Making a (melo)drama about the rivalry between Hollywood grand dames Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, feels like the truest expression of Ryan Murphy‘s work – and the execution doesn’t disappoint. FX‘s “Feud: Bette and Joan” is the creator at his best and he rarely indulges his worst tendencies as he explores the actresses’ relationship around the filming of cult classic “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?“. Endlessly bitchy and entirely beautiful, the limited series is a blast to watch with sharp, laugh-out-loud lines and enviable costumes and sets. (Can someone get me Hedda Hopper‘s wardrobe?) It’s fun viewing, even as we’re witnessing the consequences of a culture that drives women to compete, rather than cooperate.
“Feud” isn’t nearly as campy as one would expect from either its subject or its showrunner. It’s never as over-the-top in its performances or tone as Crawford biopic “Mommie Dearest” or even Murphy’s other work in “Scream Queens” and “American Horror Story.” Instead, it falls somewhere between those shows and his “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” (which seemed more a product of its writers than Murphy as a producer). Competition has always been a hallmark of his work, beginning with “Popular” and “Nip/Tuck,” and that lies at the heart of this show as well. “Feud” entertains its audience with witty dialogue, gorgeous costumes and impeccable sets, but it doesn’t overlook the humanity of its characters and it reveres them, even as they’re behaving badly. The actions of Bette and Joan — and everyone around them— are often far more outrageous than a normal person could be capable of, but it’s all believable within the framework of Hollywood that Murphy establishes and that we’re familiar with.
Though “Feud” largely centers on the making of the 1962 horror movie, it uses the filming of a documentary in 1978 as a framing device. Davis and Crawford’s peers like Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) share stories and insight about the epic battle between the actresses as they look back on their work. Before “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Bette (Sarandon) and Joan (Lange) were both facing a career in decline due to their advancing age. With the help of her loyal assistant Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), Joan finds her dream role in the adaptation of the novel. She convinces rival Bette to join the production, with their off-screen rancor fueling their on-screen chemistry. Director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina, in a nuanced performance), studio head Jack Warner (a delightfully foul-mouthed Stanley Tucci) and gossip queen Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis, somehow not eclipsed by her incredible costumes) all stoke the fires, as David and Crawford’s fight reaches legendary heights.
Unsurprisingly with this cast, the performances are what make “Feud” so entirely watchable, even as we never truly forget who we’re experiencing in the lead roles. Both Sarandon and Lange give compelling performances that will likely pit them against each other at the Emmys, but neither entirely disappears into her role. I appreciate the lack of attempt to impersonate either Davis or Crawford, but these performances feel less like their subjects and more like the women playing them. Devotees of either “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” actress may bristle at the choice, but it shouldn’t bother viewers who aren’t as familiar with their filmography. The supporting cast is just as stellar, with particular favorites in Bates’ Blondell and Dominic Burgess as actor Victor Buono.
Though Murphy’s work has always been stylish, particularly in the candy color palette of “Scream Queens” and the dark beauty of “American Horror Story,” “Feud” reaches another level of cinematic vision. Costume designer Lou Eyrich‘s work frequently elicited gasps from me, whether for Hopper’s hats (feathers! flowers!) or the period-perfect dresses worn by Bette’s teenage daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka). Production design from Judy Becker creates the world of classic Hollywood in incredible detail. All this is captured by Nelson Cragg, whose lush cinematography luxuriates in the mise-en-scène, while never letting it distract from the performances. It often echoes period techniques, while still feeling modern.
But “Feud” isn’t all style and no substance. Like “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” “Feud” has larger things to say about both its own time period and contemporary culture, but it’s rarely subtle. Its themes of the role of women in Hollywood, particularly aging women in the industry, still ring true. The challenges that Davis and Crawford faced in the ’50s and ’60s still haunt actresses today, as there continue to be more roles for men than for women as they get older and face as crippling double standard. Though it comes just short of the actors directly addressing the camera, the dialogue from Murphy, Tim Minear, Gina Welch and the other writers sometimes lectures us, but clearly it’s a lesson we still need. However, Murphy isn’t a hypocrite: “American Horror Story” has regularly given juicy roles to women over 50, like Lange, Bates and Angela Bassett.
Episode four, “More, or Less,” also reveals the struggles of women behind the camera, and Murphy is practicing what he preaches here as well. Aldrich’s assistant Pauline (Alison Wright, just as wonderful as on “The Americans“) wants to direct as well, but she faces opposition from unexpected places. FX is working to give more directing gigs to women, and Helen Hunt, Liza Johnson and Gwyneth Horder-Payton together direct half the episodes.
Where “Feud” falters is its length and pacing. Production on “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” ends in episode three, “Mommie Dearest,” and the season has eight hours total to explore the drama between the women. The first five episodes were made available to press, and though episodes four and five focus on the Academy Awards, one wonders exactly what will fill the last three shows of the season and if it will be balanced with the first half’s narrative.
With that in mind, the limited series format works well for Murphy, whose shows tend to dramatically fall off as they age. This approach of a new story with every season tends to stave off that quality for at least a few more years. The second season has already revealed its focus on Charles and Diana, which should provide meaty drama and a fresh start for the show. “Feuds are never about hate,” Zeta-Jones’ Olivia de Havilland tells us in the show’s opening moments. “Feuds are about pain.” With that approach, Murphy will have plenty more to mine in upcoming seasons, and it’ll be worth watching if he can keep up this level of casting and quality – and refrain from unnecessary excess. [B+]