“Everything written for women seems to fall into just three categories: ingenues, mothers or gorgons.”
Thus spake Joan Crawford in “Feud: Bette and Joan,” Ryan Murphy’s juicy FX miniseries that revisits the notorious — and probably overhyped — rivalry between Crawford and Bette Davis, and their joint effort, when they were both in their mid-50s, to make a comeback in the horror classic “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
“Feud,” which stars Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis, promises to be a delicious dive into Hollywood during the interregnum between its Golden Age and the arrival of the generation personified by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. Through Murphy’s sensitive lens, it will also cast into bold relief how little has changed from those eras into this one, when female actresses are still punished for aging, either by the industry tossing them aside once they’ve passed peak pulchritude, or relegating them to roles as mommies or monsters. Of course, in an industry built on images, not to mention the audience’s wish-fulfillment fantasies, men aren’t immune to ageism: Witness Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway at this year’s Oscars, gamely trying to salvage the best picture mix-up while most viewers assumed they were befuddled and maybe even senile. (Throwing them onstage with no immediate support was “a clear act of elder abuse,” as my colleague Hank Stuever, The Washington Post’s TV critic, put it.)
Still, there’s no doubt that women are far more affected by the movie industry’s obsession with sex appeal and physical beauty, resulting in a giant absence in female roles once actresses reach their 50s and 60s. Forget a Day Without a Woman; in Hollywood, it’s a Groundhog Day Without a Woman, at least when it comes to the portrayal of recognizable, fully realized, flawed and compelling human beings of which great female characters are made. And the slide can start disconcertingly early. Consider, if you will, Brie Larson, who co-stars in “Kong: Skull Island” and serves as a cautionary poster girl for aspiring actresses everywhere: One year you’re winning an Oscar for a sensitive, skillfully layered performance in an emotionally demanding drama; the next, you’re widening your eyes and gasping your way through a great big monkey movie.
Meanwhile, Larson’s “Kong” director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, offers just as textbook an example, of what dudes can accomplish — in this case, getting an enormous studio franchise-builder after making one well-received coming-of-age indie (“The Kings of Summer”). Somehow, success for men is defined as increasing the degree of technical difficulty of their projects, while women may get “bigger” movies, but with far less to actually do.
“Feud” makes an oblique point very eloquently, which is how rare it has become to find movies centered around fascinating grown-up female characters: The kinds of movies that made Crawford and Davis into legendary divas — “Mildred Pierce,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Now, Voyager,” “All About Eve” — have been supplanted by comic-book adaptations and superhero spectacles that the studios once made to appeal to teenage boys, and now make to appeal to audiences in Latin America and China who don’t want to bother with too many subtitles.
The films that Crawford and Davis made once went under the slightly condescending sobriquet of “women’s pictures,” suggesting weepy melodramas and mushy romance. In the fullness of time, though, the term has come to mean movies in which adult women are allowed to be smart (or crafty), sensitive (or manipulative), strong (or bullying) and sexy (if only incidentally). What’s more, the women’s pictures of yore now seem exceptionally sophisticated, even prescient, when it comes to understanding audiences, which are at least half female, with the other half’s choices being strongly influenced by wives, mothers, friends and lovers. The purveyors of women’s pictures understood women’s economic power long before the term was codified in focus groups and market research.
Interestingly enough, women’s pictures are still being made — just not at the studios. Over the past few years, a slew of independent films have come out featuring mature women that have become sleeper hits and — not incidentally — impressively profitable, from “Grandma” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” with Lily Tomlin and Blythe Danner, respectively, to “Woman in Gold” and “Eye in the Sky,” both starring Helen Mirren. Shirley MacLaine has found a new indie career in her 80s with such films as Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” and the new release “The Last Word.” Beholding the 60-ish Isabelle Huppert in the French psychological thriller “Elle” has permanently tabled the notion that actresses “of a certain age” can’t be supremely seductive, as well as maddeningly contradictory and complex.
In a way, today’s seasoned actresses are living out what “Feud” presents almost as a proof of concept: “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” after all, wasn’t a studio film. Instead, it came into being through the efforts of director Robert Aldrich and Crawford, who really did approach Davis in her Broadway dressing room during her run in “The Night of the Iguana” to persuade her to play the title role. The gamble paid off, reigniting both actresses’ careers. Feminism — the simple belief in the political, economic and social equality of the sexes — has always been interwoven with women’s independence. What Crawford and Davis found out, and what their successors still discover once the roles for ingenues, mothers and gorgons run out, is that for actresses, equality is just as firmly rooted in independents.