With the long-awaited adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale finally streaming on Hulu, viewers are immersing themselves in the terrors of a dystopian future where religious extremists control what is left of the United States, imprisoning fertile women and forcing them to bear children for their wealthy masters. There is something cathartic about watching Atwood’s unflinchingly feminist nightmare unfold, because even as the parallels to our own current political landscape are discomfortingly strong, we’re not there yet. Watching, we can measure the freedoms we haven’t lost yet, the degree of autonomy we exercise over our bodies and our sexuality. For now.
But before we slide any further into the abyss of The Handmaid’s Tale, let’s take a moment to reflect on the more subtle, every day misogynies women negotiate, as showcased in, and in part perpetuated by Ryan Murphy’s limited series on FX, Feud: Bette and Joan, which finished its eight-episode run last month. Chronicling the reputed long-time animosity between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford coming to a boil on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Feud draws on the reliably crowd-pleasing theme of dueling divas.
This story never gets old. When we pit two talented women against each other, daring them to out-sing, out-dance, and out-act each other, audiences expect cat-fights and prima donna theatrics. Trailers in advance of Feud promised just such a spectacle. I tuned in not only as a long-time Davis fan, but as a professor who has spent my career in higher education publishing and teaching on divas. When I teach films about female performers as back-stabbing rivals, like All About Eve and The Turning Point, I ask my students to think about who benefits when women are pitted against each other. (Spoiler alert: it isn’t the women.) I anticipated adding Feud to that list.
But Feud isn’t really the story of two divas at war. There is only one diva here: Crawford, played by Jessica Lange, and the whole point of the series seems to be gutting and shaming her, offering for our entertainment yet another cautionary tale of a woman who wanted too much for too long and did not have the sense or the graciousness to retreat into invisibility with age.
If in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis got to play the flashy grotesque to Crawford’s straight man, Feud flips the script: where Sarandon’s Davis gets to be professional, sensible, and even sexual, Lange’s Crawford is neurotic, vindictive, and isolated, a sexless alcoholic who cannot survive, emotionally or financially, off the celebrity A-list.
In its first few weeks, the series was the juicy exposé of an infamous rivalry trailers had promised, as Davis and Crawford storm around and about each other on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Feud surprised me, in fact, by being thoughtful and feminist in its approach to these women, framing the actors’ rivalry more as a publicity ploy by the stars themselves and, unbeknownst to Davis and Crawford, engineered behind the scenes by studio head Jack Warner.
But as the series continued, the stars’ volatile relationship with one another became less important than Crawford’s frantic fight against aging at the end of her career. Davis is there primarily as a foil to Crawford, setting her off on violent rages and throwing her into paroxysms of self-doubt. While Davis has her moments of rage and diva theatrics, for the most part Murphy has written her as strong and focused on her craft. We see her without makeup, pencil in hand as she makes notes on a script; we see her at home dressed in slacks and an old shirt, talking on the phone with her best friend; we see her flop down on a couch after a fight with her teenage daughter. If you can get past the part where she is Bette Davis, this woman doesn’t seem that different than women we know, or women we are.
Murphy’s Crawford, however, is unreal and untouchable, an isolated queen with no confidants other than her uniformed maid. She is a haunted woman who roams her empty mansion in couture caftans, a woman who never lets her hair down, literally or figuratively.
Feud is a relentless, slow motion zoom-in on a once-powerful woman as her career enters its final death spiral. Crawford is allowed no dignity. She is briefly redeemed from the physically and emotionally abusive monster alleged in her daughter Christina’s memoir, Mommie Dearest, and its 1981 film adaptation, only to be reduced to a needy has-been lashing out at a world that no longer sees her as sexual and therefore has no use for her. In one stunning scene we see her stumbling through her home the morning the 1962 Oscar nominations are announced, hung-over and bewildered as she hangs up phones mysteriously left off their hook so as not to ring, not yet aware that she has been passed over in the nominations in favor of Davis.
We do not get to see her response to this news, however, as though the spectacle of a once famously beautiful woman staggering toward disappointment with her hair disheveled, last night’s makeup smeared across her face, is more compelling than imagining her human response to devastating news.
But really, isn’t that the story we most want to hear? For while audiences love stories of dueling divas, they love seeing older women turned into objects of pity, fear, and contempt even more. Terror of older women fuels children’s fairy tales, after all, and their experience and skill was once so threatening that an estimated 60 thousand were burned in Europe in just one century. This year audiences are eating up Glenn Close’s return to the role of murderous washed-up movie actress Norma Desmond in the Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard.
Just look at how eagerly pundits and reviewers jumped on an insider’s alleged tell-all account of Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign months after its conclusion, dragging her out into the public eye once again in order to flog her for her election loss, again, despite mounting evidence that the campaign faced nearly insurmountable outside interference.
Murphy had to take his story in this direction, because we expect such a fate to befall our divas. A good diva survives with her reputation intact because she knows when to exit the stage. Davis escapes relatively unscathed because she is not afraid of the grotesqueries of a woman’s old age, or rather, able to turn them to her favor as a character actress. But as conceived by Murphy, Joan Crawford demands to be treated with the same respect and deference she experienced as a young woman. And for this she must be punished, becoming the monstrous thing she fears most.