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Bette and Joan forever

New series ’Feud’ delights, but only to a point

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Feud: Bette and Joan, gay news, Washington Blade

Susan Sarandon, left, as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in ‘Feud: Bette and Joan,’ a new FX series. (Photo courtesy FX)

This Sunday night, grab your popcorn and sit back to enjoy one of the greatest catfights in Hollywood history.

Ryan Murphy (“Glee” and “American Horror Story,” among many others) turns his focus on the legendary “Feud” between iconic actresses Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). Billed as an anthology series, “Feud: Bette and Joan” premieres Sunday, March 5 and runs eight consecutive weeks on FX at 10 p.m.

As Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) reveal in delightful cameos that serve as barely concealed exposition, it’s a tough time for aging actresses in Hollywood in 1961. Marilyn Monroe is in her ascendancy; studio moguls are scared of television and desperate for younger audiences, actresses are considered “over the hill” at an age when their male counterparts are just starting to look “distinguished.”

After a series of failed television pilots, Academy Award-winning actress Joan Crawford decides to take matters into her own hands. She sends journeyman director Robert Aldrich a copy of the just-released novel “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?,” a horror story about two reclusive sisters who were both actresses. Despite years of tension between them, Crawford asks Bette Davis, also fallen on hard times in Hollywood, to be her co-star.

The rest is Hollywood history: verbal and physical fights on the set, a battle over the Academy Award and a grudge match that lasted until Crawford’s death in 1977. Murphy and his stable of writers and directors mine this comic material for all its worth; Murphy’s Hollywood geekery is on delicious full display.

The team also captures the dark side of Tinseltown: the ageism and sexism that cuts down these two stellar actresses who are still in their prime and the ruthless way studio head Jack L. Warner (Stanley Tucci), feckless director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) and vicious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) manipulate the pair for their own gain. They also capture the self-destructive and self-dramatizing tendencies of the two fading stars who are desperate to stay in the public eye and pay the bills.

There is unfortunately a basic problem with the material. After a while, it starts wearing thin. Murphy and his team also seem to miss a lot of opportunities. They capitalize on the presence of “Baby Jane” co-star Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess), a gay man who idolizes Davis, who bails him out after he is caught in a police raid at a gay cruising ground.

But, gossip columnist Louella Parsons is reduced to a voice on the telephone, even though her bitter rivalry with Hopper would seem to offer a handy mirror to the Crawford-Davis feud. Christina Crawford, who is trying to launch her own acting career, also remains unseen.

Nevertheless, the actors have a wonderful time with the script at hand. Both Lange and Sarandon are great fun as Crawford and Davis, chewing scenery to their hearts’ content and trying not to wallow too much during their lingering dewy-eyed close-ups. And love or hate “Mommie Dearest,” it’s nice to have another Crawford screen interpretation of Crawford besides Faye Dunaway’s.

Tucci and Davis roar through the script and energize their scenes. Molina is great as the long-suffering director caught between his producers, his stars and his own philandering. With her dry delivery and pitch-perfect physical comedy, Jackie Hoffman nearly steals the show as Mamacita, Crawford’s German maid.

Despite this star power, the real find of the series is Burgess, whose layered performance as the quirky and proudly gay Buono gives the series a grounding it often lacks. The growing friendship between Davis and Buono is a highlight and hopefully Buono’s Oscar nomination for “Baby Jane” will be mirrored by Burgess’ Emmy win for “Feud.”

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Have to pee? Check out new John Waters Restrooms

BMA introduces gender-neutral facilities

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Actress Elizabeth Coffey and filmmaker John Waters outside the BMA’s new gender-neutral restrooms. (Blade staff photo)

The Baltimore Museum of Art unveiled its latest addition on Wednesday: the John Waters Restrooms, named for the iconic filmmaker who is a trustee of the museum. 

There were plenty of snickers and jokes about who would be the No. 1 and No. 2 patrons of the new facilities, but beneath the potty humor was an important message about access to the most fundamental spaces in society.

Joining Waters at a BMA event Wednesday to officially dedicate the gender-neutral restrooms was Elizabeth Coffey, a transgender actress and longtime friend and collaborator of Waters’. Coffey noted the importance of access to public spaces to the trans community. Preceding her at the lectern was Christopher Bedford, the Dorothy Wagner Wallis director of the BMA, who noted that adding the gender-neutral restrooms was the right thing to do.

