The Murphy empire grows from American Horror Story and American Crime Story with the inclusion of Feud, but is it a critical hit or a critical failure as the show takes on the 60s feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis…?
Author’s Note: Back in November, I wrote a review of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, and the show ended up on my list of 2016’s Top 10 TV seasons. Comparisons are inevitable, so it may be worth reading that review first.
The film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a strange horror cult classic. It’s a campy, horrific and poignant turn for Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and its production and release form the focus of the first five episodes of Ryan Murphy’s new FX series Feud, a series which is intentionally similar in many ways to Baby Jane itself.
In the show’s ‘Pilot’, Jessica Lange’s ageing Joan Crawford is on the hunt for a decent part in Hollywood, one that she makes for herself by convincing director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) to pick up the script for Baby Jane. As production on the film begins, Crawford melodramatically clashes with rival actress Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), each aspiring to promote not only the film but themselves in it.
The trailers for Feud advertise a ridiculous level of campy violence and horror, but the actual show is far more subdued, leaning towards a continuation of the tone of later People vs. O.J. Simpson rather than American Horror Story or Glee‘s frantic over-driven mania. That said, the series exhibits more of AHS‘ time jumps and odd story structure in its second half and finale, recalling Asylum and Roanoke particularly for its ghostly unsettling finale.
The first five episodes that run into the 1963 Oscars form a simple escalation of the conflict, and the most strong but unremarkable portion of the series. Bette and Joan clash on the set but ultimately make up as filming wraps, only for Joan to re-launch her vendetta when she is not nominated for an Academy Award and Bette is. The dynamic of Crawford and Davis actually works better when they’re stewing in resentment apart in episodes 4 and 5 than when they’re clashing together, if only because Lange and Sarandon’s own acting styles are notably different.
Lange plays Crawford the same way she played her numerous AHS ageing starlets – as a dizzied, unstable ex-star whose emotions threaten to bubble over the surface and explode at any moment. She’s great, but it comes across as something we’ve seen from her before, and is made all the more tiresome by comparison to Sarandon’s wonderfully well-measured and fire-y take on Davis. It’s appropriate to the story that Crawford is somewhat upstaged by Davis, but it feels like another symptom of the show’s identity crisis between realistic biopic and soapy conflict. Where Sarandon commits to the former, Lange slips into the latter.
The supporting cast are also excellent, yet the same problem persists. Judy Davis and Catherine Zeta-Jones aren’t anywhere near as dramatic as Lange is, but zippy gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and drawling starlet Olivia de Havilland are more than a bit cartoonish. The show slips from event to event but, with the exception of one particular sequence, never intensifies to a level equal to Baby Jane. Feud is simmering and brooding rather than explosive – appropriate to Davis’ cool calmness, but not so much to Crawford’s perpetual meltdown. They may both be accurate portrayals, but it doesn’t stop some of the shtick from becoming repetitive or tiresome.
Following a heartbreaking twist at the Awards, the show jumps ahead to a few years later, when Crawford is still struggling to restore her career. Under the guidance of Aldrich and Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), the two actresses reluctantly re-unite for episodes six and seven to film a spiritual successor to Baby Jane, entitled Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. This time production falls apart when Crawford is unhappy with Davis’ producer credit and fakes illness, resulting in her replacement.
The People vs. O.J. was filled with moments like this that made the viewer ask ‘wait, did that actually happen?!’ and while they’re still here in Feud, they’re fewer and farther between. It feels like Murphy and the writers have had to skew the truth a bit more to expand the story across eight episodes, but it doesn’t stop it from working successfully for the most part. If there’s something Feud does best, it’s capturing the glamorous atmosphere of peak Hollywood, and making the plummet into obscurity all the more powerful as a result.
And the finale is the first time the show feels like it has the potential to say something more than just entertaining scandalous gossip. ‘You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?’ doubles down on the themes of age, female exploitation and mortality to unfold the inevitable consequences of the series. Crawford dreams of re-uniting with and befriending those who were so hostile to her career, but it’s a false hope, underlined by Davis’s cold comments on Crawford’s death. It’s one of the most powerful on-screen portrayals of death on television in years, and it’s deeply incredibly unsettling.
Does this pay-off justify the existence of what came before it? It’s hard to say. Feud is a very good show, sometimes an excellent one, but it doesn’t feel essential. It’s not a step forward for the Murphy empire, but it’s not a step back after The People vs. O.J. either. So much passion was poured into this project that it often elevates weaker or more mundane plot points to a much higher standard, but that may also just be effective use of the show’s budget.
If Feud were two episodes shorter, kicking into Sweet Charlotte at the mid-point, it might well be a much better show. But it’s too drawn out, and that results in parts feeling inessential, and on occasion monotonous. The extravagance and self-indulgence might well turn many off of the show before the end but it’s not without purpose – Feud does an excellent job of crafting and dwelling within ’60s Hollywood, and it’s an enjoyable intriguing romp into the past.
Overall I suspect Feud: Bette and Joan will satisfy those who have an interest in the subject matter or are regular fans of Murphy’s shows. It’s not a departure from the usual formula, and it probably doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from the other amazing television shows that are currently airing, but it is very satisfying package in the end. The anthology series is off to a strong start. It’s unclear whether it’ll coast or climb from here on out.
Score: I reckon Lange wins the Emmy, but Sarandon deserves it.