In the last few weeks I’ve struggled to watch streamed movies on MUBI, mainly because I couldn’t find the time, but also partly because of the films on offer. However, I couldn’t resist the prospect of the 1937 A Star is Born. I’d seen the film many years ago, but possibly in black & white on TV. The early Technicolor print was a welcome surprise. I don’t know if it was MUBI or my TV set but the Academy ratio print kept switching to a cropped 1.78:1 TV image. This was annoying but in the end I simply accepted that it wouldn’t stay in the correct ratio. I’ve noticed this before and it seems to be a streaming problem.
I enjoyed the film immensely but I had forgotten just how many tears a good 1930s melodrama can invoke. Dare I re-watch Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937)? That’s usually the acid test for a Melo. A Star is Born works for me because of the performances of the lead actors. That isn’t to detract from William Wellman’s direction. He was mainly known for his action pictures but here working for David O. Selznick he takes a sharp look at the familiar Hollywood tale about the young woman who leaves North Dakota to find fame and fortune. Wellman contributed to the script alongside Dorothy Parker, her husband Alan Campbell and Robert Carson. I found the studio scenes to be very interesting, illustrating the workings of the system. I suspect that the story of the production of the script would be well worth exploring. Both original story and developed script were Oscar-nominated and the story won. Janet Gaynor gives a remarkable turn as Esther Blodgett who becomes Vicki Lester when she signs a studio contract courtesy of her encounter with ailing star Norman Maine. The irony is that Ms Gaynor had been in Hollywood since the early 1920s, starting aged 16 and when she made A Star is Born she was already an Oscar winner for her three films, including Murnau’s Sunrise, in 1927. All I can say is that I was convinced by both her portrayal of the young girl from North Dakota and, even more so, by her emerging star persona as Vicki Lester. She is ‘natural’, beautiful and captivating whether as Esther, Vicki or ‘Mrs Norman Maine’.
I also like Frederic March who seems to convey strength and vulnerability, solid character and potential danger with ease. March had a long Hollywood career in leading roles without ever quite reaching the top echelon of stardom (by which I mean, his name hasn’t stayed in the public consciousness since the studio period). Outside of film and theatre (where he was also successful) March appears to have been politically OK as well. Perhaps most of all I enjoyed watching Adolphe Menjou in this film. It’s such a shame that Menjou was not only a staunch Republican but also a fierce anti-communist and McCarthyite. But then that’s true of quite a few of the Hollywood actors I admire. That was their talent I guess, to play roles that often belied their own political views. In A Star is Born, Menjou is the remarkably sympathetic small studio boss who goes out of his way to help Vicki. The other standout performances are by May Robson as Esther’s grandmother, a young Andy Devine as the assistant director who encourages Esther and Lionel Stander as everyone’s idea of the hard-bitten studio press secretary who will stop at nothing to paint the studio in its best colours.
A Star is Born has had a complicated history in the US in terms of ownership and rights. Made for Selznick, it was eventually sold to Warner Bros. which produced the first remake in 1954. The film then passed into the Public Domain in the US in 1965, although Warners have retained distribution rights that have covered each of the three subsequent remakes. I’m assuming that the MUBI streaming uses a print based on the original nitrate print that was used for Kino’s Region A Blu-ray. I found the print to be quite muddy and dark in the opening half of the film with few of the uses of primary colours I associate with early Technicolor. The later scenes, especially outdoor scenes seem to have a much greater colour range and more vibrancy.
Perhaps now I’ll dig out my DVD of the 1954 remake before finally getting to see the new version in December if it’s still around.
Feud is unusual and intriguing. I’m not sure it works, but having started watching it, I found myself hooked and watching all eight episodes over six days. It’s important, I think, that I never usually watch any US TV. The last American TV I watched with any interest was The West Wing ten years ago (and the Anglo-American serial Humans more recently), so I’m approaching Feud from a different position than most audiences. The narrative is set over the ten years from 1962 to 1972, which was a period when I was much more involved with American film and TV.
Feud is described in reviews as an ‘anthology TV series’. I vaguely remember this term from the 1950s, used to describe shows like The Dick Powell Show (1961-3) and, most famously perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65). These series comprised single dramas of 25 mins or 48 mins performed by the same actors (or a selection from a ‘pool’ of actors) and/or introduced by a host like Powell or Hitchcock each week. The shows were written and directed by both the developing stars of TV and some of the directors who moved between cinema and TV, such as Sam Peckinpah, Blake Edwards or Ralph Nelson. The actors were often well-known Hollywood names.
