Biopics

Feud: Bette and Joan (2017)

Feud: Bette and Joan

For months, the classic film community has been abuzz about FX’s mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan. From the day it was announced to the season finale, it seems like just about every classic film fan has had something to say about it. One thing that can be safely be said for sure is that among classic film fans, there isn’t one overwhelming opinion of the series. Some have loved it, others have loathed it, and I fall somewhere in the middle.

After having spent several years of watching other Ryan Murphy-produced projects like American Horror Story and American Crime Story, one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t gauge the quality of a series (or a season, given that his shows often change themes season-to-season) based on any one single episode, which is why I waited until I’d seen the entire series before giving a review of it. Unlike some other projects Ryan Murphy has done, which started out strongly and turned into a trainwreck by the end, Feud is at least pretty consistent in overall quality. There weren’t any episodes that truly wowed me, but there weren’t any episodes that completely bored me, either. While it had its flaws, Feud is a far cry from the disaster that was Lifetime’s Liz and Dick.

Although Feud was mostly promoted as being about the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, it wasn’t the sole focus of the show. It goes beyond the completion of Baby Jane and the 1963 Academy Awards and goes into the production of Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte and what both Davis and Crawford’s careers were like after working together, going all the way through to Joan Crawford working on Trog and her final days in her New York apartment.

You can’t talk about Feud without commenting on Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon’s respective performances as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard about their performances is that neither of them tried to sound very much like their real-life counterparts. Personally, this didn’t bother me too much. I can see that they were clearly trying to avoid having their performances being called drag queen-ish or being compared to Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. I actually liked both of their performances. It took me a little while to warm up to Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, though. For the first few episodes, I felt like she was phoning it in, but I started to like her more as the series went on. Jessica Lange did a great job of capturing the more human and vulnerable side of Joan, but certainly didn’t shy away from the competitive side, either.

Feud‘s supporting cast was pretty terrific. I loved Dominic Burgess as Victor Buono, Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper, and Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner. Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita, Joan’s housekeeper, was also a real scene stealer.

I’m not going to get into just how historically accurate or inaccurate Feud is. I’m not particularly knowledgeable about this era of either Davis or Crawford’s careers and there’s been so much gossip and speculation around the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane that I’ve never been 100% clear on what’s real and what’s fiction. However, I will say that Feud seemed pretty accurate to the things that I do know to be true. There isn’t much in here that I didn’t already know or haven’t at least heard before. As with any biopic or film based on true events, there will always be some level of dramatization involved. Feud is no exception and those who have worked on the show have gone on the record to confirm this.

Throughout the run of the series, much was said in the media about how much attention to detail went into recreating things like the 1963 Academy Awards ceremony, right down to the color of the nail polish worn by Joan Crawford that night, and Joan Crawford’s home in Brentwood. The level of attention that went into creating these settings certainly didn’t go to waste; the sets were truly fantastic and were one of the best things about the series.

While so much research went into recreating locations, shockingly little attention was paid to some of the smaller details. For example, in the second episode of the series, B.D. gets into an argument with Bette and B.D. yells about how she grew up listening to Bette say things like, “When’s that old hag Norma Shearer going to give it up? When’s Claudette Colbert going to put herself out to pasture?” This probably wouldn’t stick out to someone who has no knowledge of Hollywood history, but as a fan of Norma Shearer, I thought this was a terrible line. It’s extremely unlikely B.D. would have ever heard Bette say anything like that about Norma Shearer. B.D. Hyman was born in 1947, 5 years after Norma Shearer made her final film. So by the time B.D. would have been old enough to remember her mother saying anything, it certainly wouldn’t have been tirades about how Norma Shearer needed to hang it up already. And although Claudette Colbert did stick around longer than many other contemporaries of Crawford and Davis, she was slowing down by the early 50s.

The biggest thing I really didn’t like about Feud is how they used interviews with Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell to frame the main action of the series. First of all, I didn’t particularly care for the casting of Catherine Zeta Jones as Olivia de Havilland, but at least it made sense for Olivia to be there since she was the one who ultimately stepped in to finish Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. There really wasn’t a reason to have Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell in this at all since these were supposedly interviews for a documentary about Joan Crawford and Blondell and Crawford never made a movie together; Crawford didn’t even work at Warner Brothers until after Blondell had left.

I know a lot of Joan Crawford fans were frustrated by Feud because it only focuses on her career when it was in decline and they feel that makes her look kind of pathetic. This probably wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that so much of what a lot of people know about Joan comes from the movie Mommie Dearest. While I liked that Feud showed Joan’s more human and vulnerable side, which is something you don’t really get in Mommie Dearest, I do agree that it would be nice to see a film or mini-series which also covered the early days of her career and how she worked her way into becoming one of the greatest movie stars of all time.

