people laugh during a talk show appearance every now and then (her appearance on the talk show “Donahue” for instance is part of a 1987 book tour that was really one grand performance). Sarandon and the show demonstrate how that came to be without ever really forcing her into that time period.
Both women almost refused to give up a battle for roles in an industry where ageism and sexism are still rampant. An industry that callously discarded them after they made the men who ran the studios untold millions. You can absolutely argue diving so deep into this territory is one reason “Feud” is two episodes too long, but those extra hours mostly chronicle Crawford and Davis’ difficulties toward the end of their lives as well as the painful recognition they could not recapture their past glories. It allows episode directors Murphy and, most notably, Horder-Payton, to let Lange and Sarandon hold onto a moment here and there. It lets the reality of a moment transcend the historical spectacle or too-good-to-be-true real-life drama (because quite honestly some of it even a great Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t come up with).
As the show now transitions towards a very competitive Emmy campaign, it’s obvious everything begins with Lange and Sarandon, but there is much more for FX to celebrate, especially in the creative Emmy categories. Production designer Judy Decker (an Oscar nominee for “American Hustle”) does absolutely stunning work recreating a multitude of classic film sets and multiple time periods for the characters to inhabit. Longtime Murphy collaborator Lou Eyrich, a three-time Emmy winner already, outdoes herself with a depth of costume designs that would make Colleen Atwood and Sandy Powell envious. And cinematographer Nelson Cragg, a previous Emmy nominee, impressively juggles recreating scenes from the actors’ most memorable and not-so-memorable movies (let alone “Baby Jane” itself) to bringing the transitional era of early 1960’s Los Angeles to life.
Cragg also filmed one of the biggest standout moments from the series. A one-shot take in the episode “And the Winner is… (The Oscars of 1963)” that follows Crawford off the stage of the Academy Awards telecast, with David Lean (Anthony Crivello) in tow, through the back of the show all the way to the other side of the stage where Crawford waits to hear who wins Best Actress. It’s an unexpectedly cinematic moment in what is arguably one of the best hours of television Murphy has ever directed.
Supporting performances from Alfred Molina as the deeply flawed, but talented director Robert Aldrich, Davis as the manipulative Hopper and Hoffman as Crawford’s diligent personal maid should also get the Television Academy’s attention.
Program: “Feud: Bette and Joan”
Category: Limited Series
Network or Streaming Service: FX
Key Creative Forces: Ryan Murphy (director, created by), Jaffe Cohen & Michael Zam (writers, created by)
Described in 140 characters or less: Two Oscar winners star as two legendary Oscar winners whose personal and public feud demonstrated how Hollywood viscously discards its stars.
Airdates: March 5, 2017 – April 23, 2017
Major Player: Jessica Lange.
The Competition: “Big Little Lies,” “American Crime,” “Fargo,” “Genius” and “The Night Of” as well as any individual talent from those programs. But, at this point, it’s really “Big Little Lies.”
Biggest strengths: Jessica Lange. She’s a two-time Oscar winner who has won three Emmys over the past five years (that’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus‘ territory). The Television Academy clearly loves her. She’s earned five nominations since 2009 and the only thing she’s done for television that wasn’t nominated was Louis C.K.’s “Horace and Pete” which was largely snubbed by Emmy voters. There are some naysayers who claim Lange has just repeated what she’s done in Murphy’s “American Horror Story” series, but that’s simply ridiculous. Not only is Lange a lock for a nod, but right now it’s a two-way battle between her and “Big Little Lies'” Nicole Kidman for the win.
Major Concerns: Honestly, not that many. In theory, the Lead Actress category is so competitive Sarandon could, in theory, be snubbed (although that’s highly unlikely). The bigger question will be in phase two when FX tries to go for wins against very stiff competition.
Categories and nominees currently in contention:
Outstanding Limited Series
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie – Jessica Lange
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie – Susan Sarandon
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie – Alfred Molina
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie – Stanley Tucci
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie – Jackie Hoffman
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie – Judy Davis
Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special – Ryan Murphy, Gwyneth Horder-Payton
Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special – Jaffe Cohen & Michael Zam, Gina Welch, Ryan Murphy
Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Limited Series or Movie – Chi Yoon Chung, Andrew Groves, Adam Penn, Ken Ramos, Shelly Westerman (TBD)
Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie – Nelson Cragg
Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie, or Special – Mac Quayle
Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period Program (One Hour or More)- Judy Becker
Outstanding Makeup for a Limited Series or Movie (Non-Prosthetic) – Eryn Krueger Mekash
Outstanding Costumes for a Period Series, Fantasy Series, Limited Series, or Movie –
Outstanding Hairstyling for a Limited Series or Movie – Chris Clark
Outstanding Casting for a Limited Series, Movie, or Special – Eric Dawson, Carol Kritzer, Robert J. Ulrich
Outstanding Sound Editing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Special
Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Limited Series or Movie
Previous contender deep dives: