Susan Sarandon stars as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange plays her rival Joan Crawford in Ryan Murphy’s new eight-episode limited series for FX, Feud, which premieres tonight.
These two aging lionesses of Tinseltown had one of Hollywood’s most caustic rivalries fueled by the power brokers, all men who controlled the movie business.
One former actress-turned-gossip queen Hedda Hopper, played to excruciating perfection by Judy Davis, was a rare female outlier who used her trade as artillery to get her story and stay atop the heap in a town where news was manufactured and honed daily, regardless of truth. She, too, was a tragic story unto herself.
There are larger themes as well, such as the emotional effects of decaying beauty, the fleeting nature of fame and losing your fortune.
Feud is the story of two enormously talented women whose gargantuan egos were matched by their love of liquid courage. Alcohol was an anti-anxietal, igniter of passion and pain medicine to weather the slings and arrows of careless and callous comments tossed at them by men who wrote the checks in a town that bored quickly (and for the most part still do) of any pretty or handsome faces.
But the heaviness of those truths aside, you as a viewer will revel in the perfectly recreated era, the pitch-perfect costumes, the excellence of all the below the line crafts that allowed these two superb actresses to become Bette and Joan.
The story is also told in flashback documentary styled recountings of two other famous actresses interviewed in 1978, Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) whose insight adds a tangy vérité to the ongoing saga of two women who each were experiencing pain, rejection, and loneliness.
We transport back to 1962, as roles for women over 40 are far and few between. Our two heroines are both over 40 and equally cursed with a solid work ethic and both who need to bring home money. There are no men in either’s lives to offset the burden of paying their bills.
This was possibly the first east coast-west coast rivalry. By today’s standards, our flinty New Englander Bette Davis was young, but then she was 53-years-old and lowballing her illustrious talent in a Broadway show.
Our hardscrabble Texan Joan (born Lucille, which Davis calls her throughout the series) shed her Dickensian childhood and was living a much more heady LA lifestyle thanks to her rich Pepsi executive husband.
But death, debt, and taxes have forced her hand to buck up, as she sneakily hawks Pepsi to appease her financial obligations and to even roll up her sleeves and mow her own grass in lean times. It was no wonder that she set out to find her own acting project, luckily found by her stern Austrian right-hand housekeeper, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman). Mamacita is one of my favorite characters in this unctuous layer cake of delicious performances.
Mamacita happens upon the 1960 novel, Henry Farrell’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” a page-turning thriller about two sisters who grapple with fading beauty, aging concerns and disability, fading fame and relevance. Practically a Roman a clef for these two women. Joan puts aside vanity and creates a strategy to get the book made into a film.
Enter Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina), a so-so director who sees the genius of this project and is tasked with adapting the screenplay, seducing a studio to underwrite it and convincing Bette Davis to set aside her animus towards Joan (and vice versa) to appear in this tour de force and odd story that would put their acting skills to physical tests never seen by actresses known for their sheer glamour.
As the film progresses, there is genuine Oscar buzz building. The vile studio head Jack Warner is shown, warts and all, by the brilliant Stanley Tucci, a fiercely misogynistic chieftain whose bitterness for Bette Davis (she sued him to end her contract) seeps over to Joan. He loathes and loves them, and has played one against the other for years.
Manipulations abound as Tucci and Molina together hash the particulars of the production. Their on-screen work is as memorable and powerful at times as Sarandon and Lange’s.
No more spoilers from me, just prepare to be absolutely dazzled by storytelling rarely seen in this pulpy “true story” style as we see how much has changed in the Hollywood universe, and how very little has changed for women in general when their careers are dependent upon their initial superficial appearances.
Happy news, as FX knows this series is a stone cold hit and have committed to a second season about British royalty Prince Charles and Diana, sure to be equally fly on the wall fantastic.
This is one of the best projects Ryan Murphy has ever turned out, and that says volumes.
Bottom line: Don’t let the visually high camp style of Feud on FX food you, not only is this a fun recounting of one of Hollywood’s most famous beefs, it is also a cautionary tale of how the fleeting zenith of beauty fades and the effects of abusing alcohol amplifies a feeling of isolation. Feud’s stars Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon equally excel in their respective roles of actresses fighting to remain relevant and best the other in scene. A pure and rare masterpiece of television!
Feud: Bette and Joan, FX’s new series from Ryan Murphy, premieres Sunday, March 5th.
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