“Feud: Bette and Joan” is a TV show built on pure gossipy indulgence; one that’s inclined to believe the most juicy stories about its characters, but not in a bad way. Historical reports about the truth of what happened on the set of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and surrounding events are up for dispute, so instead we have the popular myths surrounding Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s legendary — and last — on-screen collaboration put on display by Ryan Murphy and his team. The end result is at times simultaneously obvious, essential, and not nearly as campy as you might expect.
And it turns out, that’s for the best.
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The first thing you might notice about the show is the level of attention paid to recreating 1962 and ’63. In January, during the Television Critics Association press tour, members of the press were invited to visit the set of “Feud” on the Fox lot in Century City. There, we wandered the hallways of Joan’s home and admired the retro look and feel of long-closed Los Angeles eatery Perino’s. In the restaurant central to so many of the characters’ lives, the velvet upholstery was as rich and thick as it looks on the screen.
Even casually spot-checking the visual details which production designer Judy Becker (whose previous credits include “Joy” and “Carol”) aimed to capture reveals just how important archival accuracy was to the production team. To quote “Jurassic Park,” Ryan Murphy “spared no expense” in bringing 1962 Hollywood to life, creating an all-too-believable backdrop for an epic battle of the stars.
How much of that battle is real? And, more importantly, how much does that matter?
We’ll get to that second question in a bit. But here’s what’s definitely real: The fact that women working in Hollywood have never had an easy time of it, in front of or behind the camera. There are lines from “Feud,” a show set decades in the past, which are still being echoed in 2017 — especially when uttered by men of power, whose ability to strip legendary women of their achievements by simple virtue of their age and gender remains infuriating.
“Feud” ultimately finds its strongest moments in the scenes when these incredibly complicated women speak to each other on these topics. This is not just because those scenes often feature some of the snappiest dialogue of the series, but because they push the show out of a tired acknowledgement that being a lady in Hollywood sucks and into real character interaction that acknowledges the immense capacity women have for self-recrimination and self-destruction.
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Alfred Molina as director Robert Aldrich and Stanley Tucci as predictably loathsome studio head Jack Warner by and large represent the male perspective. Meanwhile, this is a cast stacked with female talent beyond basic comprehension: Talking head interstitials are how we first meet Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Geraldine Page (Sarah Paulson), Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) and more, but some of them do get integrated into the action, making for some of the best scenes in later episodes.
Meanwhile, Kiernan Shipka as Bette’s daughter B.D. confirms that the “Mad Men” alum has officially transitioned from child actor to established performer. “The Americans” star Alison Wright’s role as Pauline seems to be a fictional creation, but thanks to her spunk and smarts, the incredibly likable actor seems to get some level of karmic retribution for many seasons of “Poor Martha.” And Judy Davis as bloodthirsty journalist Hedda Hopper might honestly outshine them all: watch, as she’s bound to secure her 12th Emmy nomination this summer.
And that’s just the supporting cast. As for the leads, Jessica Lange, at times, feels a little staged, until you read anything at all about Joan Crawford and how her basic nature always brought with it an air of theatricality. Meanwhile, Susan Sarandon tears into Bette Davis in a way that truly brings her to life as a star who never hid her flaws. Both Davis and Crawford were women who used their fame and talent to live life on their own terms to a degree other women of the time were denied.
One reason why both Sarandon and Lange’s performances prove enjoyable is that we never lose sight of the performer behind the performance. While there’s certainly make-up, hair, and wardrobe involved in making audiences believe these famous faces of today are actually the classic film icons of yesteryear, they’re still recognizably themselves — unlike, say, Leonardo DiCaprio buried under pounds of latex to play J. Edgar Hoover. This type of blending between actor and character feels more authentic to the ultimate goal of what “Feud” is trying to say.
The directing team, per FX’s recent commitment to supporting diversity, is 50 percent women, including Liza Johnson, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, and Helen Hunt. Murphy and Minear direct the other four episodes, and none of the five screened for critics dramatically overplay key moments. They do push, to some degree, into a heightened reality that feels relatable to past Murphy-produced projects. The structure of the limited series covers a surprisingly large chunk of the narrative surrounding “Baby Jane”: After watching more than half the series, it’s not totally clear what’s left to uncover in the remaining installments. And that’s factoring in a lack of certainty as to how much of the show is truly based in truth.
But it still holds together because the true story of what happened when Joan and Bette made a movie together isn’t what’s interesting to Murphy and the staff. Instead, the series commits to extracting a parable about women, power, and the ways in which life twists those things up.
Sometimes, this drags the narrative into moments that feel predictable or obvious — at least if you’re an adult woman, and you’ve spent decades being reminded that in a world run by men, you are, by definition, considered second class. But perhaps that only makes those moments more essential.
“Sucks to be a lady,” one side of “Feud” seems to say. “Bitches be crazy,” says the other. Perhaps the show’s crowning achievement is the fact that it can say both things at once, and both statements feel true — because both statements are symptoms of the same disease.
“Feud: Bette and Joan” premieres Sunday, March 5 on FX.
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