Camp and costume. Those are the main features of Ryan Murphy’s newest anthology series FEUD, the first season of which centers on legendary Classic Hollywood divas, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange). The series takes place in 1962 when Bette and Joan filmed their only movie together — WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE — and is framed through a documentary being filmed in 1973, as other Classic Hollywood actresses like Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) and Olivia de Havilland narrate about the epic, decades-spanning feud between the two.
“There was never a rivalry like theirs. For nearly half a century, they hated each other and we loved them for it,” purrs Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a flat cameo unbefitting her star power). It’s an effective framing device, but I have to admit, I tired of it quickly. I wanted more than just snappy one-liners from equally legendary actresses commenting on the legacy of Bette and Joan. I wanted deeper insight into the titular characters of our FEUD, more so than just the occasional lingering close-up on their vulnerable, tear-stained faces, or campy recreations of their famous film scenes. Despite being central to the story, Bette and Joan are virtually silent on the feud that was splashed across so many tabloid magazines.
In FEUD, Bette and Joan are seasoned actresses past their prime — that is, they’re no longer the nubile ingenues that captured the hearts of American audiences in the Golden Age of Hollywood (ironic since both of them made their most iconic roles when they were well into their 40s). Instead, in one of the first scenes of FEUD, we see up-and-coming “It Girl” Marilyn Monroe winning an award at the 1961 Golden Globes, as Joan seethes at the injustice.
Later in an interview with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), Joan gets to the heart of the issue (and this show’s running thesis), railing against the sexism and ageism inherent in Hollywood, and that women are the worst offenders. “Men may have built the pedestal, but women keep chipping away at it,” she rants to an unimpressed Hedda. Hedda — who, truthfully would work best as the sole narrator in the documentary framing the feud — comments that Joan has had no roles to prove her critics wrong, giving Joan an idea.
After a failed meeting with her agent, Joan takes her own initiative, sending her housemaid Mamacita to the bookstore to find a female-led story worthy of her talent. They happen on the gothic horror book “What Ever Happens to Baby Jane,” and the wheels are set in motion. Joan approaches an old collaborator Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina, playing him in truly typically sleazy Hollywood fashion), a B-movie director hoping to inject some vitality back into his career. Post-PSYCHO success, he is intrigued by her offer, even more so when she suggests “the perfect costar.”
Meanwhile Bette is enduring a Broadway stage play in a thankless role and a bad wig, taking refuge with her signature cigarette and a bourbon in her dressing room as her costars drink in the applause. Sarandon’s Bette feels closest to our dynamic impression of the diva, dropping the first (of many) f-bombs when she hears that Joan is there to visit her. The animosity is palpable as snipe at each other about past work indiscretions, but Joan makes her pitch successfully when she offers Bette the “title role.”
Later, throwing aside tepid newspaper reviews of her performance, Bette contemplates BABY JANE, later calling Robert to ask if Joan “f***ed him” for the movie. He sweet talks her, calling her a great artist and promising her it will be the greatest horror movie ever made. The three of them have a lot riding on this movie, Bette and Joan aware that they have no other options in their career, and Robert desperate to get out of his B-movie niche. Joan as well as in a financially dire situation after the death of her last husband, despite his leaving her his Pepsi-Cola empire.
Robert makes the rounds to studio executives, but he finds the ageism at its height — they only want younger, sexy or Natalie Wood. He finally makes his way to the Warner Bros. executive Jack Warner (a delightfully candid Stanley Tucci, stealing the scenes), who continually refuses to work again with the former Warner Bros. stars. He works himself up into a rage, bitter that the studio system crashed because of Bette’s lawsuit against them to end her contract. “Her unemployment is my long-simmering revenge,” he says defiantly. Robert pulls out his ace, saying Warner needs a hit after TV has taken their audience, and that he has the only thing TV can’t offer: horror.
