Episode 3: ‘Mommie Dearest’
Sheila O’Malley writes: “The only real legacy is children,” Bette Davis says to Victor Buono, cast as Edwin, Baby Jane’s musical accompanist in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
This week’s episode of “Feud” does not hide its intent. It’s right there in the title: “Mommie Dearest.” Directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton (“Justified,” “American Horror Story”), it’s an episode about parents and children. (Apropos of legacies, Horder-Payton is the granddaughter of actor Victor McLaglen, who won the Oscar for best actor in 1936 for “The Informer,” the same year Bette Davis won her first best actress award, for “Dangerous.”) It’s about Davis and Joan Crawford as mothers, Davis and Crawford as daughters. Tim Minear’s script doesn’t let us forget the parental theme (Aldrich’s daughter makes an appearance; Victor Buono’s mother is discussed) and brings what until now has been a peripheral element — the women as parents — front and center. At times the underlying story structure shows through too clearly, but despite the often overdetermined script, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon continue to bring to their performances layers of complexity and unexpected psychological insights.
“Mommie Dearest,” of course, is also the title of the notorious 1978 memoir written by Christina Crawford, the first of Crawford’s four adopted children. The damage done to Crawford’s reputation as an actress by that book (along with the 1981 film starring Faye Dunaway) — both of which portrayed Crawford as a clean-freak sadist — was catastrophic. “Mommie Dearest” was a worldwide phenomenon, and it inspired Davis’s oldest daughter, B.D. Hyman (née Barbara Davis Sherry, child of Davis’s marriage to William Sherry) to write her own book, portraying her mother as a mean, self-involved alcoholic. Davis was extremely hurt and retaliated by publishing a second memoir. At this point, everybody’s books have been yelling at one another for 30 years.
To set up the theme, the episode starts with B.D. (Kiernan Shipka of “Mad Men”) teaching Crawford’s adopted twins, Cindy and Cathy (the identical twins Brooke Star and Chelsea Summer), to smoke without inhaling. Cindy and Cathy are close in age to B.D. but dressed in infantilizing matching clothes, and they are intimidated by the more glamorous and worldly B.D. Crawford busts up the little gathering and tattles to Davis: “Your girl was corrupting my twins.” As a joke, Davis suggests to director Bob Aldrich that B.D. be cast as the neighbor girl in “Baby Jane” (to replace the sexy blonde fired by Aldrich the week before). Aldrich horrifies Davis by agreeing. Davis is then put in the position of having to run lines with her untalented daughter (Shipka’s “bad acting” is very funny) while trying not to tell her how terrible she is.
[Visit Sheila O’Malley’s blog here]
At the same time, Crawford is experiencing increasing panic about the prospect of an empty nest. To drive home the parental theme further, Davis, who is at first annoyed by the casting of the pudgy and obviously gay Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess) as her leading man (“I’m sure his Falstaff is the toast of Tijuana,” she snaps at Aldrich), takes a parental interest in him, in direct contrast to her dismissive attitude toward B.D.
The first mention of the elephant in the room, besides the title, is during a Crawford family dinner outing. … (read more)