A Film of One’s Own: Feud: Bette and Joan and the eternal mistreatment of women in Hollywood

As reviews and reflections of the kind start pouring in following the recent airing of Feud: Bette and Joan’s finale, the reading of the series neatly emerges as being manifold: if, on one hand, praise for Jessica Lange’s and Susan Sarandon’s performances is generally unanimous (for they are heavyweights in their own right themselves), the sub-themes bubbling under the immediate surface provide for a no less interesting discussion, since they touch on a wide range of issues that are by no means exclusive to Tinseltown divas.

Feud: Bette and Joan is a lesson in talent and class. The series portrays the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford that took its toll right after the premiere of their joint 1962 venture What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, while putting the emphasis of said rivalry on each one’s incontestable talent. Yet at the same time, one can’t watch it without clearly perceiving it as another cruel portrait of the way Hollywood treats its female stars as they grow older, an awareness which in its turn revives a debate that has been brought up many times and always seems to dissipate into the sunset without any relevant action being taken.

As actresses like Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren have suggested over the years, the industry tends to discard women over a certain age by offering virtually no roles for them, while men are more likely to keep scoring stimulating parts in relevant films way after they’re 40. This double-standard is usually seen as yet another confirmation of the poor construction female characters are subjected to in Hollywood, in which they are often treated as little more than eye-candy — even if they’re given a relevant storyline.

In spite of both Crawford and Davis being associated with the Women’s Film “genre”, whose central narrative revolves around issues directly related to women or femininity and men play minor or merely supporting roles, one must keep in mind that what we see in these movies not only tends to be the product of a male point-of-view, but that the themes are typically limited to what is traditionally associated with belonging to the domain of the feminine, like motherhood or romance. And although films like Grand Hotel (with the equally fabulous, mystery-shrouded diva Greta Garbo), All About Eve, or Mildred Pierce all pass the Bechdel Test, the perspective provided by most Hollywood vehicles of the time is essentially a product of the Male Gaze, which authors like Laura Mulvey, Gaylyn Studlar, and Mary Ann Doane have repeatedly denounced as serving nothing but the predatory instinct of the masculine Peeping Tom desire.

These recurrent dynamics, that rely heavily on the dismissively “harmless” condition of the male voyeur, are none other but a direct consequence of the “recipient”, “to-be-looked-at-ness” status society imprinted on women over the centuries, as Mulvey explains on her 1975 text Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

This brings us to one of Feud’s most interesting subplots, which represents another important aspect of this reading: although apparently irrelevant to the main narrative at the beginning of the series, Robert Aldrich’s assistant Pauline Jameson’s stepping forward as a scriptwriter and possible director (unexpectedly supported by Crawford’s housekeeper Mamacita) not only makes for a valuable reminder of the industry’s general attitude towards women but also offers the spectator a glimpse into the mixed-gender rule of film’s silent inceptions, when more women stepped behind the camera.

It was not until it gained an industry status and started being seen as a powerful source of income, influence, and career-making, that women were quickly shoved aside in the métier’s decision-making and given fewer and fewer power-based roles; after all, the feminine role in showbiz has always been confined to that of the “attraction”, preferably silent and pretty, entertaining via physical attributes only. When a woman was actually given a role behind the scenes, it was rarely above that of the assistant, therefore playing a similar part to the one she was expected to play in her marriage, where the man would always have the last word regarding the most important issues while she was merely expected to aid and obey. Moreover, women weren’t even expected to have “careers”, at least for long — they were supposed to marry and have children. A woman choosing vocation above family life was seen as an aberration, and any failed efforts in conciliating both were immediately blamed on her stubbornness in refusing to resign herself to the God-given role of mother and wife.

The general mood of Feud, and more generally of early ’60s pre-New Hollywood decadence, finds an interesting parallel in the roman-à-clef realism of Jacqueline Susann’s work. Known mainly for her 1966 best-selling novel Valley of the Dolls, Susann’s direct style (which Gore Vidal described as “typing, not writing”) may have been broadly criticised by the so-called literary circles of her time, but her wittiness and overall approach to otherwise common themes quickly gained her the reputation of being more than a mere Harlequin-like romance writer. The disenchantment with which Susann describes the lives of the rich and the famous — especially the women — constituted in itself a revolution in the way the glamorised Hollywood life (and show-business in general) was perceived by the general public.

