Monday, April 24, 2017

FEUD and a Female Impersonator

The TV critic on FRESH AIR, the weekday National Public Radio show, predicted Emmy nominations for Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon in FEUD.  That was the FX series about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  FEUD was a Ryan Murphy creation.  I agree with FRESH AIR.  Lange and Sarandon deserve Emmy nominations.  Heaven bless Jessica Lange.  Her performance as Crawford was so powerful and so human that folks may now think of the late Hollywood star in a kind way that overlooks Faye Dunaway's kabuki-like monster in MOMMIE DEAREST.  Lange was great and touching, especially in last night's finale.
 I grew up in Los Angeles.  When I was a kid, it was a "factory" town with two big factories -- Lockheed and Hollywood, the dream factory.  I grew up reading Hollywood reports and stories and seeing film-related news and shows on TV.  I started my professional broadcast career right out of college when Bette Davis was still working and when Jessica Lange made her screen debut.  I'm lucky.  I became an entertainment reporter.  I interviewed both women.  I'm a veteran in the radio and TV industry.

When I was watching Ryan Murphy's FEUD, I felt that young viewers would take what he'd written as totally factual.  I was thinking "Well, that bit of business is more from the feud Bette had with Miriam Hopkins or Susan Hayward.  Not a feud with Joan" or "Would studio head Jack Warner really have said 'I want you out there sucking c**k' to Joan in her AARP years?"  In FEUD, Jack L. Warner severely orders Crawford to get out and promote 1962's WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?  It did become a box office hit, one that brought 2-Oscar winner Bette Davis the last of her Best Actress Oscar nominations.  Joan wasn't nominated.
SPOILER ALERT:  I will refer to last night's finale.  The late Charles Pierce was a hugely popular female impersonator who was famous for his hysterically funny Bette Davis imitation.  I saw Pierce onstage once and he killed.  If you saw last night's finale, remember the comment Bette Davis gave to the Associated Press reporter who asked for a comment on the death of Joan Crawford?  I doubt seriously Bette Davis said that.  If I recall correctly, Charles Pierce said that onstage dressed as Bette in ALL ABOUT EVE and got a tremendous laugh in his bit about dealing with Joan Crawford.  If Bette Davis had really said that to an AP reporter, her quote would have made big entertainment news.  I think Ryan Murphy had Susan Sarandon quoting female impersonator Charles Pierce:  "I was taught to say only good things about the dead. Joan Crawford is dead. (Puff cigarette) Good."

Also, in the montage showing Bette's career in a decline and doing stuff like The Dean Martin Roasts?  Well, she did do that show, but Bette was still booking work -- and she did some excellent TV movie acting that brought her Emmy nominations.  She did a 1979 mother/daughter drama with Gena Rowlands, a 1980 race drama called WHITE MAMA about an poor older white woman living in a low income black neighborhood.  One young black man keeps her from being evicted.  Davis was terrific in the creepy TV mini-series THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME based on a Thomas Tryon occult thriller.  Tryon also wrote THE OTHER.  Davis played an aging flight instructor in 1980's SKYWARD directed by Ron Howard.  I felt she was really strong in 1983's RIGHT OF WAY.  She and James Stewart played an elderly married couple determined to retain their independence and have control over their own lives and, perhaps even, their own deaths.  At the time period in which Ryan Murphy showed Bette Davis as a guest getting ribbed on a Dean Martin Roast, Bette Davis was honored in a highly-promoted CBS prime time special.  It was the AFI Achievement Award show honoring ...Bette Davis.  Back then, the annual AFI Salutes on CBS were big deals and must-see TV.  They were highly promoted the way the Kennedy Center Honors and the Grammys telecasts are today.  This 1977 Bette Davis AFI tribute was an all-star, prestigious gala and a top network special.  If you're a TCM viewer, you learned that Olivia de Havilland was at the A-table to honor Bette and her date was the late, great Robert Osborne before his TCM host years.

Did you know that Bette Davis had hoped to be in a hit Broadway musical?  She had done the film version of THE CORN IS GREEN in the 1940s at Warner Brothers.  She was repeating the teacher role in 1974's MISS MOFFAT.  Morgan was a black youth in the musical version. The late Nell Carter was also in the cast.  Film historian/author and totally cool dude Ed Sikov has the info on this theatrical misfire.  MISS MOFFAT closed after two weeks of tryouts in Philadelphia.
Katharine Hepburn had success with her Broadway musical, COCO (based on life of designer Coco Chanel), and Lauren Bacall reinvented and recharged her career starring in the Broadway musical APPLAUSE, a musical version of ALL ABOUT EVE with Bacall as Margo.  Hepburn and Bacall got Tony nominations for their musical performances on Broadway.

When I met Bette Davis, she was in Milwaukee.  That's where I started my radio/TV career and she'd come to town on a promotional tour for her 1978 film, DEATH ON THE NILE.  She loved making the movie. She hated being on location.  Joan Crawford did not work on TV as frequently as Davis did but she did provide a few laughs with Lucille Ball as a 1968 guest on THE LUCY SHOW and, a year before 1970's TROG, she starred in one of the best and most memorable episodes of NBC's Rod Serling anthology series, NIGHT GALLERY.  She played the richest woman in the country -- a blind and mean woman -- in a 1969 episode called "Eyes."  The ruthless woman pays a man for his eyes.  The episode was directed by a newcomer in his early 20s named --- Steven Spielberg.

Also, from what I've read in biographies, there were friends/co-workers like Myrna Loy who did keep in touch with Joan during her later years in New York City. Last night's finale implied the Loy did not keep in touch.
About that FEUD moment when a hungover Joan wanted to be awakened in the pre-dawn hours to hear the announcement of the Oscar nominations.  The Oscar nominations didn't come out early back then like they do now.  Oscar nominations were announced in the late morning or early afternoon.

I interviewed Jessica Lange before she got the first of her six Oscar nominations.  She now owns one Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (TOOTSIE) and one for Best Actress (BLUE SKY).
She's also a Tony and an Emmy winner.  When she made her big screen debut in the flop 1976 remake of KING KONG, male critics dismissed her as another gorgeous model who had delusions of becoming an actress.  When she she was nominated for 1982's TOOTSIE, she made Oscar history.  She was also in the Best Actress category for FRANCES released the same year. I often wonder if any of those male critics apologized for dismissing her as untalented.  Lange broke my heart in last night's finale. Wow, she was good.  They were all good.

The lead actresses and supporting cast members FEUD elevated the material and gave truth to the real-life characters -- more so than Ryan Murphy did with some of his business in the scripts. 

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