Feuds between women can so easily come down to being about a man, so I was hopeful when the first episode of FEUD offered the theory that Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford’s (Jessica Lange) hate was rooted in respect. A yearning for respect, for a partnership in a patriarchal system that is so destructive against women of a certain age. But alas, this is TV and only so few TV shows have nailed the nuance of a well-developed rivalry between women.
Bette and Joan briefly put aside their differences to demand that Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), a known philanderer, to fire the young, perky blonde who had been cast as the neighbor girl in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE. Cowed by the pressure from the two divas — who, when they decide to band together, could perhaps best all of Hollywood — Robert agrees, and we cut to the teary blonde actress walking off set with her things as Bette and Joan watch smugly.
Back to the documentary narrative — Joan Blondell explains that the real feud began when Joan Crawford signed with Warner’s, and Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci at it again!) used Joan’s newfound fame after MILDRED PIERCE to deal with his “problem child” Bette Davis, who was growing “far too powerful, especially for a woman.” The enmity between the two actresses became deeper as Warner pitted Joan and Bette against each other, making millions off them all the while.
On the set of BABY JANE, Bette and Joan are laughing together and finally getting along, at least, as it seemed to everyone else. But as the two of them make a show of it for the press, Jack Warner decides to go back to his old strategy of turning them against each other for his own personal gain. “Keep them at each other’s throats,” Jack orders Robert after revealing that he plans to throw his weight behind the film.
Robert is reticent at first, trying to convince himself through a late-night debate with his wife (Molly Price), then stonewalling gossip columnist Hedda Hopper when they meet for dinner. But Hedda needles him and he soon gives in, feeding her fake gossip that Bette Davis complained that Joan has fake breasts.
The next morning, a furious Joan wards off questioning reporters and storms into Bette’s shot, waving to Robert about Hedda’s column. Bette laughs it off, saying everyone knows she’s been padding her bra for years. Insulted, Joan threatens to sue Bette, before Robert takes Joan aside and calms her down while Bette looks on, glowering.
Later Joan calls a columnist from her bed, telling her “Bette Davis looks old enough to be my mother” and inciting another round of catfighting with Bette, who storms into her dressing room to threaten the steal the picture from her if she doesn’t, “Stop fitting in calls between your morning coffee and taking a shit of butterflies and moonbeams and whatever else comes flying out of your ass,” in a classic Ryan Murphy bitchy takedown. “If you don’t it’s your funeral,” Bette growls.
Meanwhile Jack is giddily eating up Joan and Bette’s rivalry on the dailies. “Pure, naked rancor,” he exclaims, brushing aside the campiness of the film itself and demanding that Robert up the feud. Robert objects, saying they’re already good and having a crisis of conscious about manipulating his stars to pad his own ego, but Warner overrules him.
With all the bravado being thrown about this episode, Sarandon yet again offers one of the few quiet moments as her Bette struggles with balancing her tension with Joan and her acting. “You won’t let me look ridiculous,” a frazzled and unsure Bette asks Robert in a private weekend meeting. He assures her he won’t and coaches her through her singing scene, the two of them growing more comfortable and affectionate.
The downside of this wonderful, quiet scene is that it’s Robert who is now at the center of Joan and Bette’s feud, Joan seething at the sight of Robert and Bette laughing affectionately together on set. Aided by her maid Mamacita — who may as well don a devil costume now for all her shoulder whisperings afford her — Joan tries to seduce Robert, luring him over to her house with the pretense that her lover Peter (Reed Diamond) had left her. Peter walks in on the scene, and both men leave, Robert in a last-minute ditch for dignity, and Peter at Joan’s demands for a “recast.”
An angry Hedda storms into Joan’s house about Joan handing an exclusive to her competition, but in a masterful stroke of manipulation, Joan earns Hedda’s sympathy and her loyalty, confessing that she’s $2 million in debt after her husband’s death. Joan wistfully yearns for a few more years of relevance and Hedda assures her that she will help her against Bette, a new alliance formed.
As Joan continues her triumphant build-up of allies, Bette is on a downward spiral — offended upon the casting of her love interest as the effeminate Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess), and disturbed to see her daughter B.D. (Kieran Shipka) flirting with the crew. Upset about her daughter’s fast-track to adulthood, she demands that B.D. pack her bags, but ends up being torn apart by her daughter, who accuses Bette of being jealous and bitter about losing her youth, spotlight and dignity.
A tear-stricken Bette calls Robert over to comfort her after her daughter’s verbal lashing. She sadly admits that everything she said was true that her time may have passed. “My goddamn work, my one true love, and now that’s going to leave me,” she bemoans. He encourages her but she brings up the insulting casting of Buono and he assures her that he’s a brilliant Broadway actor. Pacified, Bette chatter with Robert about their careers, and they kiss, Robert’s objections to Joan earlier about working on his marriage falling to the wayside.
Yet again, I find myself mixed on FEUD. While I find endearing the softer moments that Bette and Robert’s scenes offer, I’m not fond of the insert of the director as the central figure in a fight between two powerful women. And I’m less fond of the fight being engineered by Jack Warner, as much as I love Tucci in every scene he’s in. Lange’s portrayal of Joan as a Cersei-like figure, twisted by the internalized misogyny that she purports to disown, was fascinating to me in the first episode, but verges on caricature as the show runs on. It may be “war” as Jack Warner declares in the episode, but I want to see the quiet moments between when the bullets fly and the blood is spilt.
Season 1, Episode 2 (S01E02)
Feud 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