After brief remarks, Coffey and Waters led a group of museum supporters and reporters downstairs to see the new space and Coffey cheekily took the inaugural trip into one of four private stalls. The stalls and adjoining communal washroom were designed by Quinn Evans Architects and feature white tile with bright red tile in the stalls. The idea for naming the restrooms came from Waters when he bequeathed his fine art collection to the BMA, according to a museum statement. 

The John Waters Restrooms will open to the public on Sunday, Dec. 12, in conjunction with the adjacent Nancy Dorman and Stanley Mazaroff Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs and Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies. Waters is about to embark on a national tour of spoken-word performances. 

John Waters Restrooms, gay news, Washington Blade
John Waters speaks to a crowd at Wednesday’s dedication event. (Blade staff photo)
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Sharon Gless on new memoir and connection to LGBTQ community

Beloved TV icon’s book was seven years in the making

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Sharon Gless’s new memoir ‘Apparently There Were Complaints’ addresses her deep connection to the queer community. (Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster)

Have you ever read a memoir that is so intimate, so revealing, so honest, that as you were turning the pages it felt like the writer was sitting next to you, speaking directly to you? 

Kudos to multiple Emmy Award-winning actress Sharon Gless for making that a part of the experience of reading her new memoir “Apparently There Were Complaints” (Simon & Schuster, 2021). The Los Angeles native with Hollywood in her veins (her maternal grandfather was a hotshot entertainment lawyer), Gless rose to prominence via her portrayal of New York police detective Christine Cagney in the popular and groundbreaking 1980s TV series “Cagney & Lacey”(alongside Tyne Daly). As if she hadn’t already established an LGBTQ following through that show, she went on to play Debbie Novotny, the smart and sassy mother of Michael on Showtime’s equally groundbreaking “Queer As Folk”in the early 2000s. Gless sat down for an interview in advance of the publication of her book.

BLADE: Your new memoir, “Apparently There Were Complaints” opens on a serious note with your 2015 pancreatitis diagnosis. So, I’d like to begin by saying that, from one Gemini to another, I hope you are in good health. 

SHARON GLESS: Thank you, honey, I’m in very good health. Thank you, my fellow Gemini.

BLADE: Why was now the time to write your memoir?

GLESS: Well, it’s taken seven years. It’s not like it was yesterday. I never actually intended to write a memoir, Gregg. I was called in to a meeting by CBS for what I thought was a conversation to offer me a new series. We talked for an hour and, apparently, I was so entertaining that at the end of the hour meeting, the president of CBS said, “You know we own Simon & Schuster.” I said, “I didn’t know that.” She said, “We do, and I think you’ve got a book in you.” I said, “I don’t usually write.” She said, “That doesn’t matter. You’re a storyteller, Sharon.” So I walked out with a book deal [laughs] with Simon & Schuster and not the series I was hoping for. Actually, I didn’t meet (with) Simon & Schuster for another year. I sort of let it go. The next day there was a text from the president of Simon & Schuster. I sort of ignored it because I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to act! A year went by, and I wasn’t so busy, and I was in New York, and I said, “What the hell!” I went to meet him. I read one chapter to him, one chapter that I had written in case he asked for anything. He signed me that day [laughs].

BLADE: Were you a journal or diary keeper or did you rely on your memory for the details?

GLESS: Never. No. My very best friend Dawn (LaFreeda), who’s been my best friend forever and …  I’m a talker, a storyteller, and I would tell her stories about my life throughout our relationship. She kept them! She said, “You have a book in you.” So, there’s another person saying so. She kept the stories. When Simon & Schuster made me the offer, Dawn dragged out all my stories. A couple of times I had gatherings at my house where I had four people over, and I said, “Ask me some questions,” and put a recorder down. I’d just start talking. Then as more of my life coming out on the page, which is hard to do, I started remembering more and more. It took a form that I had always intended. I came up with the title, “Apparently There Were Complaints,” very early on. I made the book about all the complaints people had about me throughout my life. It helped that Dawn had kept records of all the stories I’ve told. Some of those I used in the book. It’s funny, as you write, as you keep going, you start remembering more and more and more because one emotion leads to the next emotion or the next time someone hurts your feelings or the next complaint.

BLADE: I’m glad you mentioned the emotional part of it, because writing a memoir means revisiting the past, including your complicated relationship with your grandmother, whom you called Grimmy, as well as your parents. Did you find it to be painful, freeing or both?

