I must admit that I was very intrigued about the behind the scenes relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis after I watched What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? a few weeks ago. Since I’m on a brief vacation I had a little time to watch the eight episode limited series, which focused on the oft tumultuous relationship between the two Hollywood stars, and I am glad that I did.
I am not under any impression that what was presented on screen over the course of the series is historically accurate, but the intent to humanize these two larger than life characters and to demystify some of the legend was a worthy effort. I have a complicated relationship with Ryan Murphy (the creator of the show), as I find his penchant for the dramatic, the over the top, the cheesy, the kitsch, to be quite appealing, but his inability to tell a story to its end without getting sidelined by a hundred different detours that never fully come together drives me absolutely bonkers. From Popular, to Nip/Tuck, to Glee, to American Horror Story, I always feel at some point that he has absolutely and irrevocably lost his way. He also tends to repeat himself a lot, his self-referential notes are egotistical and annoying, and I could do without them. But when he gets things right, his work is not just watchable, but bingeable. And he has a true and uncanny ability to assemble incredible talent, getting some of the biggest stars to appear in his series. He also provides meaty roles for people, especially actresses, that can still do a hell of a lot of great work, if someone would just give them the opportunity to. A moral that this very season specifically and unabashedly keeps hitting home throughout its run.
The choice to frame the show through the filter of a documentary, with actresses like Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) providing exposition to camera, is slightly annoying. Most of the narrative is simply portrayed in a straightforward manner, so this unnecessary stylistic choice doesn’t ever really make sense. At least de Havilland’s involvement is explained, as she was a close friend of Bette Davis’ and would also eventually costar with her in a movie. Blondell, on the other hand, is never connected to the actual narrative. She only appears as an interviewee and shows up at an Oscar ceremony in the very last episode, forcibly; otherwise she is nowhere to be seen, so why is she in this at all? Even though I love Bates, her existence is never justified.
The series focuses on the events that led to the filming of the first and only movie the two actresses ever made together, and the years of hatred that followed. We meet the two divas at a troubling point in both of their careers. Hollywood being a young woman’s game, Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Davis (Susan Sarandon) are scraping by, no longer in demand, trying to survive in an industry that used and abused them and their youth, and now has no longer any use for them. Crawford takes it upon herself to create a project, which she knows will get funding and distribution if it also brings her together with another silver screen goddess like herself. Thus a match made in hell is made. The women are almost immediately cast against one another, insecurities and petty disagreements ongoing for years are given fresh air to breathe anew, and by added manipulation at the hands of the men who control the women’s careers, a feud is born.
The first few episodes focus on the filming of Baby Jane. The fifth episode is almost strictly dedicated to the Oscars, which have become infamous due to what transpired on screen and the stunt pulled by one of the actresses. The latter episodes showcase the aftermath of the hit movie, an attempt to team up for a second film, and the last years of the actresses’ lives.
More than once we are shown how these two stars had much more in common than previously thought. From troubling relationships with their children, to the inability to keep a marriage or relationship going, to the constant comparisons to one another (Bette was a better actress, Joan better looking), the two women connected much more than they realized or wanted to admit. We are shown multiple moments where if ego and pride had been eroded, the two women could have been strong allies if not friends. While sometimes veering into melodrama, the ultimate commentary on the mistreatment of women in Hollywood, and the abuse faced by actors at the hand of studios and the powers that be is strong, clear, and appropriate.
It’s interesting to note that while Baby Jane ultimately was a Bette Davis starring role, relegating Crawford to the sidelines, Feud flips the roles. Our primary focus is Crawford, she is the main attraction throughout the season, and Murphy seems enamored with the star, intent on shifting the discourse away from the cartoonish portrayal of Mommie Dearest, instead providing a much more nuanced study on the Oscar winner. Davis, I assume, was not in need of as much damage control, as she will go down as one of the best actresses of all time, so less of an effort is made to course correct her reputation.
While the supporting cast is quite good, especially Judy Davis as the nosy gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and does a decent job; the show really does belong to the two leading ladies. The award for most convincing embodiment of the actress she is playing goes to Susan Sarandon. Always magnificent, Saradon truly becomes Davis, and every movement, glance, or effort rings true. You can tell how much time she has spent studying her subject and ensuring she is worthy of the casting. Jessica Lange, on the other hand, doesn’t really look like Crawford at all, but her talents to humanize the star she is playing and to make us feel for her, root for her, and mourn her failures is the stuff of legends. I would be surprised and shocked if she doesn’t end up winning all the awards for this performance.
Joan Crawford and Bette Davis lived for their stardom, for recognition, to see their names above the marquee. Feud allows for them to shine once more, and provides a look that is ultimately respectful, loving, and a testament to their success and careers.