Feud: Bette and Joan: “More, Or Less” Season 1 Episode 4 Review

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Feud examines how much of a dog-eat-dog world Hollywood can be, regardless of your gender.

As the old song goes, there’s certainly no business like show business. People often talk fondly of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, but a lot of that classic glamour is idealized. As this week’s Feud proves, so much of Hollywood was a ruthless power struggle, and when you were shut out, you usually weren’t invited back. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s stories work well to illustrate the difficulties of extending your 15 minutes in a town that was always looking for the next big thing.

With the filming of Baby Jane complete, “More, Or Less” focuses on the film’s release, and what its unexpected success meant for everyone involved. In one of Olivia de Havilland’s interview scenes, she mentions that one would assume that a successful opening of a female-led picture would mean more female led pictures on the horizon, but the studios usually see it as a fluke (this is, unfortunately, often still the case today). So even though Baby Jane brings in big ticket sales, it doesn’t do much to help any of the people who actually made it.

Bette is not one to let this stop her. The film’s success ignites a fire in her to get back in the game in Hollywood. The roles aren’t coming in, but she’s hellbent on keeping the limelight on her long enough for them to start up again. She does the talk show circuit. She hands out Baby Jane baby dolls at a premiere. She books a guest spot on Perry Mason. She does a ridiculous song-and-dance routine on The Andy Williams Show. Anything to keep the momentum going. Bette knows how fleeting fame can be, and her desperation to cling to hers is palpable. Susan Sarandon does great work this week, particularly when Bette meets up with Robert to discuss another script she wants him to direct. Her frankness about the industry—and the men who work in it—is refreshing, and her determination in the face of such staunch adversity is inspiring.

Hollywood occasionally disfavors men too, especially when they’re considered to be past their prime. “More, Or Less” fascinatingly shows how difficult it is for Robert to continue with his directing career after Baby Jane is released. Jack wants him to do more of the same, but he’s desperate to finally direct a prestige picture. In a startling scene, Jack rudely tells him that he just isn’t good enough to helm the kind of projects he wants to, and he should stick to what he knows. Robert, like Bette, is still determined. He signs up to make the wester 4 for Texas, but ends up getting saddled with star Frank Sinatra, who’s a bigger diva than both Bette and Joan combined. In the end, he has to go back to Jack and play by his rules.

Robert has been an interesting character from the start of the show. He’s sympathetic to the plight of women trying to succeed in the boy’s club that is Hollywood, but he’s also not naive about how far they’ll be able to go. A subplot about his assistant Pauline (the sublime Alison Wright) wanting to write and direct her own film cuts deep. Robert initially cheers her on, but it ends up being just to shut her up. When the truth finally comes out, he’s blatantly honest. He’s in too much of his own shit to help her pave the way for her first feature. Due to a mixture of the show’s ingenious dialogue and Alfred Molina’s lived-in performance, it’s hard to get mad at Robert, even when he clearly touches a sore spot for Pauline. He isn’t the maniacal businessman that Jack is. He just knows the way things work in this town, and that way pretty much sucks for everyone.

The person who has the hardest time with the film’s release, however, is Joan Crawford. So wrapped in her insecurities about the future of her career, she isn’t even able to enjoy the brief bit of movie stardom she receives upon the film’s release. Once the reviews come out, she’s affronted at how the critics are praising Bette over her. And, like Bette, she doesn’t have any new roles coming in either. Unlike Bette, though, this does not make her more determined. It makes her an alcoholic shut-in.

It’s been made clear on Feud that Bette is the consummate workhorse, and Joan is the glamorous movie star. So while Bette is easily willing to take TV roles and go on goofy talk shows, Joan would never stoop that low (although, if you followed her late career, she eventually stooped much lower). The flipside of this means that she basically does nothing to help promote the film, instead choosing to stay in and drink copious amounts of vodka.

In a fantastic sequence, Jack comes to her house and berates her for not doing her duty to promote Baby Jane, especially because she has a financial stake in the film’s success. Stanely Tucci plays nasty impeccably, and watching him go toe-to-toe with Jessica Lange is thrilling, despite all of the vile things he says. Joan Crawford might have thought that TV was beneath her, but it’s clear that these two great actors relish in the opportunity. They look like they had a blast filming this scene, especially with Jessica Lange’s final “get out of my house!” demand at the end.

The final scene of “More, Or Less” is smartly set up like one from a horror movie. Joan wakes up in a hungover haze to find all of the phones in her house off the hook. She wanders around her house as the camera ominously teeters behind her. For a moment, it seemed like she was in a Baby Jane-esque dream sequence. The reality is much more terrifying to Joan. It’s Oscar nominations day, and Mamacita disconnected all of the phones because—surprise, surprise—she didn’t get one.

Success in Hollywood is incredibly fleeting, and success for middle-aged women in the early 1960s was virtually nonexistent. Robert, Joan, and Bette all want the same thing, but there just isn’t enough opportunity for them with devious moguls like Jack Warner pulling all the strings. It’s why Joan abruptly tells Pauline that she didn’t even read her script. “You’re a nobody,” she says, and it’s heartbreaking, but it’s true. Joan worked hard to get where she is, and she really only has a few shots left. Luckily, people like Pauline didn’t let the rejection get them down. We’re living in a time where all-female casts are in vogue, and where we’re going to get to see the first big-budget superhero movie that was directed by a woman. Hollywood used to be a town of hard knocks but, thankfully, it’s changing. Still, “More, Or Less” is a stirring reminder of just how far we’ve come. Grade: A-

 

Some Other Notes:

  • The actor who plays Frank Sinatra in this episode is Toby Huss, and his impression is terrific.
  • I love that Mamacita casually stole a page from the library census book.
  • With the filming of Baby Jane finished and the ever-important Oscars episode airing next, I’m hoping that Feud will also have time to cover Bette filming Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte with Olivia de Havilland.

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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