FEUD Review: “More, or Less”

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finally manages to strike the perfect balance between sexism, feminism, actual history, and campy trash in “More, or Less.” With defined narrative arcs for every character, the episode explores the challenges of mixing art and business in the entertainment industry while still incorporating the over-the-top melodramatic moments that the series was created to serve up.

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Nobody is more surprised than I am that this show finally gave us a decent episode, let alone a good one. I’ve found myself trying to explain the subtleties of feminism v. misogyny masquerading as empowerment since this show first started airing. “More, or Less” pulls a 180 when it comes to tone and intention. First of all, all the of the women relate to each other as people rather than trying to destroy each other in a sexual competition for men. When they mention their ages in this episode it’s not to emphasize the tragedy of their haggard looks but to underscore that they don’t have time to fix any mistakes that they might make so late in their . They all understand that being a woman in the entertainment industry is difficult whether you’re in front of the camera or behind it.

That’s best illustrated through Robert Aldrich’s assistant Pauline. Pauline wrote a script specifically for Crawford and is intent on directing it herself. She goes to Crawford’s maid, Mamacita, to help her get it in front of Joan. Joan rejects Pauline’s film offer, not because she’s a woman but because she’s “a nobody.” I feel like the same scene put into a previous episode would have made a point of hammering on how women are constitutionally incapable of directing a film and that’s just the way it is. Instead, Joan lays out that the entertainment industry is fueled by insane amounts of cash and internalized sexism. The situation is perhaps addressed even more fully when Pauline takes her script to Aldrich who is initially supportive of Pauline’s growth but ultimately lets his own issues derail that support. The episode accurately and effectively addresses the institutional biases of Hollywood without making it a Greek tragedy.

Even Bob Aldrich going off on Pauline at the end was excellent. It was clear that he wasn’t angry at her for getting above her station as a measly female but that he was channeling his own anger and disappointment onto the closest convenient mark. It’s lovely to see Aldrich be just as humanized as all of the female characters, as to my mind the previous two episodes had pigeonholed him as an entitled man led by his penis without the self-awareness to recognize what was happening. He gets moments of pathos here from worrying about his financial future if Baby Jane flops, to having his artistic dreams foiled by Jack Warner’s brutal honesty, to obviously regretting the way he treats Pauline. There’s nothing more satisfying than giving characters reasons for their behavior rather than just having people dance around like puppets on strings. Frank Sinatra’s bad behavior in Aldrich’s next shoot nicely underscored the sexist double-standard by showing him as even more of a diva than either Davis or Crawford to this point.

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Mamacita was the real star of this episode. It’s clear that she’s the one entirely in charge of Crawford’s household. She tends to Joan’s long list of neuroses in a way that keeps her functional. On top of babysitting Joan Crawford and all of her progeny, Mamacita studies up while she’s at the library and brings Pauline scientific evidence that eventually American women will have to get their due. Here’s where the difference between faux empowerment and actual empowerment is so striking. After all of the powerful people in the episode tell Pauline to give up on her dreams and just be content with what she has, Mamacita tells her to keep fighting because you have to break through eventually. It’s not a statement about how poor and oppressed women are, and neither is it some rah-rah flim-flammery about how sexuality is a woman’s only strength. Rather, Mamacita cheering on Pauline is quiet, solid, unwavering support. It’s excellent. That’s what this show needs more of.

Of course, the contention between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis is supposed to be the point of the show and that was present in this episode though not nearly as much as before. Davis hamming it up on the promotional circuit was fun, and Sarandon got the snide tone of Davis’ television interviews down perfectly. Crawford flopping around her house in a perpetually drunken stupor was equally well done. I still am not completely on board with Lange as Crawford. She’s not nearly as stone-cold or sharp enough as Crawford should be. As they weren’t in direct contact with each other for the majority of the episode, this was more a study in contrasts then in catty in-fighting. However, when they do speak their interactions are welcome humanizations of the two. The scene at the end of Joan stumbling upon all the phones in her house off the hook was an excellent melodramatic rendition of a horror scene from her point of view. It was tense like a horror scene should be, but the content made it ironically funny at the same time. What would be more horrific to her than Bette Davis getting an Oscar nomination while she didn’t?

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Overall, the women here don’t hate each other simply because they are women but they have logical reasons and motivation beyond trying to have sex with all the men in their lives. In fact, this is the first time it’s clear that their hyper-sexualization is a calculated choice rather than a default mode of being. Joan all over Jack Warner when he comes to see her isn’t played as sexy or pathetic but is deliberately manipulative. Warner, in turn, throws sexist, sexual jabs at her that come across less as a judgment on the unchangeable state of the world and more as a reflection of the kind of jerk he is. Combined with his takedowns of Aldrich, Jack Warner’s callous attitude towards his artists is the perfect foil to all of them struggling with self-doubt.

I’ll tell you the truth: even if I hadn’t checked during the credits I could have told you a woman had a hand in writing this episode. Everyone was a character rather than a caricature and yet it still managed to have a decent level of campy conflict. I’m not saying men can’t write characters with emotional integrity. I know full well that they can. But I also know this particular set of male creators quite well and I know that they don’t really care about depth so long as there’s plenty of surface-level titillation. I’m not at all surprised that it took a lady to write these ladies correctly.

TB-TV-Grade-ASeason 1, Episode 4 (S01E04)
Feud airs Sunday at 10PM on FX

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Dana is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
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