If you go into Feud without any knowledge of Joan Crawford’s career, or Bette Davis’s career for that matter, it’s probably going to be a bit like watching Sunset Boulevard — you’re told Norma Desmond was once a major movie star and there are details to back that fact up, but you pretty much just take the movie’s word for it that she once was a huge star. Not actually seeing that history isn’t necessarily a detriment to the movie. However I will say that I thought the finale was the most powerful episode of the series because I went into it knowing exactly how big of a fall it was for Joan. And I can say the same about Bette Davis. You can certainly enjoy Feud even if you don’t go into it with any knowledge of either of their careers, but just remember, you’re only seeing one era of their lives and careers.

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (2015)

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe

Not long before her death in 1962, a new psychiatrist arrives at the home of Marilyn Monroe (Kelli Garner). Even though she’s no stranger to psychotherapy, the thought of meeting a new therapist is enough to make her an insecure mess. She keeps her therapist waiting for over an hour, but when she finally does arrive, she’s ready to tell him all about her troubled childhood, her relationship with her mentally unstable mother Gladys (Susan Sarandon), her career, and her relationships with her various husbands and her aunt who cared for her.

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is one of those times where I have to admit that I completely misjudged the entire project from the get-go. Although I am a big Marilyn fan, the idea of yet another Marilyn biopic was enough to make me roll my eyes a little. Not only was it yet another Marilyn biopic, it was being produced by Lifetime and their Liz & Dick fiasco from 2012 is still the punchline to many jokes in the classic film community. Plus I really didn’t know what to make of Kelli Garner being cast as Marilyn since I’d only seen her on the show Pan-Am, and that was a few years ago, so I just didn’t remember her well enough to have a strong opinion either way. Basically, the only thing that made me think this might have some modicum of potential was Susan Sarandon being cast as Gladys Mortenson, Marilyn’s mother.

Although Pan-Am may not have been enough of me to have a strong opinion of Kelli Garner, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe changed that. I was very impressed by her performance as Marilyn; she did a fantastic job of getting the voice, the mannerisms, and the body language down. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that this was my personal favorite portrayal of Marilyn in a film or mini-series. (Even though I liked Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, I hesitate to call that a Marilyn Monroe biopic because it’s not specifically about Marilyn, it’s the story of a kid who happened to encounter Marilyn.) I’ve read some reviews by people who have called Garner’s voice as Marilyn a caricature. But Michelle Williams also got a good amount of criticism for her take on Marilyn’s voice, which was really toned down from the voice we all know from Marilyn’s films. So it seems like actresses who play Marilyn just can’t win either way with getting Marilyn’s voice right. They try to make it more natural when portraying Marilyn in her day-to-day life and get criticized, but if they try to do the more signature Marilyn voice, they get criticized for that, too.

On the whole, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe had surprisingly high production values. It didn’t look cheap and low-rent. The costumes, hair, and make-up all looked great and showed a great deal of attention to detail. For example, I loved that at one point, Marilyn was seen wearing a pair of shoes very similar to these, because I remembered seeing several pictures of her wearing shoes just like them.

One thing I really liked about it is that it ultimately portrayed Marilyn to be a fighter. She had a hard childhood and with her family history of mental illness, there were somethings she simply couldn’t escape. But it never showed her to be resigned to that fact. We see her fighting for her sanity, for her career, for her respectability, and for her mother’s love. She fought for a lot and that’s something I don’t think she gets nearly enough credit for.

In short, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe was everything Liz & Dick wasn’t — well acted with a thoughtful script, high production values, and good costumes, hair, and make-up. Lifetime proved that yes, they are capable of producing quality movies and mini-series.  Even though I make a lot of jokes about bad Lifetime movies, but I can’t knock this one too much.

The writing isn’t perfect; it has its fair share of historical inaccuracies, but I’ve come to accept that virtually any biopic will have those. And there were a few moments where it tried too hard to shoehorn in a “Marilyn-ism” like, “I just want to be wonderful.” For some reason, that kind of annoyed me. And the title seems to be very out of place since there’s nothing about it that was a secret; it was all things the general public has known about Marilyn for decades.

It might not be perfect, but as far as Marilyn Monroe biopics go, I prefer it to the others.

The Dolly Sisters (1945)

The Dolly Sisters 1945

As little girls, twin sisters Jenny (Betty Grable) and Rosie Dolly(June Haver) immigrate to America with their uncle Latsie (S.Z. Sakall). They arrive in New York and are a  hit dancing for diners in a restaurant. Years later, they’re still dancing in that restaurant, but decide to go into vaudeville to help Latsie with a debt he owes. On the train to their first job, they meet Harry Fox (John Payne), who leads them into believing he’s a big star and is left in an awkward position when he arrives at the theater and finds himself being billed beneath a seal and the Dolly Sisters. It isn’t long before Harry and Jenny fall in love.

