Feud: Bette and Joan, the prolific Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series for FX, revisits the gossipy battle of ill-wills between aging Hollywood legends Joan Crawford (played by Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) as they make the 1962 hothouse horror film and surprise hit Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Strip out the proper nouns and you have a series created by a contemporary camp master about two camp legends’ infamously campy mutual hatred as they struggle to make a camp classic.
Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in Feud: Bette and Joan.
Reduce further still and Feud = camp + camp + camp + camp. Except, in some head-scratching mathematical twist, Feud is not nearly campy enough. Logicians, riddle-lovers,
Feud begins in 1962 when the imperious Joan, a star since the silents, can no longer find work. Edging toward her 60s, widowed, broke, and more than a decade removed from her Best Actress turn in Mildred Pierce, she has reached the “certain age” that renders her unhireable by the Hollywood boys’ club. Joan takes matters into her own hands, scouring books for a part that’s neither gorgon nor mother, and finds Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?—a suspense story about two sisters and former stars, one in a wheelchair and one deranged, cooped up in a house together. Joan brings the book to the director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) and tells him who to cast as Jane: Bette Davis. Bette’s career has also ground to a halt, and she agrees to work with Joan despite decades of enmity. Bette and Joan’s cold truce heats up in a hurry once filming starts, and the two are soon engaged in cruelty, backbiting, scheming, and literal low blows, all great publicity for the movie, blurring the lines between which set of former divas, fictional or real, hate each other’s guts.
Feud is like an elaborate, meaty meal prepared by a vegetarian chef: All of the ingredients are sitting on the counter, but there is some squeamishness about using them. Feud promises a knock-down, drag-out fight between two legendary dames at a time when it has become uncouth and impolitic to celebrate a catfight. To ameliorate Feud’s ideological discomfort with its very subject, it has thrown a tiger and a lion in a cage and turned them into emotionally distressed zoo animals.
The show seeks to excuse its central preoccupation—girl-on-girl action—by pointing out all the ways Crawford and Davis’ bad blood was roiled by unscrupulous men, gossip columnists, and power brokers. But by contextualizing Crawford and Davis as women who can’t break free of the sexism ingrained in Hollywood and in themselves, they are reduced to cogs in that system, albeit very shiny ones. “Feuds are never about hate, they’re about pain,” Olivia De Havilland (Catherine Zeta Jones) explains in a 1978 documentary that frames the show and explains (and explains) the origins of Bette and Joan’s mutual loathing. It's a mealy-mouthed distinction. Bring on the hate! What’s so much more ennobling about pain?
Feud unfolds in an odd register: fun-adjacent. Like a show that decries female exploitation and nudity, while providing copious images of female exploitation and nudity, Feud laments the climate that pitted these two women against each another—while pitting these two women against each other. Am I a creep for wanting fewer stentorian explanations and more juicy machinations? Bette and Joan are two larger-than-life characters animated by gnarly, complicated resentment and mistrust, co-starring in a movie that ends with the line, “You mean all this time we could have been friends?” (What a line!) Bette has the power in their dynamic: the greater talent, the better reputation, the happier childhood, first crack at all the scripts. All Joan wants is Bette’s respect. But Bette finds Joan impossible, aggravating, petulant, and not particularly talented—and feels just competitive enough with her not to be able to hide any of this. Bette can’t take the high road, and it sends Joan off on the low one, a Crawford scorned.
Rather than delve into the heady grist of this dynamic, Feud looks for the bogeyman who perpetuated it, offering up studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), nursing her own resentment about a failed acting career, and even Aldrich as the instigators of Bette and Joan’s war. All these middlemen tamp the drama down, turning bitchy shenanigans into a repetitive (if true!) object lesson: Hollywood is an unchanged and unchanging bastion of manipulative sexism. It’s like listening to an MP3 that’s had its volume degraded in copying: Joan and Bette are always turned up to 12, but the show never gets louder than a seven.
Feud is based on a screenplay by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, and though Murphy is a co-creator who has written and directed some of the episodes, as with American Crime Story: The People v. O.J., it feels as though someone else has set the tone. Given that Murphy is currently at work on multiple iterations of three anthology series—three seasons of American Crime Story are currently in the works, the latest American Horror Story will apparently take on the recent presidential election, and Feud will next tackle Charles and Diana—he has to delegate. But Feud misses his scathing bitchiness, if not his Glee-era interest in making thesis statements. De Havilland and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates), who also appears in the 1978 documentary, are on hand to provide leaden expository dialogue about Joan and Bette’s careers and the ways that they, and their fight, were manipulated.
American Crime Story hovers over Feud in another way as well. It attempts to do for Joan Crawford what The People v. O.J. did so successfully for Marcia Clark: rescue her reputation. Even the casting is a tip-off about where Feud’s heart lies. Jessica Lange, not Susan Sarandon, is Murphy’s muse, and as he has demonstrated in multiple seasons of American Horror Story, he loves her too much to undermine her.
Crawford, born Lucille LeSueur—Bette insists on calling her Lucille, a hint at the class dynamics, Yankee versus white trash, that contributed to their antagonism—had a hardscrabble childhood and a negligent mother, lost her virginity to her stepfather at 11, was sent to a convent, and clawed her way to the top in Hollywood with a kind of rictus glamour, a well-manicured artifice layered over steely toughness that has gone so far out of style there’s not a possibility it will come back. She’s a movie star in an old-school way: Her face is meant to tower above us on celluloid, her eyebrows perfectly arched, no matter who she is playing. Davis existed on a more contemporary continuum: an actress who wanted to push herself to act. Her most famous role, as knowing, sardonic Margo Channing in All About Eve, still feels modern.
Even in the ’60s, this battle of styles was one that Crawford had lost. Joan drives Aldrich and Bette crazy with her need to look perfect while playing an abused recluse. Meanwhile, Bette allows herself to look hideously crazed on camera and garners the Oscar nomination that still goes with that kind of showy self-degradation. And this was all before Crawford became synonymous with Mommie Dearest—the abusive, alcoholic mother immortalized in her adopted daughter’s scathing best-seller, released in 1978 (a year and a half after Crawford’s death) and then made into a film starring Faye Dunaway.
Crawford doesn’t get a completely redemptive edit. She’s drunk, she’s malicious, she’s petty. (Though five episodes in she is not, for whatever it’s worth, presented as an abusive mother, just a strict and emotionally rigid one.) But she’s also Jessica Lange, who has an inherent dignity even when behaving like a spite machine. Bette Davis may have been a better actress than Joan Crawford, but it’s Lange who has the showcase here. She’s the center of the series, refusing to let Hollywood shuffle her to the side, her own best advocate and her own worst enemy. Sarandon, and her heavy-lidded Bette Davis eyes, has a saner character to play. Resentments aren’t always equal. This feud needs Joan to drive it. Dunaway, who came to regret her role in Mommie Dearest, said she had hoped that film would be a “window into a tortured soul, but it was made into camp.” No one could say the same about Feud.