At least three layers of appeal lure us into the semi-guilty pleasure that is writer/director Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-part limited series that premiered last Sunday on FX. First, there is the tawdry thrill of the “feud” element — the barely suppressed rivalry and delectable nastiness between “aging” stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (as played, potently, by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, respectively) coming together to make Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962’s campy classic. Cattiness, bitter words, ripe insults, and even the c word fly amid product-plugging Pepsi bottles, poisonous hearsay, and attempts to mediate the stormy relations by director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina).
Secondly, we also happily bask in the lovingly and kitsch-ish attention paid to period details, with the saturated color palette and retro-hip fashion tactics presaged by one of those shows that helped cement the new, upgraded aesthetic of television in recent years, Mad Men. The new drama, lavishly realized by production designer Judy Becker and cinematographer Nelson Cragg, is a Technicolor-dream-coated vision of that transitional between zone of the late ’50s and early ’60s, in the dizzy afterglow of an earlier Hollywood golden age and before the mid- to late-’60s counter-culture redefined what was hip and sellable.
Thirdly — and the closest to broaching a more serious subject — there is a compelling layer of interest in the plight of Hollywood actresses of “a certain age,” often deprived of worthy roles despite their artistic vitality. It doesn’t help when said veteran females had a history of bucking the studio system and the rampant misogyny in the industry. “They’re not making women’s pictures anymore,” says Crawford, trying to convince her rival to collaborate. Later, Davis plainly nails their volatile relationship in the dressing room of the studio where Baby Jane is being birthed: “I don’t like you, and you don’t like me, but we need each other.”
Youth is the ticket in Hollywood’s worldview, and it was ever thus. The message is never lost that this Davis-versus-Crawford tale has a present-day parallel in the careers of two of our greatest living actresses, Lange and Sarandon, too seldom granted roles worth sinking their talents into. They have found a prime exception, courtesy of the call from director Murphy (American Crime Story, American Horror Story).
In the series, part of a larger FX Feud anthology and based on the feature-length script Best Actress by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, the choice, artful yet campy roles are masterfully achieved. Lange’s supple cunning and Mommie Dearest sadism and eccentricity both satirize the public view of Crawford and respect her personal intensity and self-dignity. Sarandon, who — it’s true — does have moony Bette Davis eyes, intuitively understands the fine line between menace and self-protective pride. Somewhere in the battlefield middle zone is evil gossip queen Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), inviting the reluctant collaborators to dinner with the telling quip, “Welcome to the house that fear built.” Gotta love it.
Other ripe moments abound in the series’ opening episode, at the center of our attention and in the periphery, in the staging, suave camera moves, and music — from the straight stuff of Nat King Cole’s “Autumn Leaves” and Jack Jones’s “Wives and Lovers” to the wonderfully wild melody reconstruction project of Sarah Vaughan’s version of “Embraceable You.”
As of this week, the feud had just begun heating up, as they begin filming Baby Jane. Whatever happens, there seems to be a juicy serial tale in store, for eyes, ears, and sneers, with fetishistic Hollywood lore on the side.