The series premiere of Feud: Bette and Joan (FX, Sundays, 10/9C) is the story of one of Hollywood’s greatest feuds – that between Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) as they made Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (the only time they ever worked together).
It’s also the story of how these two fading stars fought misogyny, sexism and ageism in Hollywood while trying to extend their careers and retain their hard won fame.
The premiere opens with Crawford being told, bluntly, that there are no roles for her and that, if she wants to work again, she’ll have to find the property herself. So, with her staff wanting to know when they’ll get paid, she sends her maid and best friend, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) to buy books ‘with ladies on the cover.’
When Mamacita presents her with Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, she reads it and decides it would be the perfect project to do with Davis. The problem is that either no one wants to do it with Crawford and Davis, or they don’t want to do it with director Robert Aldridge (Alfred Molina).
Even then, once the project is ready to go, there’s the problem of Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) – the most genteelly vicious gossip columnist Hollywood has ever seen (in a sequence where Crawford and Davis arrive at Hopper’s home for a gossip-over-dinner session, she greets them with, ‘Welcome to the house that fear built!’).
For the most part, the Feud premiere walks a tightrope between camp and real drama – with the campier moments being more purely entertaining (the mental games Crawford and Davis play with each other, for example) and the more purely dramatic moments serving to highlight the nature of Hollywood at the time.
From the opening credits – a delightful homage to the work of Saul Bass – to the conclusion, this is an hour that is certainly one of Murphy’s best.
The script by Jaffe Cohen & Michael Zam and Ryan Murphy, and directed by Murphy, is filled with juicy details (Crawford’s flask; the Pepsi machine on set close to the stars’ dressing rooms; the conversation in which Aldridge persuades Stanley Tucci’s Jack Warner to make the picture) delivers crackling energy, style and wit – and the cast makes the most of it (I submit that Lange and Sarandon have never been better).
Feud: Bette and Joan is off to a great start.
Final Grade: A