In recent years we’ve seen an explosion of popular culture revisiting the near-mythical Golden Age of Hollywood — from the 1930s through the 1960s — and the years that followed, when the monolithic studio system began to erode. Movies like Trumbo, Saving Mr. Banks, The Artist, and Hail, Caesar!, and podcasts like You Must Remember This, remind us that not too long ago, Hollywood was a frontier, a desert full of scrappy nobodies making things up as they went along, at a time when stars were still learning how to artfully withhold their true selves from the public’s prying eyes. But a star is not a star until we dig into her private life; until then, she’s just a plain old actress. That merging of a performer’s private and public personas is what makes a star so valuable, and what makes a show like Feud: Bette and Joan, which premieres on Sunday on FX, so irresistible.
Feud is the latest anthology series from Ryan Murphy, the creator of Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story and, most recently, American Crime Story, which premiered to great acclaim last year with a 10-episode retelling of the O.J. Simpson trial. The first installment of Feud takes a magnifying glass to the long-simmering conflict between Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) on the set of the 1962 thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? — the only movie the two women, by then decades past the peak of their careers, made together. “No one’s looking to cast women our age,” Crawford reminds Davis in the first episode. But if they fuse their star power, they can create a force that even the notoriously misogynist studio system can’t ignore. “Together,” Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) tells studio head Jack Warner (a scathing Stanley Tucci), “they’re an event.”
While the show is not exactly a celebration of female friendship, it is a tribute to the bonds between working women that arise out of mutual respect, if not quite affection. But while Feud clearly reveres its two main subjects, its tribute to their late-career struggles often veers into condescension and threatens to replicate the very dynamics it laments.
One look at Feud and you’ll see why the entertainment industry has such a hard-on for America in the 1960s. The decade was a design buff’s wet dream, and the show pays careful attention to period details and fastidiously recreates real-life settings like Crawford’s Hollywood mansion. Feud signals the divide between Davis and Crawford through its production and costume design: Davis’s Connecticut home — she’s doing theater in New York when the series opens — is all dark wood and warm earth tones, a sharp contrast to Joan’s sun-filled L.A. home, with its bright, jewel-toned colors and furniture covered in plastic. Joan wears color-coordinated outfits and hats; Bette wears capri pants and white blouses.
Sarandon and Lange are excellent choices to play these two outsized actors, and the show’s makeup and hair department has done a convincing job of making them into Davis and Crawford. (It speaks volumes about the ever-more-unnatural beauty standards for women in Hollywood that Sarandon, 70, and Lange, 67, look about the same age as their fictional counterparts — who were both in their 50s when they made Baby Jane.) In fact, all the performances are fantastic, in particular Molina as the put-upon Bob Aldrich and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland, a close friend of Bette’s. (Judy Davis is underused as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, but her hats sure aren’t.)
Feud’s first episode, which sets up what de Havilland calls “a feud of biblical proportions,” is seductively entertaining. Scenes of Crawford undergoing ever-weirder beautifying treatments, like rubbing lemon halves on her elbows to keep them “supple,” are hard to resist, even as they paint a rather clichéd picture of aging female desperation (a cosmetologist vigorously applies cream to her neck before recommending turtlenecks).
The show quickly runs up against some fundamental problems. As good as Sarandon and Lange are, they’re no Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; who could possibly improve upon these two famously larger-than-life performers, particularly when they’re reenacting scenes from a classic movie? The show offers scant description of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which makes the production scenes confusing if you haven’t seen the movie. And at eight hour-long episodes, Feud has far too much time for the story it wants to tell; the filming of Baby Jane lasts just three episodes, with the following two devoted to the movie’s reception and the 1963 Oscars ceremony (that one’s a standout). As compelling as the relationship between these two women may have been, it’s not exactly the O.J. Simpson trial.
Perhaps because of its bloated run time, the show becomes repetitive, harping on the idea of powerful men pitting women against each other — and women stabbing each other in the back as a result of their compromised position. “There were so many people who profited from them being at each other’s throats,” de Havilland explains. (Just ask Ryan Murphy!)
This starts to feel like an oversimplification, just as the highlights of Crawford and Davis’s feud start to feel overblown. Menacing string music like something out of a Hitchcock thriller accompanies the actors’ petty snubs and squabbles; when Crawford finds out Davis was nominated for an Oscar and she wasn’t, we cut to an exterior shot of her house and hear her blood-curdling scream. All these trappings — the music; the editing; the framing of Crawford in her magnificent home as if she’s a queen in her castle — emphasize the “biblical proportions” of Bette and Joan’s conflict, casting their feud in the light of a psychological thriller à la Baby Jane.
It makes for a stylish series, but it also flattens Crawford and Davis, rendering them caricatures of desperate aging women frantic to remain in the glow of the spotlight. They become like the silhouetted figures in the animated, Saul-Bass-style opening credits — symbols of ageism and sexism in Hollywood rather than flesh-and-blood humans.
After a few hours of this, Feud verges on patronizing. Rather than marvel at these women’s resiliency, the show wants us to pity them their sagging necks. Maybe Ryan Murphy can’t help but project perpetual sadness on any woman over 50, but I seriously doubt Crawford and Davis spent this much time commiserating over their fading looks.
At first glance, Feud is a gift to fans of Hollywood lore, basically a lush adaptation of film historian Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This. But a few episodes in, Feud starts to feel like the opposite of the meticulously researched podcast: While Longworth fleshes out her subjects, digging up details about their lives to conjure the human being behind the one-note celebrity, Feud reduces its subjects to cartoons. It’s a tabloid.
At its core, the engine driving Feud isn’t sexism or ageism but our own nostalgia-fueled obsession with classic Hollywood. Through its fictionalized celebrity characters, the show tempts its audience to look at the current gender disparity in Hollywood and marvel at how little has changed. But it might be more helpful to consider how hard it is for women, now and then, to shake off the notion that they’re symbols before they’re people.
Feud: Bette and Joan premieres Sunday, March 5 at 10 p.m. on FX.