LIZ SMITH: The Last of “Feud”
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara
The Last of “Feud” … Mary, Queen of Scots on the Big Screen Again … Sheila Nevins Honored by Literacy Partners.
“THE PEOPLE, the public, they don’t care about the rest. They remember the good things, the work.”
It’s half-amusing and half-sad that producer Ryan Murphy put these words in the mouth of the great and sexy Stanley Tucci, aka Jack Warner in the season finale of Ryan’s FX series “Feud: Bette and Joan” on Sunday night.
We’ve talked here a lot about “Feud” over the past couple of months. And we’ve wanted to believe that producer Ryan was sincere in his insistence that the show was not to be a grisly camp-fest, but a real look at the issues of women aging out in Hollywood, misogyny, etc. Yes and no.
Ryan, of “American Horror Story” fame, couldn’t resist the occasional camp and grotesquerie of Bette and Joan in their later years. However, thanks to the brilliant performances of Susan Sarandon as Bette and Jessica Lange as Crawford, the more serious, and touching aspects of these two wildly complex women — great stars, great actors, great phonies — came through like laser beams. (I admit, aspects of the final episode were fairly harrowing, as to women living alone.)
Crawford was pretentious, which made her phoniness more obvious. Davis, looser, funnier, bellowed her “honestly” but was equally fake, prone to fantasy — “Crawford lobbied against me and lost me the ‘Baby Jane’ Oscar” — and addicted to conflict. Bette’s epitaph reads “She did it the hard way.” But all too often, she didn’t have to, she preferred it.
Lange and Sarandon deserve Emmy nominations. Perhaps both will win. I’d prefer to see Lange take the prize, because she did fight harder for respect; her childhood was an unrelenting misery, her glamour was an albatross and her insecurity overwhelming. Maybe on that big sound set in sky she’d feel vindicated. We shall see.
NOW THAT I’ve rambled on, I’ve asked my partner, Liz Smith, for some her very own recollections of Joan and Bette. (Alas, I, Denis, never clapped eyes on either icon.) Here’s Liz:
“I knew both of them after their tempestuous younger days, shall we say. Crawford had me to her home in Los Angeles when her twins, were little. I met all four children and observed them on a Christmas day. They all seemed petrified to speak. Or to open a gift without permission from Joan. She seemed to bend over backward to make a good impression, yet Joan was one of the most uncomfortable woman in her own house, I’d ever met. But she was undeniably glamorous!”
“I met Miss Davis at NBC during the ‘Live at Five’ days. She ordered everyone around, insisted on certain lighting and make-up. She was a pain in the ass, but — ta da! — she turned out to be right on all counts. Also, she looked great, and I looked like a mile of bad road. But who cared? The actress Geraldine Fitzgerald also told me a lot of Bette stories from their days at Warner Bros., and how Bette inspired her to fight for her rights.
“The agent Michael Black was also a font of amusing Bette anecdotes. She fell out with me at an awards dinner. I was seated near her. I made an innocuous remark, asking if she was ever “nervous” during such events — she had just made a presentation. Bette gave me a glare that Medusa would have envied and barked “Never!” She would not look or speak to me again, and actually got up and left the table, leaving me obviously, embarrassingly alone. (I was sure people were wondering, ‘what did that awful gossip columnist say to poor Bette Davis?’)
“They were incredible in their individual ways, but I felt both were so, so insecure! Later, after cancer and strokes had weakened her, Bette was still up for a fight. She was so awful to Lillian Gish during the making of “The Whales of August” that Gish, a great star from the silent era, said the experience almost killed her!”
OH, and here is an exquisite P.S. Ryan Murphy wrote to Olivia de Havilland, asking what she’d thought of his show? (In the series, Catherine Zeta-Jones portrayed her.)
The great star, 100 years old and living in Paris, responded: “Having not seen the show, I cannot make a valid comment about it. However, in principle, I am opposed to any representation of personages who are no longer alive to judge the accuracy of any incident depicted as involving themselves.”
Olivia concluded: “As to the 1963 Oscar ceremony, which took place over half a century ago, I regret to say that I have no memory of it whatsoever and therefore cannot vouch for its accuracy.”
Ryan expressed himself as charmed by her response and referred to her as ‘always a lady.” You said a mouthful, Ryan.
INTERESTING NEWS that the eternally roiling subject of the rivalry between Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, will again be made into a feature film. This one will star Margot Robbie as the emotional, heart-over-head Mary, and Saoirse Ronan, as the equally emotional but more adeptly calculating Queen Elizabeth. (The Virgin Queen was rather like Jenny, the heroine of “Lady In The Dark” — she could never make up her mind!)
Elizabeth, who kept Mary imprisoned for decades in England, was fearful of a face-to-face meeting with her cousin, afraid she, too, might fall under the spell of the Scottish legend. Mary disingenuously insisted she was only interested “friendly relations” with her “dear” relative. But her viable claim to the English throne threw a wrench into cozy dinners.)
In 1936 Katharine Hepburn played Mary in a film that did nothing for Hepburn’s (at the time) fast-fading career. Later, in 1971, Glenda Jackson took on Elizabeth, and Vanessa Redgrave was a ravishing headstrong Mary. I always think of Mary, physically, as Vanessa, just as I always associate Genevieve Bujold with Anne Boleyn, in 1969’s “Anne of The Thousand Days” opposite Richard Burton. (The current TV series “Reign” purports to tell the tale of Mary and Elizabeth, but it’s really a teen-bait mélange of fanciful truths and outright fantasies. It’s amusing, but I hope no young people take the show seriously!)
Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I and Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Queen of Scots.
It will be fascinating to see if this new film follows the fictional, if highly dramatic fantasy that Mary and Elizabeth actually met. They never did, but it always makes for a juicy scene. Josie Rourke will direct. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of the new film — a woman director, a woman’s view of two of the most famous, ambitious, successful and perversely thwarted females in history. I can’t wait.
Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn in 1969’s “Anne of The Thousand Days.”
IT IS pleasing to see that Literacy Partners’ “so-called” Lizzie Award (I mentioned this last week) will go this year to the one and only HBO gem, documentary-maker Sheila Nevins on May 24th, a Wednesday at Cipriani 42nd Street.
This award, created for Literacy Partners to support the work of the late Arnold Scaasi, Parker Ladd and yours truly, continues a fight to teach millions of adult New Yorkers how to read and write.
I will be there and I hope they’ll let me hand my own award to the incredible documentary-maker Sheila. This is Sheila’s year. And she has her life memoir out (“You Don’t Look Your Age … and other fairy tales.”)
This book is making waves everywhere. And there’s an audio version read by Sheila’s many admirers — a host of them including Meryl Streep just to drop a name.
In addition to Sheila, you’ll see honored the CEO of SESAC John Josephson … USA TODAY’s Editor-in-Chief Joanne Lipman … and Fareed Zakaria of CNN.
A special thank you to our dear friend, writer Ellen “Pucky” Violett for her generosity.
If you’d like to join us, get in touch with my good friends at Buckley Hall Events at 914-579-1000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you in black tie at Cipriani.
IN A recent P.S. to a story about Liz and Suzanne Goodson taking a tour of downtown Manhattan, there was a typo, referring to our wonderful driver Jason Silva, as “Silvia.” But he is definitely a Mr.!