If you are familiar with the Ryan Murphy brand, there is nothing new here. On top of that, there isn’t that usual excitement which comes from his new projects. It’s simply just another anthology series cashing in on someone else’s story. Like a Lifetime production with better writing and notable actors.
It has been 3 years since Joan Crawford [note]Jessica Lange[/note] has made a motion picture and with no husband or money rolling in, times are getting tough. So, she tries to go back to work. Problem is, if it isn’t because of her age it is her attitude. You don’t get to be one of the greats, especially as an actress, without coming off as a bitch and oh a lot of people would use that word to describe Joan. As for Bette[note]Susan Sarandon[/note], she isn’t too better off. Yeah, she is working on Broadway but she isn’t the star. She may get an applause when she comes on stage but the flowers at the end go to some other actress.
Together, these women are looking for a piece of that old fame. They don’t want their legacy up on a pedestal they can’t reach, polish, and add some flare to. But, luckily for Bette, Joan is used to clawing and fighting for what she wants. So she digs, with the help of her assistant, for some kind of property better than the scripts she gets sent. Leading to What Happened To Baby Jane. A motion picture you’ll watch the creation of as well as how two women, who needed that movie to be a hit, do their best to keep their contempt for one another, envy and jealous of one another, and even their admiration of one another, at bay.
Lange Softens Up The Image of Joan Crawford
Thanks to the power and memory of Mommie Dearest, Joan Crawford seems like the meme which never went viral. That whole “Wire Hanger!” thing has made her seem villainous. Plus, being that Joan was of old Hollywood, as much as there were paparazzi and gossip magazines, she didn’t have the social media of modern time to allow for her side of the story, much less some attempts at normalcy. She does have two books, autobiographies, but I won’t pretend to have read them or to honestly have an interest in doing so.
So with Lange portraying her, like any biopic or something similar, she is your accessible depiction of this character. She is the one who may help demystify this figure from times of yore and she does so as masterfully as she does any Ryan Murphy character. For there is a certain quality Lange has. One which she can just as much play the woman you love to hate as she can play someone you can see is desperate for approval. In many ways, her depiction of Joan Crawford may remind you of her final season on American Horror Story. For Joan and Elsa Mars share a lot of traits.
The main traits being, they were ruthless in getting what they want, but you can see some attempt at playing nice. Hell, there was even some attempt, when it came to their greatest competitor, to play nice so that her character still got to bask in applause and the light for but a moment. But with Joan, Lange takes it deeper. There is that old Hollywood, I came from nothing. Dirt poor, family only had dirt and a name kind of poor. Which makes it so you can understand Joan’s desperation as the possibility of losing it all comes upon her. You can see that young child who wants admiration, approval, and acknowledgement come out. Especially when it comes from her fellow actresses. Which with her playing off Sarandon, who has come to have a knack for playing critical and biting characters, it makes it so Lange is really getting to show the many faces of Joan Crawford.
Sarandon Goes Beyond Her Sarcastic Persona And Presents Someone Hateful
Be it The Meddler or About Ray, and even the films she did before that, Sarandon has sort of settled into the comfort of playing characters who are very critical of her family members or whoever she is playing against. Yet, in those films, there was something there to redeem her. With her role as Betty Davis, as of episode one, there isn’t that rebound moment. In many ways, the first episode favors Joan and her point of view and makes Bette into almost that bully that no one saw as wicked but you. Something Sarandon plays up to the point that you forget these are real people. For you really just want to see Bette get her comeuppance.
It Just Seems Exploitative and Cheesy
You know how Lifetime often makes biopics which have no input or approval from the family? Where it seems the story is based strictly on gossip headlines and public opinion? Something about this show has that Lifetime quality to it. As if, as much as Sarandon and Lange are working their asses off, they can’t escape that Ryan Murphy camp expectation. So no matter how hard they perform, at times you feel like they are exploiting the ignorance of the audience and making Crawford or Davis into something they are not. Just for the sake of playing up the show’s theme.
Overall: Mixed (Stick Around)
I cannot in good faith every mark a Ryan Murphy production as Positive (Watch It). His shows universally start off strong, but then it is like a college paper or project. That initial idea that sparked your interest starts to become difficult to maintain the energy of. So about halfway your best ideas are presented. Then, from there, you are just trying to wrap up things the best you can and sometimes rushing it just so you can say it is done. For nearly all of Murphy’s productions, that is how a season plays out, especially with these anthologies of his. So, with the first few episodes being the best, and this one heavily reliant on Sarandon and Lange, for the rest of the show seems rather blah, I fear the worse. For at best, it will become campy. Though, at worse, it may become a reminder to Lange as to why she should have thanked Murphy for helping to renew her career, with American Horror Story, and why she needed to move on to other visionaries.