Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon in Feud: Bette and Joan

Sarah Posted by Sarah at March 6, 2017 17:16:19 March 6, 2017 17:16:19

Unleashing his lingering ire toward Bette Davis, who was a crucial player in the fall of the Old Hollywood studio system, studio boss Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) bellows, “That C*NT!” And later, ushering Bette Davis and Joan Crawford into her lavish Hollywood estate, Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) grandly proclaims, “Welcome to the house that fear built.” Feud: Bette and Joan has all the hallmarks of a Ryan Murphy production, from meticulous artistic design to dialogue that actors clearly love to chew on, and are indulged and encouraged so that every line is a performance unto itself and scenes become prize fights as actors hurl their lines at one another for maximum impact. Alfred Molina absorbs Tucci’s rant with a blank sort of shock, but when Molina rises and delivers his lines, Tucci shrinks back, giving way to a fellow stalwart.

Feud is not a courtroom drama but it has a lot in common with Murphy’s other anthology, American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson in that it’s not really about what it’s about. Feud is telling the story of the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the one and only time Joan Crawford and Bette Davis worked together. Crawford and Davis supposedly loathed each other, and the production was high drama as their egos and wills clashed with their desire to jump-start their careers after roles started drying up because of their age. But Feud is not a biopic, and to read it that way is to miss the bigger story being told.

Yes, the period details are fanatically recreated. As we have come to expect from Murphy and his team, Feud looks SPECTACULAR, with spot-on costuming and fanatically detailed recreations of early 1960s Los Angeles. This is easily the best-looking period drama since Mad Men, but what those period-correct details do is drive home the timelessness of the story. Feud takes place in 1961, but the story is modern. There are no new ideas here, as women have always struggled with aging in Hollywood, and that may end up hobbling the show, we’ll have to see how it develops. But at least in the pilot, the contrast is between the period setting and the very modern story being told.

When approached about producing Baby Jane, Jack Warner asks the director, Robert Aldrich (Molina), “Would you f*ck them?” Crawford and Davis are two defining talents of Old Hollywood, but in their middle-age, they are reduced to their f*ckability, in a scene that seems to deliberately invoke Amy Schumer’s “Last F*ckable Day” sketch. And though both women need the hit that Baby Jane represents, their collaboration is uneasy at best, as their self-value—particularly Crawford’s—is tied up in who gets more perks and better treatment on set.

Though Feud looks like a period piece it doesn’t feel like one because of the way scenes like that one with Warner and Aldrich play out. There’s a very modern sensibility behind Feud, and the story functions like a contemporary drama, not an historical one. There’s less melodrama than you would expect, and it completely resists bringing the Gothic tone of Baby Jane into the “real”
story behind the scenes. Murphy’s worst impulses of indulgence—so often on display on American Horror Story—are kept under wraps, preserving his penchant for those great actor-on-actor scenes without letting those titanic moments overtake the story.

The treatment of Crawford and Davis is perfectly calibrated between acknowledging their flaws and showing how the world they live in encourages, even exacerbates, those flaws. Jessica Lange is as incredible as expected as Crawford, playing her as a smart, ambitious woman who is nonetheless plagued by a litany of obsessive behaviors. Feud doesn’t gawk at Crawford’s issues, but they get the plastic-wrapped furniture, the elaborate beauty routines, the distaste for dirt and a desire for cleanliness that has her scrubbing down her dressing room alongside her loyal housekeeper, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman, already the unsung hero of Feud). Crawford is not portrayed as pathetic or cruel or the evil “Mama Dearest”, but just as a complex woman for whom age is the enemy.

Davis fares equally well with Susan Sarandon, who gets to use her own Bette Davis eyes to inhabit Davis. Sarandon’s Davis is a workaholic who tried family life when her career slowed down but who prefers to work when the work is available. “Bette always chose the professional,” Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) says in a flash-forward. And indeed, Davis is set up as the better actor of the two, the one for whom artistic integrity matters more than stature on set, but her dedication to craft ultimately makes Davis more popular with the crew.

We’ll have to see how Feud develops over the season, but the first episode, at least, is a terrific introduction to the world of Bette and Joan. Both women are presented as accomplished and admirable professionals whose personal lives are somewhat disastrous. And the way that they are shown within Hollywood is not to make spectacles or punchlines of them, but to show how demeaning and humiliating a system that pits women against each other is.

Aging is natural and unavoidable but they are punished for it, and though they both star in Baby Jane, there is a tacit acknowledgment that they both won’t succeed to the same degree. They have to band together to keep Hedda Hopper from finding dirt that could jeopardize their movie, but that doesn’t lead to any kind of kinship between them. There simply can’t be, in a world that only allows a woman to climb to the top at the expense of other women.



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