It’s mere coincidence that has season one of Ryan Murphy‘s manicured melodrama “Feud” ending the same weekend that a barely buzzed Warner Bros. thriller (going by a generic, methinks-it-doth-protest-too-much title) “Unforgettable” opens. But the two projects do share one thing beyond mere timing: in different ways and with varying degrees of self-awareness, both can be read as a comment on Hollywood’s treatment – past and present – of “difficult,” “unlikable” or otherwise potentially unpopular actresses.
This is not to suggest an equivalence. For it seems probable that the cultural impact of those two events will be hardly comparable.”Unforgettable” stars Katherine Heigl as a vengeful ex, and falls squarely into the often disregarded Yuppies-In-Peril/female psychodrama category that we explored yesterday. It has only one review up on its Rotten Tomatoes page as of now (odd considering it opens tomorrow in over 2,350 theaters, making it the widest new release of the weekend), and it’s a splat. But Heigl must have some hopes riding on it, however unprepossessing it may sound. She hasn’t had a hit in years, and now if you Google her name you’ll come across a plethora of articles with titles like, “Hollywood’s Most Hated,” “Can TV Save Her Career?” and hit pieces like “Katherine Heigl Is Really Trying To Turn Her Career Around, I See“. The vitriol of the writing is second only to the meanness of the comments below.
By contrast, “Feud,” which details the animosity between Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) who was herself famously dubbed “box office poison” at one stage of her career, and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) during and after the filming of 1962’s “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?” is a solid, if not quite stellar performer for FX. Its third-highest-rated original show behind two other Ryan Murphy anthology series: “American Crime Story” and “American Horror Story“, it currently nestles around the 89% mark on Rotten Tomatoes. And even though those reviews were based on the first five of its eight episodes only, it seems unlikely that it will tumble too far off that perch come Sunday. It is a critical hit, and season 2 will give the growing rift between Prince Charles and Princess Diana the same slick, larger-than-life treatment, has already been announced. Sarandon and Lange have never really gone through anything like the erosion of popularity that Heigl has experienced, but both being actresses in and around the age of 70, even a sterling reputation for professionalism can’t keep the offers flowing in as they used to. They may have done nothing to earn the sobriquet “difficult” other than get older, but the upshot is similar: fewer good roles – which is one reason why “Feud” is so disappointing. Neither gets anything to play but the thinnest of impersonations, compromised by the muddle of the show’s intentions towards its Golden Age leading ladies.
“Feud” is a lavish costume drama in which no one ever simply speaks: they spit or snarl or hiss, and no one ever simply leaves a room – they flounce or slink or sashay out, trailing clouds of cigarette smoke and resentment that reeks of vodka. And while Davis and Crawford’s feud may have been brought to a head on the set of Robert Aldrich‘s cray-cray ‘Baby Jane,’ it would never have been the stuff of such see-saw drama had they not already been, individually, “difficult.” They were two pioneering stars too powerful to ignore and too potentially bankable to put out to pasture entirely, but they were also demanding, expensive actresses in their mid-50’s for whom good roles were simply not being written. Both refused to sputter out with “dignity” (read: demure pliability), so both became a headache for their studio bosses long before Crawford hit on the notion of a team-up in ‘Baby Jane’ (like, according to the show anyway, she hit on everything else).
Ostensibly, exposing the historical injustices and humiliations that were visited on these two undeniably brilliant women is the justification for making “Feud: Bette and Joan” in the first place. But Murphy’s approach (along with co-creators Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam) is so surface, and so pruriently attuned to the most obvious and demonstratively dramatic developments (even inventing unsupported details, such as an affair between Davis and Aldrich), that it crucially fails at fleshing out the women behind the legends. Instead, it flattens them further, with almost every scene they share devolving into a grandly histrionic gesture of the absolute victory of one and the abject defeat of the other.
Over the course of seven episodes (eight come Sunday), these reversals of fortune and friendship between the two have become dully repetitive and often illogical, with a scene of argumentation or vindictiveness suddenly cuing a period of detente and vice versa. Without any connective tissue between the flip-flopping, and no sense of cumulative narrative momentum, not even the committed performances can stop Davis and Crawford coming across as anything other than petty, mercurial harpies. “Feud” plays out like a cartoon, with no one having grown discernibly wiser or learned anything at all from the beginning of episode one to the end of episode seven. It’s just a series of bruising encounters that are reset to zero each time, dogged with grievous pacing issues that perhaps spring from having too little story to stretch out to eight longish episodes. Indeed, in an interview with THR, Sarandon said that Murphy had hoped to make “Feud” as a feature film before, but she had felt “it didn’t have a context, just being bitchy and kind of funny, but what else? In expanding it to eight hours, you could get more complexity and so many other characters.”