This is a spoiler-free review. Already seen Feud: Bette and Joan? Read our spoiler-filled review here.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? In 1962, Robert Aldrich set out to answer that question with a stunningly dark horror starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – and left audiences asking even more questions about whatever happened while making it. The movie has gone down in history as one of the most famous troubled productions in movie history, as Davis and Crawford went hell-for-leather not just on the screen, but off it. It’s a behind-the-scenes spat that has been begging for its own screen treatment for years – and Feud: Better and Joan sinks its teeth into the bitter rivalry with relish.
Portraying two such iconic leading ladies is a decision that can live or die by its casting, and Feud gets it spot-on, with two blisteringly good performances from its stars. Susan Sarandon is astonishing as Bette Davis, almost indistinguishable from the actress, from her waspish delivery right down to her withering looks. Sarandon rains down fury upon the woman she thinks might jeopardise her Hollywood legacy and reputation, before ruthlessly charming the socks off director Bob (Alfred Molina) to make sure that he’s on her side. Jessica Lange is equally remarkable as Crawford, who is just as hungry for recognition and reputation. She plays Crawford with a faintly tragic desperation, always over-compensating in every department and fastidiously preoccupied with how things appear to other people. She’s just as calculating, if not as smooth.
Watching them both go head-to-head is an endless delight, as each one clearly enjoys the loud cackling and the quiet grins of revenge, as the on-set tit-for-tat escalates. Deliberating corpsing in their co-star’s scenes or actually kicking each other when they should be pretending, they soon stoop to any low just to get one-up – and there’s a wickedly nasty humour to that sinister subterfuge. But you can get a sense of that cruelty just from watching Baby Jane? – what makes Feud: Bette and Joan so enjoyable is the way it brings pathos and emotion to the mutual bullying.
It’s a gradual process, the deepening of what initially seems a surface-level impersonation, as creator Ryan Murphy shapes his story. The period is impeccably realised, from the costumes and hair to the restaurants and bars, but where a movie might make do with that, Murphy’s docudrama makes the most of its eight episodes, patiently setting the scene and the dynamic, before diving in. That means we have time to share dinner with Crawford and Davis, in a moving third episode that opens up the range of each character; there are hints, albeit brief, of friendship and glimpses, albeit fleeting, of respect for the other’s craft. But there is also a solidarity, in the way that each woman is aware of how much they are being positioned to spark off each other; Davis pushes for her daughter to be cast in a small role (Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka does a brilliant job of pretending to be bad at acting), and there’s a shared understanding of motherhood, childhood tragedy, and how to sculpt and manage their own children. But the truth is that they are the ones being pushed and pulled, all in order to create as much publicity as possible.
That, of course, is the brainchild of Warner Bros. bigwig Jack Warner, played with boo-hiss villainy by the ever-watchable Stanley Tucci. And it’s enforced and enabled by Aldrich, who is torn between the financial pressure to make this a success and his moral conflict about manipulating his leading ladies. Molina delivers a typically subtle performance, portraying the director as a fan of – and susceptible to – the actresses’ talents, but always being generous enough to let them steal the show.
Murphy, who has worked with Lange before on American Horror Story, is in his element here, creating a tale that’s designed to showcase complex female figures. The whole saga tellingly starts with Crawford frustratingly looking for a substantial part she can play, before sending Bob the script for Baby Jane? – and you get the impression that Murphy sympathises with that need. With Judy Davis clearly enjoying herself as needling gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Jackie Hoffman supporting Lange as Mamacita, Crawford’s patient housekeeper, this a miniseries stuffed with nuanced roles for women in an age bracket so frequently underserved by Hollywood. Female directors, too, frequently take the helm (The Walking Dead and American Horror Story veteran Gwyneth Horder-Payton directs that standout third episode.)
Ryan Murphy, though, has his fingerprints all over the shop, from the compelling female characters to the series’ note-perfect tone. What Ever Happened… was only ever a B-movie, we’re reminded, as the marketing gears begin to whir, driving up the movie’s number of cinema screens for opening weekend, but just like that surprisingly layered thriller, Feud manages to be both meaningful and marvellously lightweight; the ideal combination for an eight-hour binge-watch, to the point where the BBC is releasing the whole thing at once on BBC iPlayer. Between Glee and American Horror Story (which notably turned its gaze to Trump-era America in its latest season), Murphy has refined a real knack for juggling comedy, drama, horror and heart, and it’s perfectly served by this material. With Feud set to follow AHS’ example and become an anthology series too (savour the Hitchcockian title sequence while it lasts), this first season establishes the writer and director as a serious creative force on the small screen. You suspect even he, though, would be no match for Crawford and Davis in their prime – and that fiery admiration shines through in every scene.