Feud: Bette and Joan opens with another Hollywood icon: Olivia de Havilland. It's 1978 and the two-time Oscar winner is being interviewed for a documentary, the framing device for Ryan Murphy's new FX anthology series.
"Feuds are never about hate," de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) says. "Feuds are about pain. They're about pain."
The line is every bit as much a theme of the series as it is a warning to viewers to recalibrate expectations. You'd be forgiven if you go into the show expecting tantrums and hair-pulling and the usual over-the-top ridiculousness that's a hallmark of a non-O.J. Ryan Murphy joint. The premise — Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's rivalry during the filming of their 1962 psychological horror thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? — lends itself to all that melodrama and juicy gossip, and there is some to be sure, but Murphy demonstrates a remarkable and much welcomed restraint from reducing their story into vacuous catfights.
By the 1960s, Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Davis (Susan Sarandon) were basically unemployable because they dared to age past 40. Refusing to fade away, Crawford plots a comeback with an adaptation of suspense novel Baby Jane with her Autumn Leaves director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina). She's savvy to know she can't do it alone and recruits longtime rival Davis in an effort to revitalize both of their careers. No one's giving them parts, so they have to take matters into their own hands.
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The hustle is estimable — and also a sad, painful indictment of ageism and sexism in an industry run by men that's all too happy to calculate a woman's desirability and value, and all too willing to dismiss her when she doesn't meet that threshold. Murphy is arguably best to tackle these themes, as he's made a deliberate point of championing older actresses in female-led projects in recent years. (At 70 and 67, respectively, Sarandon and Lange are more than a decade older than the then-54-year-old Davis and 58-year-old Crawford.) Last year, he established the Half Foundation to commit 50 percent of the directorial slots on his shows to women.
Murphy also has a personal history with Davis, having corresponded with her when he was a child and having met her shortly before she died in 1989. It's perhaps because of his personal ties that Murphy is using such a delicate hand this time. That's not to say Feud isn't fun — there are shenanigans and name-calling and zingers aplenty, and the elegant, lush sets are recreated with painstaking detail — but Murphy's affection and respect for the Oscar-winning screen legends are clear. His refusal to go full camp but rather explore the interiors of these women's lives and their frustrating change of fortune is the best part of the show. Feud is strongest when his leading ladies are given the space, individually and together, to unearth the pathos behind their contentious exteriors. And one of the great things the show offers is the reframing and, not to be pedantic, education of Crawford and Davis, who, with each passing year, are largely remembered as solely camp queens for one film (though Mommie Dearest haunts Crawford too) rather than for their varied, storied pre-Baby Jane careers and first-rate talents.
Lange and Sarandon are predictably excellent. They don't look exactly like the late acting titans — although at certain angles with a certain death glare Sarandon is a dead ringer for Davis — but they infuse and embody their personas so transcendently. Lange is comfortably at home playing another loopy grand dame in a Ryan Murphy production. Crawford is the bigger, theatrical, combustible character, and Lange wears her insecurity on her sleeve, excavating a furious fragility through Crawford's various beauty regimens and deep desperation to reignite her career. Sarandon gives Davis a steely fragility, capturing the icon's legendary DGAF-ness, brassiness and wit. She's just as pained and beaten down as Crawford but wears it as armor.
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The supporting players are great too, from Molina's flustered Aldrich playing mediator between his two leads and Alison Wright as Aldrich's put-upon assistant Pauline to Kiernan Shipka as Bette's awkward daughter B.D., who has a part in Baby Jane, and Judy Davis' scene-stealing turn as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Stanley Tucci, as studio head Jack Warner, is a larger-than-life riot and the way he bellows a certain profane word in the pilot will make you want to have it on a loop forever. Zeta-Jones, Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell and Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page mostly amount to cameos, though Zeta-Jones has more screen time as Davis' BFF de Havilland.
Feud is eight episodes long and production on Baby Jane wraps in the third (the first five episodes were made available to press). Episode 5 is when their feud reaches its peak at the Academy Awards — a must-see for Oscar obsessives — that includes a Birdman-esque tracking shot through the bowels of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Only Davis was nominated for Baby Jane, but Crawford infamously offered to accept on the behalf of the other Best Actress nominees and wound up on stage when an absent Anne Bancroft won.
It's hard to say what Murphy has planned for the final three episodes. He adapted Feud from Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam's unproduced Best Actress screenplay that was on the 2009 Black List. As a result, there's some filler that misguidedly deviates from his two leads. But there's much to mine from Crawford's and Davis' lives for those hours, including their aborted reunion on Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte — and much to learn from and admire too.
"You mean all this time we could have been friends?" Jane (Davis) asks Blanche (Crawford) at the end of Baby Jane. Davis and Crawford probably could've been too in real life — they had more in common than not — but their stubborn refusal has given us a Feud definitely worth watching.
Feud: Bette and Joan premieres Sunday at 10/9c on FX.