Feud: Bette and Joan: “Hagsploitation” Season 1 Episode 6 Review

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Feud‘s latest episode proves that you’re only as good as your last success.

Bette’s hokey Baby Jane song on The Andy Williams Show might have been ridiculous, but it’s nothing compared to Joan’s promotion for her new slasher film Strait-Jacket. This week’s episode opens with a deliciously campy trailer, and an even more over-the-top PR stunt that sees Joan brandishing a fake hatchet at movie-goers as she makes her way toward the stage to join director William Castle (a fun guest turn by John Waters). She is visibly uncomfortable, but she goes through with it nonetheless. Anything to ensure her latest flick is a hit.

Strait-Jacket is a far cry from Baby Jane, but, as Feud has already shown us, that film didn’t equate to more quality work for either of its stars. Sure, it was a hit, but it wasn’t the launchpad that both Bette and Joan were anticipating. As a result, the two of them were forced to take subpar material in order to get keep their careers going. For Bette, this meant doing television. For Joan, it involved being an ax murderer.

Enter “Hagsploitation,” a subgenre of film that Jack Warner, in one hilarious sequence, claims to have invented himself.  Audiences love to tear down their idols. It’s why they loved watching Bette lose her mind in Baby Jane, and it’s why tickets for Strait-Jacket kept selling out. In a brief moment, Lady in a Cage, the script that Olivia de Havilland threw in the trash in last week’s episode, is name-checked as being another financial success. Truthfully, Baby Jane did spawn several copycat titles in what is now called the “Psycho-biddy” sub-category of horror. From 1962 through the 1970s, people loved to watch older, formerly glamorous women drive each other insane.

This growing public trend didn’t do much to simmer down Bette and Joan’s feud. It certainly didn’t help with Joan’s ever-growing paranoia. Part of Feud’s’ majesty is it’s ability to see past her extreme levels of vanity and desperation to remain a movie star and find the humanity underneath. It’s why, even when she does things like throw a glass vase at Mamacita, we still are able to feel for her.

Part of this is due to the ingenious writing of the show, which paints Joan as glamorous, but with a terribly storied history. “Hagsploitation” sees her fending off long-seated rumors that she starred in adult films—here called “stag films”—in order to make ends meet before she got her big break. The perpetrator of these vicious rumors turns out to be none other than her own brother, ever jealous of her success and certainly disapproving of the inappropriate relationship she had with her stepfather. It’s fascinating to uncover the dark underbelly of Joan’s past, particularly as her efforts to gloss over it and make everything look as pristine as possible keep increasing.

Another part is, of course, Jessica Lange’s terrific performance. “Hagsploitation” does feature both Bette and Joan, but this episode really belongs to the ladder. Even in the opening sequence, the sadness in Joan’s eyes is palpable. So when she later argues with her brother as he’s about to go into what will be a fatal surgery, or when she anxiously starts to worry that the stakes are against her on the set of her new film, these moments are grounded in pain. Lange brilliantly is able to make even Joan’s vainest moments seem earnest, so that we’re drawn in to a portrait of a woman who’s had to fight for everything she’s ever gotten, and who’s so desperate to cling to whatever pieces of movie stardom she has left.

The main plot of this week’s episode is a set up of Robert’s next film Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte—a psycho biddy thriller about an aging Southern Belle. There’s a climactic scene in which Robert is able to get out from under Jack’s thumb, and make the movie on his own terms. It’s important, as it’s the only bit of control he’s got left, since Harriet announces she’s going to leave him.

Still, the importance of this project lies with Bette and Joan. If you read the IMDb page for this film, you know that Joan eventually dropped out of the project, and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. “Hagsploitation” shows the beginnings of the trouble that would eventually cause her to walk off the set. Clearly, there’s a tipping point that has yet to be seen, but one thing is for sure: Bette is not over what happened on Oscar night.

The initial read-through of the script is a mesmerizing sequence, with Bette constantly stopping to give notes to Robert—part of her deal in doing the picture meant getting creative control—and Joan interrupting as well, but more to make a point of being heard than anything else. They barely get a few pages in before Bette calls out a hidden paparazzo who’s photographing Joan drinking a Pepsi on the set. Of course, this disrupts the entire production.

Weeks later, when Joan arrives on the set and is unhappy about having to make her own way to the hotel in Baton Rouge, she starts to fear the worst. Feud has shown us her incessant need to control every aspect of her life, but here her fears are confirmed. In a call to Robert, she hears Bette laughing on the other end of the line, and already knows that the odds are against her on this film.

Baby Jane was supposed to be a great comeback for both Bette and Joan, but it only ended up proving how fickle fame can be. In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last successful film, which is why Joan succumbed to working with William Castle, Bette did TV, and Robert stayed in Jack’s grip for so long. Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte has already been set up to appear like a project born out of desperation. With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that it only worked to drive Bette and Joan even further apart. Grade: B+

 

Some Other Notes:

  • I love that porn in the 1960s was called “stag films” and “blue movies.” I also have a feeling that, if such films of Joan ever existed, they probably equated to what would be a PG-13 movie today.
  • Does Robert finally owning his film and getting away from Jack mean the end of Stanley Tucci on Feud? If so, I’ll be sad to see him go. His character was monstrous, but boy what an enjoyable performance.
  • Mamacita threatens to leave Joan if she throws one more thing at her head. I have a feeling this will come to fruition very soon.

 

By Mike Papirmeister

 

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