FX’s ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ stars Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Does Ryan Murphy’s limited series live up to the catty hype?
When FX announced the Ryan Murphy production Feud: Bette and Joan, those familiar with his style instantly imagined the worst. The series focuses on the intense rivalry between Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange). Potential cat fighting, old Hollywood glamour, and the backstory of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane all seem tailor-made for Murphy. Given that, many imagined the series would devolve into a high class trash-fest. Something perhaps akin to a limited series Mommie Dearest. Turns out, that’s not at all what Murphy intended.
Feud: Bette and Joan immediately settles on the theme of tossed-aside actresses “of a certain age.” The first two episodes available for press featured less about the actual making of the classic horror film than Davis and Crawford’s pitied state in Hollywood. Crawford, desperate for cash, scoured female-centered novels for the right material, something Hollywood wouldn’t provide. Davis, a 2-time Oscar winner, found herself relegated to New York theater. Crawford’s discovery of Henry Farrell’s original Baby Jane novel spurred hit-starved director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) to drive the production forward.
Ryan Murphy directs much of the series. Judging from the two episodes I’ve seen, that’s both a blessing and a curse. Murphy’s steady hand behind the camera helped set a respectful tone for The People v. O.J. Simpson, surprising many with his nuance. He tries to strike the same tone here as clearly the topic of aging Hollywood actresses carries the same gravitas as the O.J. Simpson case. He understands working with actors and framing them in exquisite set design. However, the material longs for a juicier touch. The pilot’s script by Ryan Murphy large eschews the bitch-camp factor we’d all expected. Kudos to him for continuing to defy expectations, but the material, while often very entertaining, runs the risk of becoming too dry, too stately to enjoy.
This being a Ryan Murphy production, Feud: Bette and Joan‘s performances are uniformly very good. Neither Sarandon nor Lange try particularly hard to completely impersonate their famed actress counterparts. Lange gives a very “Ryan Murphy production” performance with echoes of American Horror Story: Coven‘s Fiona Goode sprinkled throughout. Still, she’s the weaker of the two here, miscast and instantly appearing much older than Crawford at the time of Baby Jane. She tries to explore the alcoholism and resentment that plagued Crawford’s personal life, but you watch the performance feeling you’ve seen it all before rendered through the now-patent Jessica Lange mannerisms.
Sarandon, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. I haven’t seen her give a performance this bold in a long time. While her voice isn’t quite right, she completely nails the overall aura of Bette Davis. She parades around the sets in Davis’s uniquely confident, fuck-you way. In public, she’s a bitch on wheels, but in private, she’s desperately lonely, unable to nurture healthy relationships. My favorite scene of the series thus far belongs to her – the construction and revelation of her Baby Jane costume and infamous makeup. Molina also registers a strong performance as the constantly “between a rock and a hard place” director, and Judy Davis’s Hedda Hopper performs Hedda Hopper exactly as you imagined she would.
I have a hard time imagining exactly who Feud: Bette and Joan appeals to. It’s a very strong limited series with a lot to offer, but it doesn’t dig enough into Baby Jane to satisfy hard-core film enthusiasts. On the flip side, it doesn’t offer enough depth to engage more serious-minded viewers. The two leads feel relatively well written and fleshed out, but the Greek chorus of Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) annoyed me intensely. Also, the role of Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) has all the subtlety of a mustache-twirlling villain.
Feud promised the sauciness of a Hedda Hopper headline, but it feels watered down and vaguely neutered. That said, there’s still much to admire in the series. The set designs and costumes are literally perfect and seem destined for Emmy glory. Sarandon, too, appears to be the natural front-runner here, but it’s unlikely Lange will be campaigned in the Supporting category. But the theme of Hollywood throwing away women “of a certain age” already feels stretched very thin over the first two episodes. Feud is something the Television Academy will clearly embrace, just perhaps not as hard as they did O.J. Simpson.