Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in 'Feud'

More characters they have, in abundance, and many of them are embodied in cherish-able performances, but their complexity is debatable. Stanley Tucci‘s Jack Warner, Alfred Molina‘s Aldrich, Judy Davis‘ Hedda Hopper, Jackie Hoffman‘s Mamacita, Kathy Bates‘ Joan Blondell, Catherine Zeta-Jones‘ Olivia de Havilland and Alison Wright‘s Pauline Jameson are all individually strong (to say nothing of John Waters‘ cameo as William Castle, which is great), but their scenes without Sarandon or Lange feel like the filler they clearly are. This is especially detrimental in the case of Alison Wright, whose character is the only one wholly invented, seemingly for the sole purpose of ascribing to her an unconvincing proto-feminist subplot about wanting to direct, which is picked up and dropped apparently at random.

These characters do not add complexity or texture to the main story, instead they’re just shiny bits of business with amazing hats (Hedda Hopper’s outfits!) and quotable dialogue, all flash and dazzle that distract from the hollowness at the show’s heart. And that’s not even mentioning that half the time that acid, epigrammatic dialogue is lifted from elsewhere: “You go to bed with Margo Channing and you wake up with me,” says Sarandon’s Davis, riffing on Rita Hayworth’s famous line about men going to bed with “Gilda” and waking up with her. But it doesn’t make much sense here: Margo Channing, Bette Davis’ character in the awesome “All About Eve” is hardly the pouting sexpot of standard male fantasy, and in any case, Sarandon plays Davis as such a close version of Channing that it’s hard to see where one would end and the other begin. But hey, it sounds good if you don’t think about it too closely.

Judy Davis, Feud: Bette and Joan

And that’s all that matters, because in “Feud,” themes are spoken, subplots ploddingly laid out alongside the main plot and subtext is all but absent. Even the apparent metatextuality of Sarandon and Lange’s performances find little purchase within such shallow characterization. And the longer it goes on, the less edifying the casting seems (again a factor of length and pacing) — by about episode 3 you might find yourself less amazed by the similarities than struck by the differences, magnified by such a constant obsessive focus on the surface details. Lange has a fineness and fragility that Crawford never really displayed. You cannot imagine Crawford, even in her youth playing the equivalent of Lange’s hesitant ingenue in “Tootsie“,  just as Susan Sarandon’s own back catalogue is littered with titles from ‘Rocky Horror’ to “White Palace” to “Bull Durham,” which trade on her unapologetic sexiness –  the very quality that ‘Feud’s Bette is so paranoid she has always lacked. Really, the only thing these four actresses share, apart from a few Oscars, is that they are older than the median acceptable age for a career as a movie star.

Writing for THR, critic Miriam Bale locates the failure of “Feud” in the “faux-feminism” of its narrative, in that it portrays Davis and Crawford as puppets manipulated by men like Aldrich and Warner. These are men who played on the women’s insecurities, especially in regards to each other, to gin up publicity and, ultimately, the bottom line of their movies. But the reason this feels egregious is not because it’s untrue, not because such manipulation did not happen, and was not part of the profound unfairness of Hollywood life for women of a certain age in Hollywood in the mid-20th century. It’s because for all the bluster and crash zooms and quivering close-ups, the Davis and Crawford of “Feud” have no interiority, and do not emerge as real people any more than Blanche and Baby Jane were real people. Far from rounding out the archetypes they had become in popular consciousness, the show whittles them down even further until, like their ‘Baby Jane’ characters, they are all surface: shellacked hairdos, pancake make up, flared nostrils, haughty glares.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Feud: Bette and Joan

Indeed “Feud” is more similar to “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” than it may at first appear. It’s among the less campy of Ryan Murphy’s productions, but it’s still a row of tents compared to most other shows that contribute to this era of “Peak TV.” And despite its best efforts, and the admiration and respect that everyone involved has repeatedly claimed to feel for it subjects, there’s a certain ghoulish glee on display in revisiting their “degradation”–an apropos word cherished by Tucci’s charmingly monstrous Jack Warner–in exactly the sort of campy, herky-jerk melodrama we ought to be lamenting. ‘Baby Jane,’ while it did provide both women with a final burst of fame and success, came at a tremendous cost. It’s a fascinating film, but there’s no doubt it exploits its actresses in a way that is deeply queasy: it should not be unproblematically held up as a shining example of the great work these women could have made given half a chance.

There’s heartbreak in the story of how two such fine actors as Davis and Crawford, capable of such subtlety and power and fire, become complicit in their own repackaging as grotesques, forced to self-cannibalize just “to keep the lights on,” as Lange’s Crawford wails. But it’s a heartbreak “Feud” wears like a costume rather than feels. “Hagsploitation” is the horrible word that Tucci’s Warner takes nasty pleasure in having coined, describing the hysterical psychodrama of ‘Baby Jane’. Ultimately, it’s a depressing thought that this way of treating actresses who don’t fit the prevailing mold, whether it’s via the glossy faux-revisionism of “Feud” or the seemingly purgatorial career move of “Unforgettable,” (a film that sight unseen, seems to fit the description pretty closely) is still around. It’s getting old.

  • rickyticki

    Funny, just a few weeks back you guys called the show “ryan murphy at hos best” and gave it a B+.