GLESS: Sometimes because some of the memories were painful. There were times when I was reading some of it that I would go back to that place. I just finished recording [the audio book] a couple of weeks ago. What surprised me is when I’d get to certain places, especially about Grimmy, you can hear on the recording, my voice breaks. I left it in. They asked me if I wanted to rerecord it and I said, “No. Leave it in.” She was really the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s that she was tough.

BLADE: One of the things that stood out to me about “Apparently There Were Complaints”is the way that not only does it sound like you — I’ve interviewed you before so in reading the book, it sounded like you…

GLESS: Thank you! It’s very important to me that you hear my voice in that.

BLADE: It totally comes through. The other thing that shines through is your sense of humor and comic timing.

GLESS: Thank you!

BLADE: How important was it for you to make that aspect of your personality a part of the book?

GLESS: Very important. I do have a sarcastic, not a mean sarcastic, a funny sarcastic side. Some of the complaints and some of my addictions and some of the things I talk about…you’ve got to take some of it lightly or who’s going to want to read that? Clearly, I survived. It’s not all bad news. When I came up with the title, [laughs] which was perfect because there were so many complaints about me in my life, sometimes you just have to laugh, even at the sadder stuff. I’m still standing, Gregg!

BLADE: Yes, you are! Memoirs, like TV shows such as “Finding Your Roots,” are a way for both the subject and the audience to uncover fascinating details that might not otherwise have been public knowledge. The story about your boarding school classmate Gibbie, also known as the late Abigail Folger, in chapter seven feels like an example of that. Would you ever consider being on one of those genealogy tracing shows?

GLESS: I didn’t know a show like that existed. I would never do something like “This Is Your Life”[laughs], remember that? I didn’t know about a show that traces your genealogy. I’m always fascinated in my background. I’m certainly not opposed to anybody scraping up my genealogy.

BLADE: You write about your interactions with LGBTQ+ people in your life, personally and professionally, and Chapter 43, titled “I’ll Be There,” which is about your experience playing Debbie Novotny in Showtime’s “Queer As Folk”made me weep, it was so beautiful. This is less a question than it is an expression of gratitude for, well, being there.

GLESS: Thank you! The pleasure, for lack of a better word, is all mine. You have all changed my life. I became so much more educated. I thought, “Oh, I know it all. All my best friends are gay.” Right? But I learned so much on “Queer As Folk. Thestories that they wrote and the performances. I didn’t realize the real plight, the behind-the-scenes pain that went on in the gay community. Because ofQueer As Folk” I became quite educated and impassioned. I meant it when I said, “I’ll be there.”

BLADE: The Peacock streaming service is doing a “Queer As Folk” reboot. What do you think about that?

GLESS: Yes, I’m aware they’re doing a reboot of it. What I think about it is I’m so sorry they’re not using the original cast. It’s never going to be better. But good luck to them, and I hope they have even close to the hit we were. I think the biggest star of that show right now is going to be the city of New Orleans. We’ll see how the stories go.

BLADE: Because the entertainment industry is a central component to your memoir, if “Apparently There Were Complaints”was to be made into a theatrical movie or TV miniseries, who would you want to play you?

GLESS: It would take several actresses because there’s a lot of years. If there was somebody who could span it. I’m a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence. She has a husky voice, too. And there’s also an irreverence and a sensitivity to her. If anybody ever wanted to do that, I think she’d be great.

BLADE: Finally, in addition to us both being Geminis, we also share South Florida as our home. What do you like best about living here?

GLESS: The happiness on my husband’s (TV producer Barney Rosenzweig) face. When he retired he moved us here. I’m married to a man who if he’s happy, everybody’s happy [laughs]. He adores Florida. Los Angeles was always my home. I was born there, raised there. I’m an Angeleno, through and through. I’ve been to Los Angeles over the last year and I don’t like what’s happened to it. Now I’m grateful to be returning to an island as beautiful as the one I live on. Los Angeles needs a total reboot, rebuild, re-everything. It’s fallen on hard times, L.A. I remember it when I lived there. It was a magical city.

Sharon Gless (Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster)
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PHOTOS: High Heel Race

Spectators cheered along drag queen contestants for the 24th annual event

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@dragqueenathena and Dan won the 24th annual High Heel Race. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The 34th annual High Heel Race was held along 17th Street on Oct. 26. The winners this year were @dragqueenathena and “Dan.” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee and members of the D.C. Council joined drag queen contestants and hundreds of spectators for the event.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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