“This was a story and a feud of biblical proportions,” says Catherine Zeta-Jones as screen legend Olivia de Havilland in the opening moments of Feud: Bette and Joan. But, she warns, “Feuds are never about hate. Feuds are about pain.”
When it comes to my nemesis—he knows what he did—I’ll have to agree to disagree with the Oscar-winning actress. But Ryan Murphy’s new FX series that dramatizes the notorious friction between Hollywood icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the filming of 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and its aftermath does recontextualize the actresses’ hardly secret feuding.
While the series, which is based on the script Best Actress by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, bathes in the legend of the rivalry and the mythology of the now-cult classic film, lures viewers with the titillating promise of catfights acted out by Jessica Lange (taking on Crawford) and Susan Sarandon (joining the Murphyverse as Bette Davis) with Murphy’s signature opulent production value, it ends up a bait-and-switch.
This is, first and foremost, a tragedy. It’s a statement piece—an exposé, even—about ageism, misogyny, and how it can send strong women into fits of madness, destroy reputations, and set into a motion a cycle of sexism that still hasn’t ended.
And more than talk about how all those things helped right the story of Crawford and Davis’s famous feud, the series intends to make it very clear, with almost patronizing clarity, how little, if anything, has changed for women today.
Depending on how you look at it, it’s either apocalyptic, a plea for empathy, a warning shot, or a call to arms.
The exposition is set quickly. The conceit is that, years after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was shot, actresses like de Havilland (Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) are dishing the dirt on what led to so much discord between two of Old Hollywood’s most glamorous stars, with flashbacks to Lange and Davis acting out the stories.
The glamour, it turned out, had faded. Crawford can’t get cast in a picture. Davis is denigrating herself to the Broadway stage.
Oscar-winning legends both, and with scores of personal baggage between them, they had become slaughter victims of Hollywood’s ageism and desperation to contend with the burgeoning popularity of television. Down and out, the dueling pillars of the industry become unlikely allies as their careers crumble.
When we meet Crawford, she’s at the Golden Globes scowling in dismay as Marilyn Monroe is feted: “I’ve got great tits but I don’t throw them in everyone’s face.” And should you think her feeling threatened by a younger, perkier, blonder actress was internal paranoia, it’s thrust in her face by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis, the series’ biggest hoot). “Readers would be fascinated to hear from yesterday’s It Girl about today’s,” she tells Crawford, pleading for comment and not even bothering to disguise her mischief.
Being pitted against other women isn’t new for Crawford. We learn that she and Davis had been used as pawns against each other at the bidding of studio chief Jack Warner, played by Stanley Tucci, who is having the time of his life (which seems to be the only kind of time Tucci is interested in having these days, and bless him for that).
In a desperate bid to hold onto her career, Crawford has no recourse but to find material for herself. (Decades later, it should be noted, it’s the same avenue women like Reese Witherspoon have resorted to, with the Oscar-winner forming her own production company because she was fed up with a lack of complicated female roles.)
“Everything written for women seem to fall into just three categories: ingenues, mothers, or gorgens,” Crawford laments. Sound familiar? She finally discovers the pulpy novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and realizes that if she could get Davis on board to play against her, the event would be too big for a studio to say no to, despite their advanced age and dimming starpower.
“If something’s going to happen, we have to make it happen,” Crawford tells a skeptical Davis in her appeal.
It’s all so upsettingly resonant that we forgive the first hour of the series for its lack of real fireworks. It moves fast to get the women on set together, but, as it works to make its very pertinent point, lacks any Big Moments we’ve come to expect from Murphy’s shows.
The pitch of having Crawford and Davis co-star in the film is floated around to executives by director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina). Their responses and notes about the female characters could be transcripts from pitch meetings today: age the characters down, recast them with younger starlets, and beef up the non-essential role of the sexy neighbor.
Why? Tucci’s Warner responds point blank: “Would you fuck ‘em?”
Much in the vein that Murphy’s most recent triumph, People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, forced us into rethinking and ultimately even begging to have our previous judgments forgived—especially when it came to the treatment of attorney Marcia Clark—Feud: Bette and Joan asks us, or, more accurately, demands that we look beneath the juicy gossip about two (very famous) women who didn’t get along and instead explore the sexist and unforgiving societal and industry pressures that led to it.
In fact, were the series not so deliciously cast and the dialogue so on-the-nose about driving home that latter goal, we might even wonder if it set out to shame us for, or at least question why we are so gleefully thrilled to relish in the sordid details of this feud in the first place.
Sure, there’s fun to be had.
I’d venture that no series in television history devotes more time to characters taking off and putting back on their sunglasses. This is Ryan Murphy, reigning Supreme on Hollywood’s High Court of Diva Fetishists, after all. You don’t cast Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon and then not take them to the playground. From the two leads to Zeta-Jones, Davis, Bates, and on down, each word out of each actor drips with performance, befitting the subject matter.
Not one of them, save maybe Davis, actually manages to disappear into her role, or even do a passable impression of the person they’re playing—Sarandon, particularly, only tepidly toys with a peculiar accent—but maybe that’s the point. There’s the fun of seeing this stacked cast in drag as these Hollywood legends, but also the power of seeing these working actresses play out this tragedy of how the industry discards and mischaracterizes its women.
For all the camp you might expect from a project like this, the whole thing plays out with remarkable dignity. There’s not a lilypond in sight for Lange and Sarandon to brawl in. But that just makes their psychological warfare and the script’s alternating sympathies all the more monotonous. And so when the show does go for the camp—as it does occasionally with a silly music cue or over-lingering glare—it’s discordant.
But its message is in haunting harmony with the kind of story that needs to be told now.
Speaking to television reporters this winter, Lange said that the show reveals “what Hollywood does to women as they age, which is just a microcosm of what happens to women generally as they age, you know. Whether you want to say they become invisible, or they become unattractive or they become undesirable, or whatever it is.”
Crawford was 10 years younger than Lange is now when Feud takes place, she said, “and yet her career was finished because of her age.”