Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon go head-to-head as screen sirens Joan Crawford and Bette Davis
“Feud,” which tells the story of clashing screen titans Joan Crawford and Bette Davis around the production of their 1962 film “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” is a series designed for a knowing audience, a basket of Easter eggs. The mythos of the film’s production — which cast the two rivals as two sisters raised in show business — is intertwined with each actress’ place in Hollywood legend; it was a last-ditch attempt at relevance for both “mature” stars, in an industry that would have preferred to shove them aside for younger women. As “Feud” relates, even though Crawford brought the project to Davis and profited off of its success, she couldn’t stomach the fact that Davis was nominated for an Academy Award over her. Stoked by alcohol and anger, Crawford went so far as to actively campaign against her costar in the 1963 Oscar race — before mutual desperation brought the two actresses together again for “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” with disastrous results.
The anthology series will take on a new rivalry every season, and because Davis and Crawford’s skirmishes are mostly all caught on film — or recorded in the gossip columns of the era — these eight episodes are an opportunity to see recreations of moments that loom large in the imagination, which span critical hits like “All About Eve” and camp classics like “Mommie Dearest.” (In one scene in the fourth episode, Joan, played by Jessica Lange, signs a card to her daughter Christina with that florid sign off.) As is his wont, showrunner Ryan Murphy delivers star power to play the actual stars — Lange as Crawford, Susan Sarandon as Davis, Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell, and in the best turn in the show, Catherine Zeta-Jones as queenly Olivia de Havilland. It makes for a reanimated playground of well-known names, especially for the classic cinema buff.
But “Feud’s” delight in reenacting these moments outpaces its ability to prove why these reenactments matter. Last year, Murphy and FX teamed up for “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” another anthology series with a star-studded cast telling a piece of well-known history. But the story of the O.J. Simpson trial was an opportunity to provide context and depth to a relatively recent and racially charged media circus. “Feud” is not nearly as rich of a story. The series has opted out of some of the more didactic impulses of historical fiction — if you haven’t seen “Baby Jane,” don’t expect “Feud” to explain it for you. But it’s not entirely clear what it has correspondingly opted into, in its stead. “Feud” would like to change the conversation about female competition, demonstrating how similar Crawford and Davis are even as forces around them profit off of pitting them against each other. But for as much as the show tries to humanize its leads, it also seems to revel in their diva moments, their claws-out hatred for each other. “Feud” is ultimately caught in an awkward limbo — neither as brilliantly campy and hateful as “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” nor as contextualizing and profound as “People v. O.J. Simpson.”
Instead, it is primarily too long. Murphy optioned the feature-length screenplay “Best Actress” from screenwriters Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam and expanded it into eight episodes. “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” wraps production by the end of episode three, and the 1963 Oscars take up all of episode five. The long-winded storytelling serves up ample time to much-imagined moments — most notably, Oscar night itself, which makes the best use of its allotted screentime. And yet, despite so much time spent telling the story, “Feud” leaves the audience wanting more information; even the plot of the much-discussed “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” is hard to follow. The film, like “Mommie Dearest,” has longstanding cult appeal — but it’s a mistake to assume that it is as nearly well known as, for example, the basic elements of the O.J. Simpson trial.
And if viewers are just to watch “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” as an accompaniment to “Feud,” that creates another problem for the show. Lange and Sarandon, while good, just cannot possibly be good enough; it’s one thing to digest the on-screen performance of an off-screen celebrity, and another to watch screen icons perform as other, much greater screen icons. Lange and Sarandon are both talented, but they are both essentially trying to do the impossible, and with Lange in particular, “Feud” isn’t quite transporting. The actress is a favorite of Murphy’s, and she was wonderful in “American Horror Story.” But she feels miscast as Crawford — the bold-featured, redheaded actress with a sibilant voice whose incredible screen magnetism was the toast of a generation. As she has proven many times over, Lange can ably make a monster into an empathetic character — which is why her rotten, needy, alcoholic Crawford is still affecting, especially opposite Sarandon’s attitudinal Davis. But in “Feud’s” Joan, it’s hard to find the electric charisma and relentless poise that made Crawford both an idol for drag queens and a quintessential silver screen diva. Ultimately, “Feud” is too invested in the mythos of both women to really dissect either; the most salient point the show makes about female friendships, in the five episodes released to critics, is that sometimes it’s shocking what one woman will do to bring down another.
“Feud” is much stronger as an analysis of Hollywood’s structural intractability than it is an exploration of female relationships. After all, Bette and Joan don’t live in the world, they live in the gilded fishbowl of Hollywood — and their every move is colored by the industry’s obsession with bankability and image. In its observation of how gossip, nepotism, and male ego (personified wonderfully by Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner) corrode the best impulses of cinema, “Feud’s” observations on Hollywood in the ’60s hit rather close to home. Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), beleaguered director of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” struggles to retain his vision and his dignity in an industry determined to break everything good down to its salable component parts. His assistant Pauline (Alison Wright) pitches and repitches the idea of directing her own feature, only to be stymied by the derision of not the men in the industry, but the women — who urge her to be grateful for the role she already does have. Bette and Joan’s co-star Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess) lives the double life of illegal homosexuality that the era required, even in the enclave of Hollywood. Crawford’s elaborate beauty routines, just like Norma Desmond’s, are frighteningly too-familiar. And while the struggles for older female actresses to find roles might be ameliorated by Murphy’s efforts both with this and “American Horror Story,” they have not disappeared.
“Feud” has a handle on the spectacular, with its A-list performers and curiosity about the underbelly of silver-screen glamour. But in the five episodes sent to critics, it feels like a cheaper, smaller version of cinematic glory.
Correction: An earlier version of this review referred to Crawford as a brunette. While she was a brunette for “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and Lange is brown-haired in the series, Crawford was famously a redhead.