Life is in the details, and the remarkable yet frustrating eight-part miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan is at its best when it captures the quiet textures of a given day: Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), waking up at 5 a.m. on the first day of shooting for the horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), reaches in the dark for the single cigarette she left within arm’s reach as she turned out the light at bedtime. Across town, Davis’ co-star and lifelong rival, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), rubs fresh lemons over her elbows and arms before sleep — “Keeps my elbows supple” — and now greets the dawn (no alarm clock necessary for this star) by plunging her face into a sink full of witch hazel and ice cubes.
Of course, madness is rich with details, too, and so we see Crawford showing up on set that first day alongside her relentlessly loyal housekeeper, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), who’s brought along a handy-dandy basket of cleaning supplies. “Mamacita, let’s go to work,” Joan says after literally shuddering at the dingy dressing room, and though we don’t see it, you know those two will get down on their knees and scrub from top to bottom. For those who picture Faye Dunaway in their mind’s eye when they think of Joan Crawford, know that Feud creator and co-writer/director Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, The People v. O.J. Simpson), steers clear of Mommie Dearest, the 1978/1981 memoir and film that depicted Crawford as a raving loony who beat her adopted daughter after a slight so small as hanging a dress on a wire hanger.
Feud instead is self-consciously serious-minded, though little bits of humor delight. “I’m sorry, Miss Joan. She’s small, but she’s quick,” Mamacita says after gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) storms the house, angry that Joan has given an anti-Bette quote to her “mortal enemy,” gossip maven Louella Parsons. It’s funny too when Hedda threatens to run her long-written but never-published column, “Joan Crawford’s Early Tawdry Years,” but what Joan, Bette or even worldly-wise Hedda never realize, suggests Feud, is that they’re being pitted against one another by studio chief Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), as well as Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), all in the name of advance publicity.
This is Feud’s central theme: Davis and Crawford may have treated co-workers, friends, lovers and family so abominably that they both died alone, but these stars were ultimately victims of a male-dominated Hollywood system that seeks, then and now, to not only keep women in their place, but to keep them from uniting together. While it’s great to see a TV show with something on its mind, what continually drags Feud down, besides an increased reliance on Aldrich’s career woes to pad out its hours, are scripts that become painfully didactic. By the time Feud lands on an attempt by Aldrich’s assistant Pauline (Alison Wright) to persuade Crawford to star in a film based on a script that she wrote and also wants to direct, you’d be within your rights to check your watch and wonder what ever happened to Bette and Joan.
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It need not be this way. In a superb scene in the third episode, written by Tim Minear and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Bette and Joan go out to dinner. Joan shocks Bette by stating, quite matter-of-factly, that she lost her virginity at age 11. “Who was the lucky Cub Scout?” Bette asks, and Joan’s reply catches her further off guard: “My mother’s second husband, Henry Cassin. He was a lovely man. Meant the world to me. We called him ‘Daddy Cassin’ but he wasn’t really my daddy. We weren’t blood relations so it wasn’t incest. But he was kind and gentle, and he loved me. I led him into it.” The moment reverberates, as good screenwriting should, because we’ve already seen Crawford refer to MGM head Louis B. Mayer as “Daddy.”
If it sounds like this is a TV show about Joan Crawford rather than Bette Davis, that’s because Crawford, and by extension Jessica Lange, has the juicier material. It’s odd that the Davis scenes seem weak, since Murphy has touted the friendship he developed with the actress in her final years, but it’s also true that Davis went home alone at the end of each day’s shoot. Her daughter (Kiernan Shipka) has a small role in Baby Jane, but Davis soon drives her away, leaving no one for the great star to talk to, much less argue against. Such a life doesn’t lend itself to great episodic television.
Crawford still has Mamacita and, for a brief time, a husband (Reed Diamond) to emote against, but you can sense the writers struggling to find stories for Davis. Sarandon is never for an instant convincing as either Baby Jane (the makeup is far too light) or as Bette Davis the outsize personality, but she’s heartbreaking as Davis the woman, at home after work, smoking (always), drink in hand (always), staring alone into the night.
For me, Faye Dunaway, despite the monumental flaws of Mommie Dearest, still owns the role of Crawford — her inconsolable fury rings true, and Feud, perhaps, could use a bit more of it. But Lange is a wonder. All these years later, she remains our most exciting and most dangerous actress. In this way, she carries on the spirit of both Crawford and Davis, who kept audiences on pins and needles for decades. There’s a word for artists of such power: inimitable.