“There was never a rivalry like theirs. For nearly half a century they hated each other, and we loved them for it.”
And we’re off! The phenomenally busy Ryan Murphy’s new anthology series Feud kicks off with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland summing up the notorious rivalry between Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and establishing the series’ all-the-subtlety-of-a-sledgehammer tone pretty succinctly. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis simply do not like each other. At all. Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to feud.
Before we get to that, though, someone dares to ask de Havilland why Joan and Bette hated each other so much. So she corrects him: “Feuds are never about hate. Feuds are about pain.” So if you ever thought feuds were often, or ever, about hate, sorry dumbass. They’re about pain. You stupid idiot.
We flash back to 1961 with a resentful Joan Crawford fuming and getting hammered over Hollywood’s newest, younger obsession Marilyn Monroe receiving a Golden Globe. The camera holds on Joan’s face for about 15 minutes so you can see how much she hates — or, sorry, is in pain about — Marilyn Monroe. Pressed by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played by Judy Davis who seems to be having quite a lot of fun with this role) to open up about her true feelings about Monroe, Crawford opts to instead plug Pepsi Cola — a hilarious recurring theme in the pilot episode (Joan is still mourning the recent death of her fourth husband, Pepsi CEO Alfred Steele.) After some more prodding, Joan finally tears into Marilyn’s vulgarity and opines for the day when Hollywood celebrated wholesomeness and good morals, like Joan’s. Ok. But the real reason Joan resents Marilyn is not an invalid one — Monroe’s youth and good looks are netting her big roles left and right. Meanwhile, Hollywood simply doesn’t know what to do with aging actresses like Crawford, unless she’s willing to play Elvis’ grandmother or — well that’s about it.
Crawford sets out to find a project that can maybe, possibly net her another Oscar statue that’s been too elusive for far too long, which brings a horror/thriller novel by Henry Farrell called “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” across her desk. Ta da!
Cue the always fun to watch Alfred Molina as director Robert Aldrich in the midst of filming some terrible Ben Hur knock-off when, oh my! “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” also comes across his desk, courtesy of one Joan Crawford. Yes indeed, it looks like a movie is coming together. BUT! The script calls for not one, but two, older actresses. Crawford has someone in mind. Who will it be? I’m glad you asked.
Cut to Bette Davis, who herself is grappling with her own fading spotlight and growing dearth of available roles. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, you see, despite viscerally disliking each other, have quite a lot in common. And in case you ever forget that somewhere along the way, this is a point Feud is determined to make roughly every five minutes or so for what I imagine will be the duration of the series. Joan propositions Bette about starring with her in the “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” in what is Jessica Lange’s and Susan Sarandon’s first scene together. And it’s a good one, with both actors clearly enjoying the shit out of themselves. To be honest, I enjoyed it too. If all else fails, Feud will always have this. It will always have the two women who are feuding. Before the scene ends, Joan makes clear to Bette that they’re a lot alike. Even though they may not necessarily like each other. In case you’d forgotten.
Having locked Crawford and Davis in, Aldrich gets to work trying to get the movie financed by studios who aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to produce a film starring two women who haven’t made movies in a long time by a director who hasn’t made a good movie in a long time. Aldrich quickly learns that nobody wants to make this movie, which eventually brings him begging to Jack Warner (everyone’s favorite scene-stealer Stanley Tucci) who’s had nothing but bad experiences with both Crawford and Davis. After some cajoling, Warner eventually agrees (because he has to, otherwise Stanley Tucci wouldn’t be on the show anymore.)
Then, just when you think Kathy Bates might not be on Feud, here comes Kathy Bates. On Feud. Like Catherine Zeta-Jones at the start of the episode, Bates (playing Joan Blondell here) is presented in a sort of faux-documentary outside of the series, which is jarring and used sparingly enough that it’s neither too distracting nor useful or necessary in any way. Maybe this will pay off in future episodes? Who knows. Kathy Bates provides some exposition to catch us up on Bette Davis’ issues with her husband who provides her with the divorce papers she requested and then sleeps with her. Because love and feelings and marriages are complicated.
We then cut to Joan Crawford complaining to her husband about Bette Davis who confesses he’s getting tired of hearing her complain about Bette Davis before telling her, I kid you not, quote “You two have so much in common, more than any two other people on the planet. Why can’t you two just get along?” Joan Crawford and Bette Davis hate each other, yes, but also? They have a lot in common. Interesting. Joan goes on to confess that she married one of her husbands just to spite Bette because she knew she wanted him. This is awesome. Her husband counters that he thinks she secretly admires her. Joan declares that she will have Bette’s respect “even if I have to kill both of us to get it.” Yikes!
Cut to a 20-minute montage of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford both chain-smoking alone. Everyone on Feud smokes a lot of cigarettes.
The episode ends with the first day of filming “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Highlights include: Joan Crawford giving all of the crew personal gifts just to piss off Bette Davis. Joan Crawford setting up a big Pepsi soda machine outside her dressing room. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford getting buzzed together before the first scene has even been filmed. Bette Davis confessing a begrudging admiration for Joan Crawford before hilariously insulting her, because of course. Bette Davis putting on a whole bunch of makeup which pisses off Joan Crawford because everything they do pisses each other off. They do not like each other.
So, this is Feud. The show does an admirable job of avoiding the cheapest, easiest path of resistance which would’ve been casting Crawford’s and Davis’ rivalry as a cliched campy catfight. Both of them are complex, fascinating women deserving of nuanced portrayals and Lange and Sarandon treat them as such (and clearly enjoy doing it.) On the other hand, Hollywood was and still is a cynical, vapid, cruel, and disgusting industry in many, many ways — worthy of derision and very much worthy of camp. I’m not sure, based on the pilot alone, how successfully Feud threads this needle. Like I said, nothing about this show is exactly subtle. But for the most part it’s a good deal of fun, so maybe I’ll end up loving it. Or I’ll hate it, but goddammit I’ll respect it.