Harry and the Dolly Sisters go their separate ways, but Jenny and Harry promise to wait for each other. When they cross paths with Harry again, he helps them get the attention of Oscar Hammerstein, who launches their career. While the Dolly Sisters’ career is on fire, Harry’s isn’t doing as well and struggles with the fact that Jenny is so much more successful than him. They’re on the verge of ending their relationship when one of his songs catches the attention of a big publisher and Jenny decides to retire to marry Harry.

Jenny’s retirement is short lived, as just before Harry’s first show is set to open, he enlists in the Army and is sent overseas. Jenny and Rosie take the stage again and are a smash hit in Paris and London. Jenny still loves Harry, but when he sees a picture in a magazine of her talking to Tony, the Duke of Breck (Reginald Gardiner), he becomes extremely jealous and demands she come back to America with him. Jenny is forced to choose between Harry and Rosie, as she and Rosie already have a contract to perform in Paris again. She ultimately chooses Rosie and her career, but her divorce from Harry absolutely devastates her.

A depressed Jenny turns to gambling and Tony to ease her pain, while Rosie falls in love with Irving Netcher (Frank Latimore). Tony wants to marry Jenny, but she refuses to leave her sister until she overhears Rosie telling Irving she won’t marry him and leave Jenny all alone. Reluctantly, she agrees to marry Tony, but as they’re on their way to get married, they get into a car accident, disfiguring Jenny. After some plastic surgery, Jenny and Rosie hit the stage together one more time as part of an all-star benefit show, where she’s reunited with Harry.

The Dolly Sisters were a real sister act who got their start in vaudeville and rose to starring in shows produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. Like most biopics, The Dolly Sisters is pretty highly fictionalized. First of all, Jenny and Dolly are played by Betty Grable and June Haver, two blondes. The real Dolly Sisters were not blonde. The movie shows them as being devoted to being a sister act, but in reality, the Dolly Sisters did attempt to have careers separate from each other. The real Rosie Dolly also did not wait until her sister was on the verge of her second marriage to get married herself; she and Jenny each married their first husbands fairly close in time to each other. The Dolly Sisters also suggest that Jenny was the only one notorious for her gambling, but in reality, they both were.

Despite The Dolly Sisters creative liberties with reality, it’s still a pretty enjoyable movie. Betty Grable and June Haver are extremely believable as sisters. The only movies where I’ve seen more convincing looking twins are in cases when an actor is doing a dual role. The Dolly Sisters is full of extravagant musical numbers, which I have a such a weakness for (except for the musical number involving blackface.) The story is full of melodrama and soapiness, but it’s entertaining and when I watch Betty Grable movies, that’s exactly what I’m looking for — pure entertainment.

Night and Day (1946)

Night and Day 1946

Before becoming one of the most celebrated songwriters of all time, Cole Porter (Cary Grant) was a law student at Yale. However, Cole simply has no interest in becoming a lawyer; he’d much rather be in the theater department writing songs. Cole is only studying law because his grandfather expects him to and would never approve of him becoming a songwriter. When Cole and his law professor Monty (Monty Woolley) spend Christmas at his grandfather’s estate, Cole meets Linda Lee (Alexis Smith), his cousin’s beautiful roommate.  During the holiday, after receiving a little support from his mother, Cole announces he’s leaving law school to try and make it as a songwriter.

Cole gets to work staging his first show, called “See America First,” with some help from Monty, who has given up teaching to go into the theater. The show is a flop and opening night just happens to be the night the Lusitania sinks. Cole heads over to France to join the French Army and is injured while on duty. As luck would have it, Cole is reunited with Linda when she is his nurse. To boost his morale, she arranges for the hospital to get a piano, inspiring him to write his signature song “Night and Day.” Cole loves Linda, but after he has recovered, he can’t resist the lure of the theater.

Back in America, gets back to work with a newfound vigor and takes the theater world by storm. On a roll of hit shows, Cole goes to England where he meets up with Linda once again. Through it all, Cole had never forgotten her and they are soon married. But their marriage is strained by Cole’s unrelenting drive to work. When his work stands in the way of their vacation one too many times, Linda leaves Cole to go to Europe. But after a number of personal setbacks, Cole keeps on going and is reunited with Linda once again when he returns to Yale for a special tribute.

I love Cary Grant, but as much as I love watching pretty much anything he made, he is woefully out of place in Night and Day. Given that Grant was 42 at the time Night and Day was released, he is laughably unbelievable as college-aged Cole Porter. Granted, we’re told that Cole was hardly a star pupil at Yale Law School, but really now. I also love that Monty Woolley is in this movie for literally no other reason than to be Monty Woolley. It’s true that Monty and Cole did meet at Yale and remained close for years, but he wasn’t his law professor. Of course, the whole movie is very highly fictionalized. By now, I think most people expect Hollywood biopics to take some creative liberties, but still, this is a bit much. Not surprising is the fact that the movie completely whitewashes the fact that Cole Porter was gay. Night and Day‘s only major redeeming factor is that it naturally features many Cole Porter songs, which are always a pleasure to listen to.