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‘Feud’ and the Female Director

Sunday’s episode tackled a problem as old as Hollywood

(FX)
(FX)

On the fourth and most recent episode of Feud: Bette and Joan, Bette Davis isn’t the woman feeling the most bilious wrath of Joan Crawford. That honor instead goes to Pauline, Robert Aldrich’s ambitious, hyper-competent, pillbox-hatted assistant — the Peggy Olson of Feud. We haven’t previously known much about Pauline, but the episode reveals that she has aspirations to not only be a screenwriter, but a director. Pauline has written a script called The Black Slipper, which has the sort of outrageous and melodramatic narrative that Crawford became known for. But when Pauline comes to Crawford’s home to try to persuade her to take the role, Crawford rejects her so witheringly that the plucky would-be director leaves the room in tears. “I’m not turning you down because you’re a woman,” Crawford tells her, barely looking up from the old gowns she’s folding. “I’m turning you down because you’re a nobody.”

That’s the thing, though: In Pauline’s time, the Hollywood studio system was so loathe to take chances on female directors in the first place, the odds of any one of them becoming a somebody were virtually nil. “Men, they will hire based on potential; but women, we need experience,” Pauline says. This makes Crawford concede that gender has something to do with her rejection of Pauline, but she shows her no sympathy as she launches into a bitter monologue:

“What do you guess prevented the next wave of great women directors? I [know], I was there: money. Money came along. Silent [movies] were low cost, low risk — a producer might shrug at the idea of an ingenue or girl editor taking a turn behind the camera. But when the studios came to power, they moved women to the feminine work: costumes, continuity. Directors needed stamina, leadership, fiscal responsibility, so men were given the bullhorn, and I can’t say that we are any worse off for it.”

Of course, Pauline has proved herself to have stamina, leadership, and fiscal responsibility — her boss Aldrich admits as much — but by the end of the episode, he’s admitted that even he doesn’t have the clout in Hollywood to get a female director hired. Pauline is one of the only fictional characters on Feud — a notable anomaly in a series so obsessed with verisimilitude that this episode featured a bead-for-bead restaging of Davis’s 1962 appearance on The Andy Williams Show. Pauline is a construct meant to evoke all the movies that didn’t get made and all the thwarted, would-be careers that became casualties of the studio system’s narrow-minded preference for white men behind the bullhorn. But this scene wasn’t completely rooted in fiction: Joan’s right when she says, “I was there.” The episode becomes even more poignant when you know that story.

Joan Crawford made at least 80 feature films over her long career, but only one of them — 1937’s The Bride Wore Red — was directed by a woman. Her name was Dorothy Arzner, and she is the only female director who received continuous work during the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system. Between 1927 and 1943, Arzner directed 16 feature films; the highlights include Dance, Girl, Dance, a raucous, proto-feminist picture that features (yes, really) a young Lucille Ball as a burlesque dancer named Bubbles, and Christopher Strong, in which a young Katharine Hepburn plays a swaggering female aviator who, in one iconic scene, attends a costume ball dressed as a shiny silver moth. Which is to say, yes — at their best, Arzner movies are a total trip. Unfortunately, though, her collaboration with Crawford wasn’t a career highlight for either of them.

The premise of The Bride Wore Red is roughly as ridiculous as that of Pauline’s Black Slipper: Crawford plays a lowly cabaret dancer named Anni who, one night, becomes the subject of a wager when one male patron bets another that — with the right costuming and a little bit of etiquette coaching — he can fool his rich friends into believing Anni is an aristocrat. They offer her some new dresses and a free trip to a château so, naturally, she says yes. The expected shenanigans ensue, and by the end, Anni must make a choice between two men who have fallen for her: a wealthy count and a kindly postman. The titular sequined gown she gets to wear at the end of the movie is more exciting than both of her suitors combined.

The Bride Wore Red bombed with critics and audiences. The New York Times remarked on its “underlying shabbiness,” and the reviewer in the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “The direction of Dorothy Arzner is always interesting and sometimes… is extraordinarily imaginative, but here she has not been able to give a vapid Cinderella pipe dream more than a handsome pictorial front.”

At this moment in their careers, Crawford and Arzner each needed a hit, and so Bride’s flop had an immediate negative impact on both of them. Not long after, Harry Brandt would publish his infamous article in which he dubbed Crawford and a few other stars “Box Office Poison.” Joan eventually clawed her way back, though; her career was revived a few years later when she left MGM for Warner Bros., and in 1945 she won a Best Actress Oscar for Mildred Pierce. The Bride Wore Red’s failure was more of a Hollywood death sentence for Arzner, who’d been carefully avoiding a bomb of this magnitude. As film scholar Charles Higham wrote in his 1975 biography of Christopher Strong lead Katharine Hepburn, “As a woman in a man’s business, [Arzner] dared not have any failures; she would have been ‘let out of the club.’”

And that she was. It would be another three years before the once-prolific Arzner would direct again (the largest gap in her career up until then), and that film, Dance, Girl, Dance, would be the last movie she directed to completion. Arzner made one more film, the 1943 war story First Comes Courage, but by the end of it, she’d be replaced by the silent-film veteran Charles Vidor.

At its most ambitious, Feud is a show trying to dismantle the myth of universal female solidarity — or at least expose the difficulty of that solidarity existing in a pre-feminist patriarchal culture. Arzner’s relationships with her most iconic actresses offer testament to this struggle. Even though Hepburn once remarked of her, “She wore pants. So did I. We had a good time working together,” Arzner scholar Judith Mayne suggests that their egos clashed mightily on the set of Christopher Strong. Similarly, Crawford biographer Bob Thomas wrote, “Joan looked forward to working with a woman director, but by the end of filming, Crawford and Arzner communicated only through written messages.” Still, they maintained a cordial enough relationship throughout the years, so much so that in the 1950s, Crawford persuaded Arzner to briefly come out of retirement and direct a few early commercials for her fourth husband’s company — Pepsi-Cola. It was another thing to call in a favor for her in Hollywood, though; as Crawford got older and her roles got more scarce, to put herself on the line for a female director — experienced or not — was too great a risk for her to take. “I have very few chances left,” Feud’s Crawford explains to the fictional Pauline. “And my last chance is not going to be your first. I hope you understand that.”

Feud occasionally gets too didactic for its own good, as it did when Pauline sat down with Crawford’s maid Mamacita at the end of the episode. (More proof of the show’s dedication to fact: Crawford really did have a German maid who she, absurdly, called “Mamacita.”) On mornings when Crawford is hungover, Mamacita explains, she takes Crawford’s daughters to the library and passes the time by reading almanacs, atlases, and census reports to educate herself about her new home country. It’s there she’s learned exciting news for the dejected Pauline. “By 1970, there will be 6 million more women than men,” Mamacita explains. “Fifty-two percent of the total population. Do you know what this means? Studios will have obligations to make half of stories about women, by women, and for women. Only makes economic sense. Keep your head up. Your day is coming.”

To end Pauline’s arc there felt like a moment of false optimism. Brighter times were not around the corner; only one woman (Elaine May) would direct any Hollywood studio films between 1966 and 1979. The rosy future Mamacita imagined certainly didn’t come with the next census, and — since Hollywood’s already small percentage of female directors actually declined last year — we’re still far from it. That’s the most infuriating thing about both Arzner’s career and Pauline’s fictitious one: They wouldn’t necessarily have had an easier time eking out a career in Hollywood today. Feud might be an homage to the past, but Pauline’s story, sadly, would have been just as believable if it were set in the present day.