Review: ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ Is Exactly What We Need Right Now

Joining the incredibly successful (and award-winning) series American Horror Story and American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson in Ryan Murphy’s stable of anthology masterpieces this Sunday is FX’s newest stunner, FEUD: Bette and Joan, the tale of the infamous tension between two iconic Old Hollywood actresses.

To say that I live and breathe for the love affair between FX and Ryan Murphy would be an understatement, so when I first heard what his new show was going to center on, my mind filled with the possibilities of future seasons — Please, oh please, have a season about Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner’s disastrous marriage called Feud: The Battling Sinatras! But Murphy, always knowing best, started with the feud of Old Hollywood: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and, of course, lined up the best cast he could find, led by Susan Sarandon as Bette and Jessica Lange as Joan.

Bette and Joan were known for their cattiness towards one another; they competed against each other throughout their entire careers (for both acting roles and men), causing a rather zealous friction between the two Hollywood legends that lasted until they both were no longer — even after Joan died, Bette famously said of her former co-star, “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good!”

But the rivalry came to a head when the women were older and both struggling to find roles that offered more substance than just playing someone’s grandmother. Joan approached Bette about doing a film together called Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, an adaptation of Henry Farrell’s novel of the same name. Though reluctant at first to work with her nemesis, the offers weren’t exactly rolling in, so Bette agreed and they went on to make, much to everyone’s surprise, an Oscar-winning film.

Feud could’ve gone in a lot of directions, directions that lesser creators and other networks would’ve pushed for (think of the ratings!), but instead of telling the tired tale of two women in a nearly lifelong catfight, Murphy chose to put the pettiness (like Bette installing Coca Cola machines on-set when Joan was a spokeswoman for Pepsi) in the background and foreground the (sadly, still relevant) issues of ageism and sexism seen not just in the movie business but in all workplaces. Sarah Paulson, as Geraldine Page, sums it up: “Hollywood should be forced to look at what they’ve done to her.” And that’s exactly what Murphy does. (It should be noted that Murphy worked to be part of the solution when filming this show as he created a foundation called Half, which works to fill at least 50% of director positions on his own shows with women.)  

Through the articulately pointed writing, we are given subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) yet poignant nudges of how women were (and are) manipulated into fighting against one another while also demonstrating massive achievements that went more or less unnoticed, often by using the male characters as the beast’s mirror. Case in point: Stanley Tucci’s first line as Jack Warner — of THE Warner Bros. — is asking director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), who is begging Warner to distribute the picture, if he would f— either of the two old broads. Warner goes on to angrily explain that he won’t cast Bette simply out of spite about her role in blowing apart the studio contract system, allowing women to have a say in where and what they worked on, instead of posing as a studio Barbie doll waiting their turn. It’s an important conversation that seems to get a lot of head nods and “mhmms” from Hollywood execs, yet we’re still seeing examples of Academy Award-winning actresses making less than male counterparts who don’t have a single significant nomination to their name. We may be watching a period piece but the conflict explored is still quite modern.

Feud is a fun spectacular with the pizazz of American Horror Story and the importance of American Crime Story all sprinkled atop with the glitz and glamour so idolized from the Old Hollywood era. Sarandon and Lange are stunning, and surrounded by the likes of Tucci and Molina, as well as Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page, Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland, Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper, Dominic Burgess as Victor Buono, Jackie Hoffman as Mamasita, and Kiernan Shipka as B.D. Hyman, the project is a true actors’ showcase.

Heading into Sunday’s premiere, FX and Murphy have announced Feud will be coming back for a second season, which Murphy revealed would center on the plagued 16-year marriage between Princess Diana and Prince Charles. It may not be the Battling Sinatras, but you can count me in.  

 

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Don’t miss the premiere of Feud: Bette and Joan Sunday, March 5 at 9pm ET on FX.

 

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