In title and in trailer, FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan promises the same unseemly thrill that unites The Real Housewives, Mean Girls, and whatever the latest headline is about Taylor Swift. It lures viewers craving slaps and screams and madcap montages featuring the word “bitch.” Wrote the Scriptshadow blogger in 2009 when reviewing the text that would later inspire Ryan Murphy’s new anthology series, “Can somebody say, ‘Cat Fight?’ Rrrreow.”
But in re-enacting the famous squabbles between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford around the 1962 production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the show also ventures into the contested territory of how to talk about female feuds in 2017. A lot of viewers will arrive with critiques nearly pre-written about a powerful Hollywood male like Murphy amplifying stereotypes and celebrating the sexist forces that pit the Davises and Crawfords of history against each other.
Feud impressively has anticipated all of this. Its deft and satisfying first few episodes should please both the voyeurs and the feminists, and more importantly highlight how the two groups can overlap. Crawford and Davis’s struggles largely arose from skewed, unfair incentives that merit understanding today, Feud argues. It was a tragedy that their industry locked them in a cage fight, and tragedy is the most elemental kind of entertainment.
While the rest of event-TV gets baggier and more abstract, Murphy’s recent efforts, ambitious though they may be, have stood out for their workmanlike approach: His eye is always on holding the viewer’s attention and making sure they get the message. Feud does both in the title credits alone, with lovely Saul Bass-inspired animation evoking midcentury cinema and telegraphing sadness, not sadism. Then the first moments of the series play notes of tragic irony. We see Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis chatting and laughing on set in a recreation of this photo. We hear the voiceover of Catherine Zeta-Jones as the actress Olivia de Havilland: “They hated each other, and we loved them for it.”
Flashforwards to de Havilland and Kathy Bates’s Joan Blondell being interviewed decades later perform a lot of the expository work throughout the series. Quickly, de Havilland explains to the uninitiated that Crawford was the biggest star of her era, while Davis was the greatest actor. Yet both icons found their career stalling in their 50s, thanks in part to the sort of calculation that the studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci, neurotic and monstrous) spells out early on to the director Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina, ever-put-upon)—“Would you fuck ’em?” The two women were superstars, yes, but expensive and aging ones who wanted a degree of control; the movie studios had younger, cheaper replacements.
Crawford’s agony over this state of affairs is famous from the camp horror show of 1981’s biopic Mommie Dearest. Feud comes earlier than the events of that film, but Murphy, a fetishist of pop-culture history, lovingly recreates the Los Angeles home it portrayed. Lange has played grandiosely broken women plenty of times in Murphy’s American Horror Story series, but she doesn’t go full Faye Dunaway here: Even when shrieking jealously, drinking to excess, and throwing herself at men, she regains composure quickly. Her fussy elocution and brittle affect are on point; if she doesn’t quite radiate Crawford’s poise, well, who could?
Davis drives the action less than Crawford does, but Sarandon’s performance is a delight thanks to an imitation anchored in mannerisms—eye rolls, head cocks, a slouchy way of turning the body. Her subject’s intellect and playful hauteur are especially entertaining when deflating Crawford’s pretentions: “Lose the shoulderpads,” she snaps to her costar the first day on set, just after trying to make nice.
The two are already rivals when Feud begins, but it’s made clear the bad blood isn’t just from a clash of sensibility. Warner signed Crawford so as to have leverage over the ever-more-willful Davis, with the result being that the two women were set up to compete for parts. A love triangle didn’t help relations, nor did the aggressive goading of the Hollywood gossip columnists, chief among them Hedda Hopper, played here by Judy Davis with a bang-up collection of hats. The remarkable twist, though, was that Crawford believed the way out of her predicament was through an alliance with Davis for a comeback film. She’s shown doing the hard work of finding the source material and director—and making the case to her skeptical, condescending frenemy.
Jack Warner supported the production only reluctantly, and Feud portrays him sabotaging the chance for peace between the co-stars for the sake of publicity. The results lead to the promised montages of petty hijinks, but they’re less wild than might be expected. Most of the runtime is instead in deconstruction, character development, and melodrama, and there are portions of these episodes where the material gets repetitive—maybe six installments, rather than eight, were all this tale needed. But Murphy admirably makes room for digressions like the one about Pauline Jameson, the Hollywood assistant whose attempts to break through as a female director and screenwriter echo conversations very much alive today.
The output of all this struggle, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, is still a bracing watch—so freaky and one-of-a-kind that even Feud doesn’t feel like a complete answer to the question of how on Earth it got made. Davis and Crawford’s performances then offered a full dunk into the well of despair that Murphy’s series now sips from, and the sad twist of both Jane and Feud is that what appears to be an inevitable conflict between very different women is trumped-up and circumstantial. All that time they could have been friends.