The new anthology series like Feud seem to me rather different. Feud is produced by Fox TV for the FX cable channel. The same ‘showrunner’, Ryan Murphy, has already set up two anthology series called The American Horror Story (2011- ) and The American Crime Story (2016- ) which are now both into multiple seasons. The first season of Feud, titled ‘Bette and Joan’ ran for eight 45-58 minute episodes in March-April 2017 in the US. It has recently been broadcast on BBC2 in the UK. The eight episodes recount the supposed ‘feud’ between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, centred on the production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 and continued over the events of the next few years. The series is designed to be an anthology in the sense that the next serial will be concerned with the story of the marriage of Charles and Diana and its aftermath. It seems more sensible to me to call it a serial, a long-form narrative or simply a form of televisual biopic. But US TV has its own terminology. More to the point, the BBC decided to follow the Netflix model and release all eight episodes on iPlayer before the end of the broadcast transmission run of two episodes shown as a double bill each week (following the precedent of Scandinavian drama serials on BBC4).
Outline (no spoilers as such – the story is based on real events)
Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) in 1962 were A List Hollywood stars in their fifties struggling to find roles worthy of their talent in Hollywood (Davis had actually returned to the stage). Crawford found the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and persuaded Jack Warner (whose studio had made successful films with both Crawford and Davis) to agree to distribute a film adaptation. The film was made by director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) using his own production company, The Associates and Aldrich. Warner (Stanley Tucci) believed that Psycho had introduced mainstream audiences to shock/horror films and he gambled on an unusually wide release. The film proved to be a significant hit and was nominated for several Oscars. This caused further problems between Crawford and Davis. A sequel was then suggested . . . Joan Crawford died in May 1971 and was remembered during the 1972 Oscar ceremony. (Davis continued working until her death in 1989, but the serial ends in 1972.)
The narrative is supported by the insertion of a quasi documentary element in the form of a series of interviews which on-screen titles date as conducted in 1978. The interviewees include characters directly involved in the story such as Aldrich’s assistant Pauline (Alison Wright) as well as two other leading actors who knew Crawford and Davis – Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) – and others involved in the events depicted. This re-inforces the sense of a tension in the presentation of the mise en abîme – the ‘making of’ not just the films, but also the Oscar ceremonies. We are familiar in biopics with current well-known actors playing Hollywood figures from the past, but in Feud this becomes overwhelming. At the centre of the narrative, Sarandon and Lange are very good indeed – and like Davis and Crawford, they both have a producer credit on the serial. Sarandon could pass for Davis, although she’s actually about 15 years older than Davis was in 1962. Lange doesn’t have anything like Crawford’s eyes so her performance has to create an illusion of Crawford’s look (she’s also much older than Crawford was in 1962). Lange also has a role in one of Murphy’s other anthology titles – The American Horror Story – and has played two other celebrity figures, Frances Farmer, the 1930s Hollywood actress in Frances (1982) and country singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985). I’m not sure what this means, except that I think I ‘read’ Lange/Crawford differently than Sarandon/Davis. I’m more familiar with Davis’s work than Crawford’s but while I admired and respected both stars, my own preference was always for Barbara Stanwyck – not mentioned in Feud, perhaps because she was still successful after moving into TV in the 1960s.
Feud is very ‘self-enclosed’ and most of the action takes place on set, in the homes and offices of the principals, or in exclusive restaurants. There is little awareness of the world outside Hollywood itself. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? actually opened a few days after the Cuban Missile Crisis in the US, which is not mentioned. I didn’t notice any references to the Civil Rights movement (I don’t actually remember any African-Americans in the whole serial) or Vietnam. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation about the enclosed world. One sequence in which Crawford travels to the UK to make a horror film for Herman Cohen Productions looks very strange. As far as I’m aware this horror film was shot in Berkshire, but the set is by the Thames in East London and there are other strange elements in the presentation of characters. The final episode of Feud includes some hallucinations suffered by a central character.
The focus, as the title emphasises, is on the feud between the two stars, but how much of this was invented to suit the publicity for Baby Jane and how much was ‘real’ isn’t clear. The serial also uses the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) as a device to increase the animosity between the two actors. In reality, Hopper died in 1966 aged 80, so this is possibly a fanciful presentation? Hopper’s rival Louella Parsons doesn’t feature in Feud – she retired in 1965. Overall, I feel that the serial is an odd mixture of ‘feud’ (which is accessible to any audience), a presentation of the dying days of ‘studio Hollywood’ and a rather intimate drama about two ageing stars. I found these two latter narratives more interesting than the feud – but both are frustratingly restricted in the overall mix. Bob Aldrich’s story features quite promisingly in the opening episodes but then disappears – a real shame.
As is usual in American TV, this serial is written and directed by a large group of people. There are five writers and five directors who mix and match across the episodes. Some write on one episode and direct another. Interestingly, in the present climate, four of the episodes are directed by (different) women and one woman was involved in writing three episodes. Despite this large number of creative inputs, I didn’t notice an inconsistency of styles – which is either a tribute to the showrunner’s overall control or a comment on a conventional TV drama approach. I’m not really able to tell which!
What Feud does have is some snappy one liners which recall those ‘women’s pictures’ of the 1940s and some great performances. Catherine Zeta-Jones is especially good.
Here’s the official trailer: