You might think an eight-part miniseries about screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford butting heads and being fabulous would have little to say about modern times.
You’d be wrong.
Without soft-pedaling any of the fun and fabulousity of vintage Hollywood, Feud: Bette and Joan, which premiered on FX, exposes a not-so-glitzy side of Tinseltown — while framing issues all too prevalent even now.
But to start with, all you really need to know is this: Feud tells of the epic rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as they fractiously joined forces to co-star in the 1962 thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
The fur would fly.
Then, despite Baby Jane exploding as a box-office smash and entering the canon as a camp movie classic — or perhaps because of it — neither actress scored the comeback these Hollywood has-beens had been praying for in what was regarded as the twilight of their careers.
Note: The year this film was released, “over-the-hill” Crawford turned 58 and Davis was all of 54.
Thus does Bette and Joan set the scene for ageism, sexism and misogyny afflicting Hollywood — and, by implication, broader society.
Fortunately, two spectacular, Oscar-winning actresses are on hand to resurrect Oscar winners Bette and Joan — respectively, Susan Sarandon (who, for the record, is 70) and Jessica Lange (67).
But even as their great work yet again refutes the misconception that an actress, no matter how gifted, must inevitably age out, it’s not as though these two stars haven’t suffered for decades the same slights from the industry that Davis and Crawford endured.
“Not that much has changed,” Lange stated recently. “I think a big part of this show is what Hollywood does to women as they age, which is just a microcosm of what happens to women generally as they age.”
This is part of what spurred Ryan Murphy to create Feud; he’s an executive producer, director and writer of the series.
“What was really interesting to explore was what a tragedy the last 15 years was in the lives of these women, and how they deserved so much more,” said the prolific producer whose other credits include FX’s American Horror Story franchise and last year’s hit miniseries The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
Feud begins with Crawford approaching Davis — with whom she had tangled as they both rose and fell in the Hollywood firmament — with the project she believes can put them, even in their putative autumn years, back on top.
“If something’s going to happen, we have to MAKE it happen,” says Crawford. “No one’s looking to cast women our age. But TOGETHER, they wouldn’t dare say no. We need each other, Bette.”
Feud boasts a superb supporting cast including Alfred Molina as Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich, Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Jackie Hoffman as Crawford’s housekeeper Mamacita and Alison Wright (the hapless Martha of The Americans) as Aldrich’s assistant Pauline.
Guest stars include Catherine Zeta-Jones as fellow screen legend Olivia de Havilland, Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page, Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell and Kiernan Shipka (Don Draper’s daughter in Mad Men) as B.D., Bette Davis’ daughter.
As studio titan Jack Warner, Stanley Tucci radiates the soulless spirit of Hollywood’s ruling class: Money is what matters, no matter the cost.
No wonder Warner isn’t pleased to learn that Davis and Crawford have forged a united front as Baby Jane filming begins. He demands that false rumours be published to rekindle the feud and keep film fans titillated.
Pitting each woman against the other so each must fend for herself is “a raw display of the free market,” Warner reasons from an office as big as an airplane hangar. “That’s vigorous competition! That’s the American way!”
That distant era is where Feud: Bette and Joan resides with exhilarating, splashy and poignant style. But there’s never a suggestion that, just because their tale is a half-century removed, it isn’t still playing out in the current-day world.