Murphy's Law: Camp, Confusion and Creativity
By Amanda Rossenrode
I awaited the premier of Ryan Murphy’s Feud with a cocked eye. In my opinion, Murphy is like that drunk uncle that comes to Thanksgiving and either is a blast, telling great stories and slipping you a twenty, or burns the whole house down in a garbage fire while screaming in tongues. Unpredictable. While I enjoyed the first few seasons of American Horror Story, the recent seasons can only be described as how a criminally insane child would recount a dream. On the other hand, I found the People vs. OJ Simpson to be an incredibly precise, almost heartbreaking story that we thought we already knew.
Does that mean to say Murphy does better with real life than fantasy? Not necessarily. He clumsily shoe-horned the Black Dahlia into an otherwise entertaining first season of AHS. Personally, I think it’s a bit tacky to use real life murder victims as characters in a show about a killer ghosts and whatever deformed goblin was under that bed. So, I figured Feud could go either way.
My familiarity with Joan Crawford is rather limited to her gently advising the damage that wire hangers can do to one’s fancy clothes, (she was definitely anti-wire hanger) and her legendary feud with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? co-star Bette Davis. You can’t read a virus ridden click-bait article proclaiming “You’ll never guess which actors hated each other!” without it being mentioned. Expecting the first episode to be a 1960’s episode of Jerry Springer, I was surprised to see a rather demure performance from Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon. Sure, they were catty and dropped a couple of F-bombs but they didn’t have the impact of Marcia Clarks “Motherf***er” in People vs. OJ. Instead of being shocking, it felt cocky. With a little internet research I found that Crawford was very professional on set, wanting Davis to star opposite her, perhaps because of the publicity the feud would provide for the film. Sure, she was a scheming bitch off set, offering to accept the Best Actress Oscar for which ever winning nominee was unavailable to attend, just to rub it in the face of losing nominee Davis, but that’s the stuff of legendary vindictiveness. On Feud, it’s Sarandon, as Davis, who gleefully antagonizes, jabbing at the poisonously sweet Crawford, baiting her into an open fight.
In the premier episode, there is no mention of Christina Crawford, Joan’s adopted daughter and the author of Mommie Dearest, the memoir turned into the film of the same name. I find this intriguing and wonder if the rest of the series will follow suit. For a younger audience, this is perhaps their only Joan Crawford reference, barring cravat wearing hipsters who “only watch film noir”. There is controversy, however, surrounding the book and the film. Christina did not feel that the movie accurately portrayed her mother. Faye Dunaway, who played Crawford, refuses to discuss the film, due to poor reviews of her over-the top performance, and the movie’s camp popularity. Friends and family members are torn, some calling the claims in the book false, while others admitting to witness scenes such as described in the book. Christina and her brother Christopher were purposely left out of the will for “for reasons which are well known to them" while her younger two children did inherit a percentage of her estate, the remainder going to charity. To avoid making this bit of dirty laundry a focus point in an already intriguing story would show restraint on Murphy’s part –but let’s see where that goes. He wasn’t above needlessly name dropping the mega famous Kardashian children in People v. OJ.
When Murphy is good he is very, very good and when he is bad he is AHS: Hotel. Like another director I admire, M. Night Shyamalan, Murphy seems to get caught up on his previous successes and does what he wants to do and not what is necessarily comprehensive and compact storytelling. Which is not bad in every case (Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin can wander off trail for chapters and chapters, but we begrudginglyput up with it), but like Shyamalan and George Lucas, one can get tangled in their own vision and not realize it’s clunky and unappealing. Quite possibly no one has the courage to tell them “No,” because they were all visionaries, creating unexpected hits in their respective genres. Possibly, because they were told no so many times in their early, ultimately successful endeavors that they distrust the word. AHS had a tendency to create intriguing storylines and drop them abruptly in turn introducing a new plot that was equally abrupt and absurd. For Instance, AHS: Asylum managed to include aliens, a corrupt mental health facility, a serial killer, angels, devils, those things in the woods, possession, mad doctors, another serial killer and (shudder) Adam Levine. There were seasons in the AHS series that felt like a potluck Thanksgiving dinner with so many dishes of varying quality and region that your palate is exhausted and you don’t even know what you’re eating anymore. (“Crab enchiladas, pumpkin curry, stuffing, Peking duck and burnt macaroni and cheese? Don’t mind if I do!”- Ryan Murphy at Thanksgiving, wondering why everyone around him is popping Tumms.)
In the same frame that I want to see M. Night’s Split, once it stops being a bowling comedy online, I look forward to the seeing the continuation of Feud. To say that Lange and Sarandon give good performances is like saying it will get dark tomorrow. As always, the casting choices are interesting, giving a chance to both up and comers and veteran actors, not to mention Murphy’s own darlings. He has a habit of fawning over certain actors, giving them too much screen time and distracting from the story, something he managed to reel back in The People v. OJ, but that was a more sensitive story. This is a big, brassy story filled with personality and ego, glamour and excess. Let’s just hope that ego and excess stay on the right side of the camera.