Produced by Ryan Murphy, who freaked us out many-a-time with American Horror Story, new FX mini-series Feud is a docudrama following Hollywood stars Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis’ (Susan Sarandon) intense encounter when filming iconic thriller What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
For fans of cinema and classic movies, Feud is something of a must-see curiosity, as not only is it dealing with two actresses who famously couldn’t stand each other as they made a particularly wacky cult flick but the Jessica Lange/Susan Sarandon duo in itself is pretty cool. The trailers primarily emphasized the bickering stars’ relationship on the Baby Jane set so one could expect the entire show to be about that but, in fact, that aspect of it is relatively minor in that it’s really not what the series is about.
Sure, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s work on the film is important but we never really go too deeply into the actual making of the film and the story soon moves on well past that as we see Bette and Joan face-off at the Oscars and even attempt to work on another project together. This was unexpected as both the (admittedly cool) opening title sequence and the show’s marketing heavily sold us on the Baby Jane theme. This is closer to something like the film Hitchcock that wasn’t so much about the making of Psycho or Alfred Hitchcock himself as it was about everything surrounding that. Fans of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? expecting to see a day-to-day re-enactment of every iconic scene will probably be disappointed but the uninitiated will no doubt want to seek out the classic film after watching Feud, which is definitely a good thing.
More good news is the fact that the two central performances are reliably excellent. Susan Sarandon makes a feisty, self-centered, often rude yet always charming Bette Davis, nailing her voice, mannerisms and Baby Jane look perfectly while Jessica Lange brings tons of intensity and diva antics to her Joan Crawford but also captures a neurotic vulnerability that makes every one of her big outbursts partly a devastating implosion also. The supporting cast is also very entertaining from Judy Davis’ manipulative tabloid reporter to Stanley Tucci’s blunt producer Jack Warner. Alfred Molina, meanwhile, is the dark horse of the series. His restrained turn as director Robert Aldrich is a lot more impactful than you’d expect since he not only has to be diplomatic with both Crawford and Davis to get his movies made but he also often creates unnecessary confrontations between the two actresses since their public “feud” certainly helped the studios sell their films.
The heart of the story lies in Baby Jane, however, as Bette Davis’ immortal line “You mean all this time, we could have been friends?” says it all both about Baby Jane’s relationship with her sister and Davis’ relationship with Crawford. Under different circumstances, without the pressures of Hollywood and the press constantly pitting them against each other, it’s obvious that both actresses certainly had a lot in common and would have no doubt gotten along just fine. This isn’t so much the story of a feud as it is the story of a lost friendship and not so much about the making of a movie as it is about the survival of two ageing starlets, struggling to stay relevant in a male-run industry where all interesting roles typically go to the younger generation. The tragedy of Baby Jane sadly bleeds into the actresses’ real life and seeing their careers quietly end after what was their last big hit is genuinely heartbreaking as these were two incredibly talented women who deserved a much better send-off.
Parts of this show feel a little rushed, like the Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte fiasco, while other parts don’t feel all that useful: the interviews with other actresses like Olivia De Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) are fun but don’t add too much to the story even if the former’s relationship with her sister Joan Fontaine could be the subject of another Feud season, for sure. It’s a shame that, as the story flashes forward in time, we don’t really get closure on Aldrich’s career and one wishes that some of the actresses’ goofier later works like Madame Sin or Berserk! were mentioned. That said, seeing a mature Joan Crawford having to interact convincingly with a poor excuse for a caveman on the set of B-movie Trog was pretty entertaining, as was the short-and-sweet mention of Olivia De Havilland’s own “psycho-biddy” movie Lady In A Cage and others.
Feud deals with the birth of the “hagsploitation” subgenre and all that it entails: older women choosing daring roles in shocking (for the time, at least) and often great horror movies, giving memorably intense and/or over-the-top performances. This subgenre, which could easily be the subject of a much longer show, also means the end of an era as a generation of young starlets ended with their older selves struggling to find work and having to accept whatever flashy, random roles came their way despite having won multiple Academy Awards and having been recognised as great beauties during their hayday. It’s a sad story but although the show paints these actresses as victims of a cruel system, it never sugar-coats the fact that their petty conflicts are, indeed, childish and needlessly got in the way of potentially rewarding relationships.
One wonders if those not familiar with What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? will actively seek out this series or even stick around if they somehow stumble upon it as it never holds your hand through any of its somewhat niche subject matter. If you don’t know a lot of old movies or what Baby Jane is all about, chances are you’ll be a bit lost in the sea of subtle references and passing mentions of certain films, events or Hollywood stars. My advice would be to watch the classic thriller first, maybe a couple of others in the same vein, then tackle Feud.
This is maybe not the definitive Baby Jane making-of show we were expecting but it’s a decent mini-series nonetheless with some terrific performances and a bittersweet, still relevant message.