Hollywood gothic

Happy Birthday, John Waters!

John Waters as William Castle and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford on FX's FEUD

William Castle (John Waters) addressing the crowd at STRAIT-JACKET’s (1964) premiere as Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) listens on FEUD (2017) episode HAGSPLOITATION

I grew up in a John Waters household, so when I caught up with FEUD (2017), I was delighted to watch his cameo as shockmeister William Castle. My parents went to Waters’ movies, and my mom owns an ODODRAMA card gotten at a first run screening of POLYESTER (1981). Living in Massachusetts close enough to The Cape that Provincetown could be a day jaunt, she thinks she shopped in Dreamlander Divine‘s thrift shop, which he ran in his poor, pre-fame days. It was only a matter of time until we shared some of Waters’ movies together. I’ve now seen most of his films and read most of his books.

Which is how I know it was an honor for him to play Castle. Physically, the two men were very different. Waters has remained trim while Castle was heavier in comparison and thicker haired. FEUD show creator Ryan Murphy didn’t want Waters costumed to resemble Castle. No, fat suit as Waters said. Murphy was aware those in this know would delight in how meta it would be for Castle disciple Waters to appear as himself when portraying the other director.

If you haven’t read Castle’s memoir STEP RIGHT UP! I’M GOING TO SCARE THE PANTS OFF AMERICA, you need to. Waters wrote a loving and nostalgic introduction on how seeing Castle’s gimmicky movies as a kid inspired a love of cinema and the outrageous. There’s a joy in both directors’ works at defying convention to pursue their own visions. Keep on reading after the introduction, and you’ll learn a lot about B-movie making on shoestring budgets, including what it was like to work with Joan Crawford on STRAIT-JACKET (1964).

Happy birthday to John Waters, who doesn’t think he’s ever topped William Castle, but got to be him for a day! That must have been his best early birthday present.

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FEUD & the Costuming of Bette Davis, What I’ll be Watching for

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in FEUD Smoking

FEUD premieres tonight on FX, and like many classic film fans, I’m watching to see how legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are portrayed, and I’ll be paying particular attention to one area of costuming.

Susan Sarandon plays Davis. The latter actress, while capable of glamour and being beautiful onscreen, always favored her performances over the strictures of the star machine that led more wary or canny actresses to compromise on characterization in favor of not lowering beauty standards too far. Davis felt no restriction. She wanted her Mildred Rogers in OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934) to look as sickly as possible when the script called for that, and she pushed for her WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) costume to be more extreme than as originally designed.

Sarandon has shown a willingness to deglam onscreen for the right roles, but offscreen she’s been a poster girl for not looking her age or letting it determine whether she should be sexy on the red carpet and how. A favorite outfit of hers to wear to movie launches, so much so it’s almost a uniform, is a suit with no shirt worn underneath its jacket, often leaving a pretty bra visible for all to see. If her bra isn’t in view, its push-up effects leave no doubt of its presence.

I’m finding it ironic that an actress sartorially famous for her bras and gravity defying chest is playing one who eschewed underwire bras, despite being as generously endowed. As the recent Orry-Kelly documentary, WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED (2015) revealed Davis was convinced wearing underwire caused breast cancer. The costume designer was left having to camouflage that the leading lady was undersupported or braless by “using foulards, pockets, buttons, and other visual tricks.”

So while I’m watching FEUD, I’m going to be looking at Sarandon’s silhouette to see if series costume supervisor Katie Saunders incorporated this particular quirk when approving designs. Like Davis knew, it’s paying attention to the little details that help a performer build and inhabit a character.

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