Bette and Joan are doing a press event together which grows gradually more tense as Joan hawks her Pepsi-Cola products and the two of them make a power grab for top billing. The press eat up their passive aggressive clawing, but Robert notices Joan didn’t sign the contract and they glower at each other. The attention-hungry Joan, angry that Bette is getting paid more, attempts to get Robert’s affection and loyalty, but he rejects her, and she’s left to only demanding more money.
Griping to her most recent lover Peter (Reed Diamond) about Bette, Joan finally reveals that what she wants from Bette — and the reason she asked her on this project — was that she wanted not her friendship, but her respect. “Queen Bitch,” as she called Bette, refused to acknowledge her talent, nor did any of the other women of Hollywood. Blaming Bette for “one of my failed marriages” had been the root of her feud with the actress, but Joan’s own internalized misogyny and quest for adulation was perhaps the reason it had gone on for so long.
Lange’s Joan always feels somewhat like she’s putting on a performance (which I partly blame on Faye Dunaway’s camp depiction of Joan Crawford in 1981’s MOMMIE DEAREST, which has unfortunately superseded much of Joan’s legacy), but Bette feels truly vulnerable in her scene with her ex and ALL ABOUT EVE costar Gary Merrill. He greets her after the press event to deliver their divorce papers, and they briefly bicker before they fall into bed, the scene replete with a history of old wounds and desire. “Bette always chose the professional over the private,” Blondell narrates over the poignant scene. It’s one of the few scenes that feels like it gets to the heart of these divas around which the glamorous narratives revolve.
On the first day of shooting, the show juxtaposes the two characters’ at their flattest: Joan with her infamous ice face routine, perfecting her wheelchair movements before heading to set, and greeting and gifting each of the crew members while Mamacita mutters information in her ear; Bette waking bedraggled with a morning cigarette and arriving to set with her daughter (oh hey, Kiernan Shipka), immediately annoyed that Joan had sucked up to the crew for better lighting.
Bette enters Joan’s dressing room where Joan is having a drink, and they come to a compromise to put the movie before their feud. Joan nearly thinks she finally gets the respect she craves when Bette compliments her acting, but immediately loses that illusion when Bette tells her to “lose the shoulder pads” — again underlining Joan’s wish to maintain the glamor of old Hollywood while Bette is a character actress through and through.
The crew wait in anticipation as Joan films her first scene in three years — she struggles to start at first, but nails it to Robert’s delight. Pacified by Robert’s praise and the flattery of a DP about her looks, Joan is assured that the spotlight is back on her.
However, Bette, ready to take her revenge for Joan’s diva demands, is frustratedly putting together her costume, wanting the character to look “more demented.” When her assistant tells her that one of the available wigs was used by Joan in a previous film, she smiles in malicious glee, and we see her put together the ghoulish costume as her assistant and daughter look on in horror. She struts onto set, the spotlight dramatically turning to her as she shows off the macabre doll-like white makeup, stark red lips and signature “heart” beauty mark. “Hello Daddy” she announces, Joan aghast as Robert and the crew applaud her artistry.
The first day of filming wrapped with Bette stealing the show and Joan unhappy with the garish lighting, the two of them tensely walk to Hedda’s house together for a dinner interview. Realizing that Hedda is “out for blood,” they begrudgingly agree to not give her anything, and Hedda unhappily narrates that the two of them seem the perfect costars.
It’s easy to be taken in by the glitz and glamor of FEUD, but the show seems to be missing the vivacity that both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford originally brought to the silver screen in the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s a rather lurid interpretation of their personal strife, grief and cat-fighting, but it’s one that on brand for Ryan Murphy — a creator not exceptionally well-known for his subtlety. For two actresses who were larger than life, perhaps camp is the only way to justly depict them. “There was never a rivalry like theirs,” but perhaps it’s because there were never again stars like them.
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Show Titles airs Day at 10PM on FX
Hoai-Tran is a freelance pop culture journalist based in D.C., with an affinity for superheroes, TV, movies, and Jeff Goldbum memes. She currently works as a web producer for the Washington Examiner and has written for USA Today.
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Hoai-Tran Bui | Contributor