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Just try looking away from 'Feud' on your TV screen

There is an amazing scene in the third episode of FX's "Feud: Bette and Joan." I've seen the first five episodes of the mini-series that will run to eight for its first season and, somewhat incredibly, is announced for another.

This is one of the worst things I've seen on television in years. It's a 20-megaton explosion of camp about a couple of the greatest actresses in classic Hollywood -- Bette Davis and Joan Crawford -- and stars two of the best mature Hollywood actresses around -- Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford. It's about what led up to and followed their co-starring in Robert Aldrich's 1962 freakshow "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

In the not-so-immortal words of Al Jolson, you ain't heard nuthin' yet. Surrounding Sarandon and Lange are : Catherine Zeta-Jones as Davis' pal Olivia de Havilland; Stanley Tucci as a profanely condescending Jack Warner; Judy Davis as toxic Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper; Alfred Molina as Aldrich; Kathy Bates as onlooker Joan Blondell; and Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page.

It's a portrait of the "classic" era of Hollywood, where everything and everyone is miniaturized for humiliation's sake.

Susan Sarandon, left, plays Bette Davis and Jessica Lange portrays Joan Crawford in FX's limited series, "Feud: Bette and Joan." (Kurt Iswarienko/FX)

And yet just try to avert your eyes from it. It is cruelly, almost sadistically, addictive. I sat there knowing that almost every real person involved -- Davis, Crawford, Aldrich, Sarandon, Lange, DeHavilland, even Hopper -- deserved far better than this.

But if you think that a rising gorge of disgust was going to get me to stop watching, you're daft. It's like watching some utterly mad Oscar broadcast where EVERYTHING goes wrong in the last minute.

To steal Joyce Carol Oates' wonderful word for written biographies of literary figures encompassing all their vileness and psychiatric deformities, it's a "pathography" of Hollywood as a community, a camp broadside where nobody could possibly matter because nobody is remotely "real" -- and that's especially true if the actresses portrayed are all shown to be scheming, sickening, rapacious dragon ladies and homicidal gossips.

And yet there, smack in the middle of episode three is that scene where Davis and Crawford have dinner together while making "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Suddenly, the two actresses PLAYING actresses -- Sarandon and Lange -- are being directed to act like vulnerable human beings, not reptilian freaks. We're watching Davis and Crawford open up their deepest selves to each other -- Crawford about being horribly poor and sexually abused as a pre-teen child, Davis waiting to have sex for the first time until she was 25. The two contemporary actresses have the audience's collective hearts and minds in the palm of their hands. On a couple of other occasions, fleeting glimpses of humanity are allowed -- Davis, for instance, trying to make human contact on the phone to her mentally challenged young daughter.

A TV mini-series with the tone of those scenes could have been one of the great ones.

But no. That one scene, as presented to us by "Feud" creator Ryan Murphy is just a set-up, a ruse to lull them into peacefulness to get the movie finished and get them both tearing at each other like the wolverines we're supposed to believe they are.

To coin a phrase, Oy.

Now let me get personal:

--- I never thought much of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" I wasn't alone. The great movie critic Andrew Sarris' original review of the film included this: "With a frightwig of Baby Jane curls, Betty Boop lips, darkly popped eyes outlining otherwise cadaverous features, Miss Davis seems to be auditioning for 'Bride of Frankenstein.' Before the issues of the melodrama have been resolved, this most obvious of monsters will run the gamut of nastiness from serving a dead rat on a silver platter to murdering the only sensitive character in the whole film." David Thomson explained Aldrich's approach in "Have You Seen?:" "They were two grotesques, the opposite arrows in a classic sado-masochistic relationship. The picture wants us to laugh at them....It's hard to miss, or forgive, the cruelty." I'm afraid I never have. Worse still was yet to come. "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" was such a smash hit that everyone soon wanted "classic era" actresses yanked off of pantry shelves where they were being stored and thrown onscreen to be abused gargoyles. The nadir of the whole "torture old actresses" genre was "Lady in a Cage" starring De Havilland, which I still think is the most sadistic Hollywood commercial film I've ever seen.

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to BabyJane" (News file photo)


--- I've no special love for either "classic" actress. I can go on for hours about movies starring Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman but Davis and Crawford never did it for me. (The big exception was Davis in "All About Eve.") Even so, the more you know about movie history, the more you can admire and even like them both. Crawford, when she started out, was sexy, innocent and beautiful in a way now almost forgotten. Davis was a formidable human being. They used to say at Warner Brothers that Jack Warner would try to hide when she was on her way to his office to complain of her latest despoilment onscreen. No other actress in Hollywood had her renowned gift for shriveling the manhoods of miscellaneous moguls. She was much reported to be the protector of young talents too.

No one ever pretended Davis was conventionally "pretty" but, in old age, she gutsily presented herself to the world on TV talk shows in some of the most unprettified starkness ever seen from a Hollywood star. That's when she coined one of the truly immortal lines ever about old age: "It ain't for sissies."

It isn't that Murphy is completely heartless toward his dragon ladies, but he's exploiting them as cruelly, in his way, as Aldrich did. And, in the cases of Sarandon, Lange and Judy Davis, they're being exploited by camp in a way analogous to Crawford and Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Increased money and fame will surely follow, along with more roles. Far be it from me to grumble about that. The cast is stupendous all through "Feud." The only one who isn't abused by it, though, is Stanley Tucci, having a great and lusty old time of it playing Jack Warner as a crass, foul-mouthed boss and dimwit for whom genuine human vulnerability of any sort is a crashing bore.

Even Susan Sontag, in her seminal "Notes on Camp" admitted "I am strongly drawn to camp and almost as strongly offended by it."

Ryan Murphy admitted to Beatrice Verhoeven in "The Wrap" that when he was bringing "Popular" to the WB network from 1999-2001, the WB was "relentlessly homophobic" and would give him "notes like 'The Mary Cherry character, Like could she be less gay?"

Murphy's O.J. mini-series on FX was great television. Personalities were allowed to function without being grotesques.

For passing moments, so are Davis and Crawford in "Feud." But just as they were in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?," they are women "of a certain age" brought low by an audience that wants them to be.

Feuds are public ways of trashing hatred, which, in its truest and most voluptuous state, is a much more private pleasure.

Whatever Murphy's private intentions, one thing is obvious: He's no gentleman.

But if you decide to watch it, you won't be either. Just try to look away from it while it's on.

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