Cigarette Girl, by Hy Abady

“Feud,” the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford saga on FX, is over. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon play Joan and Bette during the filming of the classic “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and beyond. It takes place mostly in the early and mid-1960s and is rather eye-opening concerning inside Hollywood and the infighting.

After some lackluster moments, and too much detail that I had to stay up too late for (I don’t DVR), it drifts to the late ’70s with interviews with women, played by the likes of Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who knew and worked with the two actresses. (Also, too many commercials.)

Of course, it has to be somewhat fictionalized, but according to all the press on the program it is mostly true. And very dramatic. And very Hollywood diva.

Susan Sarandon as Davis isn’t terribly convincing. Yet she replicates her bug-eyed look, the cigarettes, the slacks, her abrupt way of ending a sentence, her unassuming New England home, and . . . did I mention the cigarettes? And then there’s the variety of the hairstyles from the times — pageboys and bangs and even the baby-doll platinum curly wigs for the making of the “Baby Jane” picture.

Jessica Lange seems better as Joan, in a hairdo that’s mostly upswept and often looks like clubs you see on playing cards. A sort of puffed-up three-leaf clover in jet black surrounding her head. She’s a great actress, and it appears a favorite, in her later years, of Ryan Murphy, the creator, writer, and director of “Feud.” He booked her for his “American Horror Story” series several years ago. (I’ve never seen any of it.)

Oddly, it was Davis as Baby Jane and not Joan who got the Oscar nomination for the film. I say oddly because, for my money, this time around, it will be “Joan” and not “Bette” who will receive the Emmy nod. And, quite possibly, another Emmy win for Jessica.

This “Feud” takes me to the real event: The 1962 movie, black-and-white, wherein the Davis character, Baby Jane Hudson, is rapidly slipping into dangerous madness, torturing and starving the wheelchair-bound Crawford character, Blanche.

“You wouldn’t be able to do these awful things to me if I weren’t still in this chair!” she rails at her sister in one scene.

“But ya are, Blanche! Ya are in that chair!” 

Some years before, Crawford was beautiful and a star. She got her own Oscar for the stunning “Mildred Pierce.” But Davis was making classic film after classic film, winning two Academy Awards, nominated for 11 (and, in my opinion, cheated out of a couple more wins for “All About Eve” and “Baby Jane”).

I came late to Bette. After “Jezebel” and “The Petrified Forest” and the role in which she had the high forehead of Queen Elizabeth. The 1930s Bette Davis I know little of. It was “Now, Voyager” in the early ’40s that got me hooked. My mom was a big Bette Davis fan, and we watched it together on television in the early ’60s. In the early part of that movie, her relationship with her mother, sneaking cigarettes in her bedroom — and those eyebrows! — is fraught with some venom and repression until the mean mom (the marvelous Gladys Cooper) dies. The daughter then enters therapy and soon after emerges from the top of a ship docking in Europe with her elegant new look, her face revealed from under a hat the size of a large dinner plate. Brows tweezed, dressed to the nines, in spectator heels, she is indeed new and improved, but also appears shaky and vulnerable. How Davis can express so much in a look — those Bette Davis eyes. . . .

The rest is romance. And cigarettes, out in the open, with the famous Paul Henreid scene in which he lights two cigarettes at once and hands one to her. She says, as the film ends and the camera pans the skies, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”

As a teenager, and a naive one at that, I was mesmerized by the idea of a woman falling in love with a married man. (As a married man myself now, I understand.)

“Dark Victory” was around that time, too. A bit earlier, in 1939 — the year of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind.” I’ve seen it on TV a bunch of times, marvel at the beauty of her best friend, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, but Davis was pure Davis in it — independent, strong, lively (then, a shift in her attitude when she realizes she has a dark illness, prognosis: negative), with her clever caps covering scars from her brain operation. That role really gave her her walk and her bravado, and, always, the twirling cigarettes.

Then, for me, came “All About Eve.” I don’t remember the first time I saw it (I should!), but sometime in the 1980s I bought the video, and sometime in the ’90s the DVD. I have seen this film more than a hundred times, sometimes just half of it, or part of it as I fell asleep. Still, it always feels fresh. 

There are many scenes in it beyond the famous: “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” at her party in that Edith Head party dress with the brooch by her breast. There are too many perfect Bette moments in that film to get into. And also, performances by others: Thelma Ritter was drop-dead droll in her role as Birdie, Margo’s maid and close companion. Marilyn Monroe did a very sexy cameo, and George Sanders was a bitch of a critic. I loved him, with his sneers and his long cigarette holder.

Every time I see it I marvel at Bette Davis’s performance.

And then: “Baby Jane.” No words. Unfortunately, it cast her as a lunatic and a killer in future films in which she faltered somewhat: “Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte” by the same “Baby Jane” director, Robert Aldrich, was not nearly as good. “Dead Ringer,” then, too, a disappointment. Joan Crawford also went off the rails afterward with “Strait-Jacket.”

Nowadays, there are other fabulous female actresses: Jessica Lange happens to be one. Meryl Streep, of course. Cate Blanchett. Julianne Moore. Annette Bening. Even the new-ish Sarah Paulson.

But no one, absolutely no one, beats Bette.


Hy Abady’s latest collection of his “Guestwords” essays is “Back in The Star Again Again! Further Stories From the East End. And Beyond.”