Five episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
“Feuds are never about hate,” famed screen legend Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) explains to a documentary film director in the opening minutes of what’s likely to be your simmering new obsession: Feud. “They’re about pain.” Anthology fetishist Ryan Murphy understands that pathos to a disturbingly detailed degree, and in tracking the blistering “friendship” between legendary actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, he ends up with one of his best cracks at the anthology genre in years.
The show’s premise risks stepping into the catty trap of comebacks and catfights at first blush, but Murphy and company have no desire to reduce Bette and Joan’s discourse into a frivolous fiasco. Feud is deliberate and cunning, with as much guile and guts as the two women at its center. Its drama is a slower-burn than Murphy’s typical chomping-at-the-bit style, but its rewards are doubly greater for patient viewers. Everything is artfully crafted and directed, particularly in one doozy of a fifth hour, yet B-level juicy all the way through. Its aim of title-fight antics between two modern legends is totally fulfilled, but its reach – into sexism, into ageism, into homophobia, into still-existing Hollywood prejudices – is surprisingly deep.
But the show isn’t drowning in ideals and hamfisted messages, Murphy adeptly layers his intent into a story that totally falls under the “based on true events” rulebook: things get so intensely crazy, it would have been impossible for anyone to make these twists and turns up. After setting up the framing device of a 1978 documentarian asking questions to various Hollywood legends, Feud dives into what started out as a bitter acquaintanceship between aging screen actresses Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), which eventually turned into “a feud of biblical proportions.”
Crawford is simultaneously resentful of the way Hollywood has treated her in her golden years and desperately hopeful for the future, or what little there might be left for her in the town. In a last-ditch attempt to make something happen for herself, she asks an old director friend of hers, Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), to join her in a risky venture: adapting a little-known suspense novel called What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? into a svelte, shocking B-movie horror picture.
Since the novel’s central premise is one of pain and passion, Crawford visits her old frenemy Bette Davis and asks her to join the movie, arguing that neither of them are getting roles because of their age, so perhaps if they teamed up they’d gain the spotlight back. That’s the tip of the iceberg in regards to Feud‘s fascinating descent into the one-two punch of ageists who ran (and run) Hollywood, and the sexists who were happy keeping the women as toothless ingenues on screen and replaceable assistants off screen. When bloodthirsty columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis, who highlights Feud‘s marvellous costume work) warns Crawford not to blame the gossip rags for the pedestal built by men that allows just one “it” girl at a time, Crawford bites back. “Men may have built the pedestal, but it’s the women who keep chipping away at it until it comes tumbling down.”
That’s Feud in a sad, terrifically nailed bullseye – and residing within that bullseye is Lange. The star acts byzantine loop-de-loops all over Feud, portraying the duality of Crawford’s do-or-die work ethic and her deep, unbinding insecurity with the effortless only she can muster. Her schemes risk falling into over-the-top annoyance, but Murphy constantly reins the Feud scripts down to a normal working and believable level of reality. Once Crawford and Davis are on the absolute splits later in the season, Lange only gets more fascinating, more understandably distraught, and the lengths she goes to to be noticed by her peer group are steeped in earned poignancy and savage cliffhangers.
She’s a total legend, playing another legend, and it’s one of the many hidden gems of Feud when you get quiet moments of honest ennui – depicting a woman who is tragically self-aware of the rules and restrictions of the decade she’s trapped in – while also totally crushing scenes and lines just waiting for the Tumblr fan pages to start memorializing the show’s truly pristine attitude. It feels like the role Murphy always meant to write for Lange – deep and affecting, but also light and frothy – and Lange has the uncommon ability to make the bitchiness both kind, like when she’s dealing with smarmy Warner Bros. executive Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), and explicit, like when she tells Bette what she really thinks about her snub at the 1950 Oscars in one of the absolute best line-readings I’ve seen on TV in a year.
Like the movie-within-the-show that they’re making, Sarandon’s role as Bette Davis is a bit more showy, perhaps to a fault, but she’s just as much a wonder as Lange. Her blunt personality and tendency to not give a shit fuels the best dialogue of the season, but she’s just as fed up with Hollywood as Crawford. She wants to stay in the game as much as her rival and sees Baby Jane as the fastest avenue to that end, and once Oscar nominations come about, she’s not one to feel ashamed about letting everyone know how desperate she is for affirmation. “I want this,” she tells a reporter later in the season.
Sarandon also gets a few great scenes with Bette’s rebellious daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka, good as always but distractingly typecast from the Draper household on Mad Men) and her work husband Victor (Dominic Burgess), who highlights the burgeoning importance of Davis’s career in the underground homosexual community at the time. Feud also allows time away from its head-butting stars and in those moments small parts shine, like Robert’s put-upon assistant Pauline (Alison Wright), who has industry aspirations of her own that are often laughed into the dirt by those around her.
But, as the title goes, the feud is front and center, and Sarandon and Lange are absolute gangbusters together, suggesting eons of pre-history in mirrored glances and abrupt door slams, and building understandable tension behind the scenes of Baby Jane. It’s a tragedy, really, down to the way that Davis and Crawford are puppeteered by the men surrounding them, and although I knew little-to-nothing about the events portrayed prior to watching the show, Murphy’s dramatization doesn’t feel like a shortchanged, faithless endeavor.
The complete opposite is the case: his passion and pain for these women bleeds from the screen, and it’s only in the little moments in between that Feud‘s nitpicky shortcomings can be found. For all its warranted sadness and surgically precise dive into the feminine mind of the era, Feud tends to lean on juicy indulgences and shenanigans to push the plot forward early on. Which isn’t a bad thing, and it makes a few late-in-the-game emotional turns more impactful, but the first few hours are more airy and weightless than those that come later. Thankfully, an insanely good eye for the era makes the visuals of the show pop, and a few scenes of genuinely nifty direction – one a Birdman-like backstage shot by Murphy himself – results in a show that feels both distinct and unique.
It’s a distinction that doesn’t feel spurious, a uniqueness that’s both familiar in the Murphy anthology wheelhouse but also downright fresh. And although it might take some convincing to stick with it, the five episodes sent to critics culminate in a maelstrom of giddy, nervous entertainment and well-drawn pathos. What was the point of all of it? Feud seems to ask with an anger and desperation as angry and desperate as its subjects. Why did they so painfully despise one another? Why did they waste their energy? Why couldn’t they see the strings they were attached to? Or as Crawford’s beau (Reed Diamond) plainly asks, “You two have so much in common, more than any two other people on the planet. Why can’t you just get along?” Feud answers that question with a confident, uncompromising, and entertaining industry drama that could easily earn some award chatter of its own.
Sure, the bitchy jabs fly and the on-set shenanigans are ripe with drama, but Feud's secret weapon is its intense understanding that what fueled Bette Davis and Joan Crawford was a tragically persistent wave of pain, frustration, and sorrow.