Many viewers who first tuned into the new eight-part FX series Feud: Bette and Joan expecting to indulge in a bit of classy trash have likely stayed with it because of its surprising intelligence, subtlety, and verve. Focusing on the legendary rivalry of screen icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as they uneasily unite to make Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? in 1962, executive producer Ryan Murphy—following the critical success of his The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and known also as the creator of Glee and American Horror Story—most certainly has a nose for the overripe possibilities of the Davis-Crawford feud itself. However, the series does not content itself with being merely an exploitation of the obvious juiciness. With remarkably vivid and well-rounded performances by Oscar and Tony winner Jessica Lange as Crawford and Oscar winner Susan Sarandon as Davis, Feud becomes a thoughtful examination not only of the contest of personal wills between the two film titans but of the cultural context and industry dynamics of the only onscreen pairing of these two fiercely professional actors.
The tone for this Grand Guignol look at Tinseltown is established at the opening by Catherine Zeta-Jones playing Olivia de Havilland who (at times accompanied by Kathy Bates as a latter-day Joan Blondell) affords occasional brief commentaries on the action. De Havilland knew something about high-profile Hollywood feuds, having engaged in a long-running, much-publicized one with her sister, Joan Fontaine. Of Crawford and Davis she observes, “There was never a rivalry like theirs. For nearly half a century, they hated each other, and we loved them for it.” Pausing, she then adds, “Feuds are never about hate. They are about pain.” And that is the lens Murphy and his team of co-writers use for the development. Though often wickedly funny, Feud is framed as a serious look at how mid-century Hollywood treated more mature female actors, even its greatest stars, a tradition that bizarrely continues to a significant degree even today. “Men age, they get character,” observes Mamacita, Crawford’s loyal housekeeper/amanuensis (Jackie Hoffman) of the ageism and sexism endemic to the industry. “Women age, they get lost.”
Both Davis and Crawford had fought the system for years, each in her own way, with every resource they could muster. Feud finds each of them desperately on the hunt, in their middle fifties, for a come-back. Crawford sends Henry Farrell’s macabre psychological horror novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? to director-producer Robert Aldrich (the excellent Alfred Molina). Finding studio backing will be difficult for the story about two faded stars, one of whom holds her paraplegic sister captive in their decaying Hollywood mansion, and Crawford needs a co-star who will help command attention—Aldrich is stunned when she courts her longtime box-office competitor Davis.
Monstrous studio boss Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci in yet another incisive performance—venal, crass, neurotically vindictive) thinks the only way to sell a project with “these two old broads” is a bitch-fight. Incapable of imagining that anyone could ever want to see two accomplished women do anything but tear one another apart, he conspires to hype their three-decades-old rivalry to the press as something even more vicious. Warner’s nasty cynicism is the face of an industry that had set actresses at one another’s throats long before Baby Jane—their perceived viability deriving not from talent or tenacity or intelligence but only from youth and how much space and time it was deemed any one actress should be allowed at the top of the studio suits’ misogynistically constructed pedestal.
In projects of this kind one of the most crucial potential sources of engagement for viewers—and the greatest challenge for the actors portraying such eidetically famous stars—is, of course, the viewer’s avid scrutiny, the inevitable drawing of immediate and sustained comparisons of every aspect, every choice, every nuance of the portrayal. Both Lange and Sarandon pass the test with formidably flying colors. They create credible physical resemblances and expertly master some of the icons’ trademark behavioral idiosyncrasies and characteristics of speech—Davis’s more indelible vocal cadences and punctuations, the pelvic forward-thrust stance, the sashay stride, the signature eye-widening and blinks for emphasis, Crawford’s brittle, over-curated grande-damery, the basilisk stare, her occasional menacing growls or eruptions of blue language—but their performances are not mere caricatures: the two actors uncannily channel the distinctive personae, the most defining energies, from within.
They are surrounded by a delectable all-star supporting cast including Judy Davis as tyrannically cruel gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Dominic Burgess as Baby Jane co-star Victor Buono, Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page, and Alison Wright as Aldrich’s savvy right-arm assistant Pauline Jameson.
It remains to be seen what Murphy will make of the second season of his new FX franchise— Feud: Charles and Diana has already been ordered and is in early stages of preparation—but he is out of the gate having set some fairly decent standards for himself. Mirroring the elements that made Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? a hit, Feud, far from being guilty-pleasure trash, is a fairly substantial meta-theatrical treat, with bracing performances, a provocative feminist perspective, genuine emotional heft, bitter comedy, and irony to burn.
– Hadley Hury
(Currently on FX. Negotiations for UK broadcast underway.)