Classic Hollywood glamour. A messy rivalry. Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange returning to television. These might be just a few interesting aspects of Feud: Bette and Joan, currently airing on FX.
The mini-series is part of a larger series created by Ryan Murphy of American Horror Story set to describe famous feuds throughout history, from their beginning to their end. Murphy plans to make several mini-series with different themes, but this season’s focus on the Davis-Crawford feud is fascinating. This season’s ten-episode mini-series describes the feud between aging superstars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford that tore 1960s Hollywood apart and is as captivating as it is beautiful.
At the beginning of the series, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) finds herself alone and in financial turmoil, and seeks to find a new film script that will resuscitate her career and help her retain her mansion in the Hollywood Hills. After raking through multiple scripts, she finds a female-driven psychological thriller that she can star in, titled What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? However, as she needs a co-star, she seeks out Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), who had made the coup de grace from Hollywood to Broadway. While contemporary stars move fluidly from television to film and stage, in the 1960s this was unheard of, and Bette’s career also needed saving.
However, at the project’s inception, Joan learns that Bette is paid a higher salary, and her narcissism overwhelms her, sparking a feud. Furthermore, both desperately want to win the 1962 Oscar for Best Actress for their roles, and will do anything they can to beat each other. The two act horribly to each other while each woman self-immolates. Drug addiction, family drama, and romantic affairs run rampant through the beautiful camera angles and traipse through Hollywood history.
At first glance, this show looks like any other biopic. It has pretty costumes, spectacular intricacy of props and set, and Hitchcockian camera angles and cinematography that remind a viewer of Vertigo or Psycho. A viewer feels as though he or she is watching a 1960s film, not a 2017 mini-series. A return to classic cinema is extremely popular, with La La Land, and Hidden Figures winning many awards. Feud brings these vintage themes to the silver screen.
Beneath the old-school opulence and the history of their quarrel, the show’s best aspect is its vulnerability. Both Davis and Crawford, beneath their rough exteriors, are hurting. In reality, Crawford’s oldest daughter, Christina, published her book Mommie Dearest in 1978, which details her mother’s frequent child abuse and battles with addiction. While her cause of death was long unknown, recent reports claim that Crawford committed suicide in 1977 by opioid overdose. Davis had a similar relationship to her children. The series depicts her as highly critical of her daughter, B.D. Merrill (Kiernan Shipka), who also wrote a book later in life entitled My Mother’s Keeper. Regardless of the feud, Bette and Joan suffered from personal trauma that aggravated their insecurities and vices, and harmed each other.
Going into the show without any prior knowledge was fascinating, as I was able to read more about the culture of the time, like Hedda Hopper (played hilariously by Judy Davis), a gossip columnist known for her outrageous headwear. Another interesting aspect of the show to me is the addition of a modern day, TCM-like documentary with Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Joan Blondell (by the ever-lovable Kathy Bates). The commentary on the feud is a great way to teach younger generations, and is quite metatheatrical.
Feud is addictive, full of the gossip, style, and scripts. Unfortunately, Bette and Joan lost the Best Actress award to Sophia Loren, but their feud will forever live on, and viewers can live vicariously through it.