Feud: Bette and Joan, Ryan Murphy's newest anthology series about the storied fight between aging screen legends Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), begins with a scene at the 1961 Golden Globe Awards. Marilyn Monroe wins Best Actress in a musical or comedy for her turn in Some Like It Ho t. As the blonde starlet sashays to the stage to cheers and applause, the camera hones in on a bejeweled Joan Crawford, positively seething, martini and cigarette in hand. "I've got great tits too, but I don't throw them in everyone's face," Crawford groans to her date.
Crawford's catty dig barely conceals the actress' true emotion: a deep pain, stoked by Monroe's curvaceous reminder to Crawford, then 55, of the loss of her youth — and, therefore, her viability in Hollywood, her passion, her livelihood. As the new "it" girl, Monroe was scoring all the roles that used to be Crawford's. That cruel reality damaged and embittered Crawford, and pitted her against rival star Bette Davis in their epic battle that would play out onscreen in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
The day after the ceremony, when gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) pays Crawford a visit at her home, she politely threatens to report on Crawford's drunken antics at the Globes unless she gives her a juicy quote on Monroe. Crawford obliges her with a slut-shaming zinger. "I think that Marilyn Monroe and the vulgarity of her clothing and pictures is ruining this great industry that I love."
55 years after that fictionalized but telling, true-to-life scene, the woman who would play Crawford's nemesis on Feud, Susan Sarandon, attended the 2016 SAG Awards — where she was nominated for her role as, ironically enough, Marilyn Monroe's mother in the miniseries The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe.
Sarandon, then 69, looked smoking hot in a sharp white suit with a deep-V neckline and black bra. Despite this being the enlightened 21st century where women dress and behave how they want, and control their careers, Sarandon was immediately bashed on Twitter for her cleavage-baring look. In addition to the nasty wave of slut-shaming and age-shaming insults, frequent troller Piers Morgan led his own breast-bashing brigade, calling Sarandon's outfit "very tacky" and "horribly inappropriate." He accused her of "deliberately flaunting your breasts on TV for publicity, during a tribute to dead stars." (Sarandon introduced the In Memoriam segment that year.)
It's a kind of incredibly cruel, full-circle irony that links these actresses across decades in age and time. Feud portrays a young Monroe in the early '60s who was branded a harlot for showing her breasts by Jessica Lange's Joan Crawford, whose dignity was stripped from her by an industry that punished women for looking a day over 35. And just last year, the actress playing the star pitted against Crawford by the the sexism and ageism of the industry, was shamed for looking too sexy for her age. It’s a funny confluence of circumstances, but the crux of the matter is simple enough: misogyny rears its ugly head in Hollywood the same way now as it does then. In many ways ageism and sexism still rule the town.
Of course, this single slut-shaming comparison is just a microcosm of the larger theme of the show: As much as things have changed, have they really? Feud, whilst dazzling us with glamour and scandal, makes us grapple with that question, one with a painful and bittersweet answer. The most fascinating and disturbing moments in the series are the ones that don’t feel like glimpses into yesteryear but mirrors of the present.
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