The admiration-turned-rivalry between Neely O’Hara (a character loosely based on Judy Garland) and Helen Lawson is a perfect example of the “divide and conquer” strategy — often mentioned in Feud — played by a male-dominated industry that revelled in catfights and scandals of the sort. Also worth mentioning is the recurrent theme of everlasting youth and beauty, especially in Valley and Once Is Not Enough, an obsessive concern that seems almost exclusive to women since we never seem to find a relevant parallel in their male counterparts.

Although not the central theme of Feud, this concern is an underlying catalyser of Davis’ and Crawford’s path-crossing: their get-together for What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? happens — not only, but also — due to their inability of finding acceptable, stimulating roles after a certain age, or at least parts that don’t imply serving as a shadow to a usually male-dominated main plot. At the same time, the bouleversement Crawford admits to feeling towards the state of Hollywood in the early ’60s — we must remember she was an actress that had done the crossover from silent cinema and lived the Noir golden age — denounces a reluctance in accepting (or even facilitating) the underlying revolution in women’s roles behind the camera — even though she justifies her refusal in accepting Pauline’s proposal with her being a newcomer, and not because she’s a woman. In spite of appearing contradictory at first if we consider her concern towards the lack of female relevance in the industry, Crawford’s attitude is perfectly understandable; after all, reinventing production codes in such a male-oriented world could come at a high price for her, who was at the time in no place to jeopardise her career.

As it’s the case with Valley of the Dolls, the “divide and conquer” rule seems to fit like a glove in the way we perceive women to often be their own worst enemy while men seem to wander about carelessly — and why not, knowing their jobs are secure well after they turn 50 and an unpaid employee is taking care of the household chores — not only in what their career is concerned but also in issues related to everyday life, such as marriage and parenthood. In Feud, whenever the ties between mother and daughter are depicted as faulty, negligence is often suggested as being directly influenced by the mother’s career, with guilt of choosing vocation over motherhood permanently hovering above the character’s heads — even when this is not directly addressed as so. But where is the father? Why isn’t he taking over to ensure a satisfactory relationship with both parents — even in cases of divorce — or being equally blamed for poor parenting? The assumption that a woman is failing in her womanhood if she puts her career before her personal life wouldn’t be so frustrating if it weren’t the product of a double standard, since we never see men being accused of a similar “crime”.

In both Feud and Valley of the Dolls, we easily understand that the struggle women face when trying to deal with the overbearing pressure put on top of the already ordinary issues related to their careers and conciliation with a satisfactory personal life is but a reflection of the general female condition of their time. The fear of being left behind (in both their career and marriage) after a certain age and the competition that comes not only from a healthy resurgence of fresh ideas and newcomers but also from younger, physically more desirable versions of themselves, along with the eternal patronising of a strong personality that could be seen as “difficult” (at the most) in men but is immediately labelled as “hysterical” in women, add to the numerous challenges women face on top of their trying to breakthrough professionally and reclaim a relevant place in an industry that has been feeding on them since its inceptions.

Feud: Bette and Joan recuperates this seemingly endless debate in show-business in general and film in particular, a discussion often labelled — more like mansplained — as mere “paranoia” by men who claim such gender-oriented issues to be virtually non-existent nowadays. But the fact is that women still lack an equal voice to men’s in the way they perceive and subsequently depict the world — as film is none other than the sharing of one’s vision of something — and, worse than that, the way they are themselves depicted by an entire industry. The notable absence of a wide and diverse offer of role models — which are obviously not based on direct gender identification only, since as it has been duly pointed out over the last decades women are allowed to identify with men and vice-versa, with all the mid-spectrum transgender variations being possible — both in front and behind the cameras, transpires a faulty and obsolete autophagic industry whose real evolution is but an illusion.

So yes, this may sound like a tiresome, heard-it-seen-it-before discussion, but you can be sure I’ll keep bringing it up for as long as it’s necessary. Thank you, Bette and Joan, for reminding me to do so this time around.

originally published on The 405 on May 12th 2017

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Paris-based trilingual music journalist. fingers in other pies include film, psychology, history, politics, social dynamics, gender issues, tarot and astrology.