I was mad at Susan Sarandon because of some of her comments during the last election. Recently, though, I was so charmed by her portrayal of Bette Davis in the new miniseries “Feud” —alongside Jessica Lange’s equally charismatic Joan Crawford—that my annoyance evaporated. Thanks to their bravura performances, I found myself totally absorbed in this tale, which portrays the tumultuous backstory behind the making of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Just a powerful as the acting, though, was the ideological debate embedded into the script. This is captured in a provocative interchange that takes place in a scene early on in the series. Studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), after seeing the film’s early rushes, tells director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) that he believes it will be a hit because of the explosive interaction between Davis and Crawford. Such an authentic portrayal of emotion is only possible, he argues, because the two actors really hate each other in actual life. Aldrich is skeptical; he tells Warner that he’s reacting to artistry. They are brilliant actors, after all.
Warner won’t hear of this. Instead, he offers an unusual theory about why real hate will make the film a true cultural event. “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” will be powerful because it embodies the psychology that drives our economic system. “What you’re seeing,” Warner remarks (as I remember it), “is Capitalism.” The fighting in the film, he explains, exemplifies the competition that makes our system run. Each actor, motivated by a fierce envy of the other, will seek to outshine her rival. Following this logic, the more each “hates” (his word) the other, the greater their performances, for their mutual resentment will set off a kind of arms race of talent, ratcheting up the intensity to new heights.
In essence, Warner is saying that what makes for a powerful performance isn’t the actor’s rationality (i.e. the intelligent choices she makes for her role) so much as her resentment.
The Jack Warner Theory of Politics
I don’t know whether the real Jack Warner ever propounded this theory of acting. What I do know is that that it shares an eerie resemblance to a theory of political performance that’s popped up in the wake of the last election. That theory goes like this…
Once we believed candidates needed to appeal to voters on the basis of economic reason (“it’s the economy, stupid), to win their support. Nowadays, things don’t work that way. The most effective politicians are those who appeal to voters' resentments (their envies, hatreds, prejudices and the like), rather than their rational self-interest. Much of this buzz, of course, is the result of the election of a figure who’s believed to embody populist rage.
Pankaj Mishra, author of The Age of Anger (a hot new book on the politics of resentment) offered an overview of this theory in an essay for The Guardian. The idea that people were primarily moved by their economic interests, he tells us, was simple-minded, for…
“…it neglected many factors ever-present in human lives: the fear, for instance, of losing honour, dignity, status, the distrust of change, the appeal of stability and familiarity. There was no place in it for more complex drives...Obsessed with material progress, the hyperrationalists ignored the lure of resentment for the left-behind, and the tenacious pleasures of victimhood.”
A Robert Aldrich Theory of Politics?
The importance of what might be called culturally-based (rather than economic) antagonism is obvious. As many have pointed out, it’s not always easy to see economic hardship as driving the actions of terrorists, for example. Nevertheless, something bothers me about downplaying “rational” economic interests in favor of “irrational” ones such as envy and resentment. What this suggests is that voters are not only misinformed but totally unreasonable--and unreachable. As such, this attitude replicates the condescension said to give rise to resentment in the first place.
Also, you have to ask yourself if it’s true? A recent piece by Conor Lynch put it this way:
“…it is smug…to disparage people for ‘voting against their interests’ when in reality both parties have failed to adequately address the real problems facing poor and working-class communities…While there can be no doubt that Hillary Clinton would have been a better president for the working and middle-classes, it is also true that Trump was better on certain issues that are important to blue-collar workers, such as free trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Even though Clinton opposed TPP during her campaign, she didn’t have much credibility…)
Lynch goes on to praise Bernie Sanders who recently, through Town Hall meetings, warned of the Right’s betrayal of these voters, exemplified in the botched health care legislation. The unpopularity of the proposed bill, and plummeting presidential approval numbers that accompanied it, suggest “hyperrationalist” arguments like Sanders presented to his rust belt audiences still packed a punch. All of which makes one wonder if all the noise about “populist resentment” has made us forget about the potential for popular reason.
Put another way, just because the “Jack Warners” of our political world currently own the studio and are running the show, it doesn’t mean that the Robert Aldrich forces may not win out in the end.