After seeing “Feud: Bette and Joan,” Ryan Murphy’s rapturously entertaining new TV series, I tweeted that I felt 19 percent gayer.
Don’t let that frighten you. “Feud” is not merely an extravagant display of camp or an effective strain of husband repellent; other critics will make a serious case for its feminist text, which is considerable. The eight-episode series, which premieres Sunday on FX, stars Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two aging screen legends caught in one of Hollywood’s most acidic rivalries, an animosity exploited by the men who controlled the movie business, as well as certain women (including Judy Davis as a vicious Hedda Hopper) who had weaponized gossip.
“Feud” presents its story as a moral tragedy for the ages, offering the usual cautions against fame and fortune, affixed with a warning label about mixing ego and liquor intake. It opens in 1962 as Bette and Joan are each at a crisis point, in an era when being in one’s 50s was considered perilously close to death. Bette, at 53, is facing her third divorce and getting mediocre reviews in Tennessee Williams’s “Night of the Iguana” on Broadway; Joan (57-ish, her exact age remains a mystery), recently widowed from Pepsi exec Alfred Steele, just made a fruitless TV pilot and is down to a humiliating offer to play Elvis Presley’s mother in his next movie.
Fed up, Joan takes matters into her own hands, dispatching her housekeeper to bookstores in search of novels with women on the covers. From this pile she chances upon Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”, a gothic thriller about two sisters, one of them deranged, who live in a Hollywood mansion and mourn their forgotten careers in showbiz.
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A master manipulator, Joan enlists B-list director Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina) to write a “Baby Jane” screenplay and find a studio willing to make it, assuring him that she can sweet-talk her rival, Bette, to play the title role, which Joan, to her lasting regret, regards as the lesser part.
Backstage at a performance of “Iguana,” the crackling energy between Lange and Sarandon offers just a hint of the fireworks ahead. Bette has two Academy Awards to Joan’s one; both women would like a chance at another.
To get at Oscar, however, they must once more endure the debasing effects of Hollywood. Stanley Tucci delivers a fearsomely misogynistic performance as studio head Jack Warner, whose contempt for Joan and Bette is greater than his contempt for women in general. Nevertheless, he agrees to finance the film on the cheap; when the daily footage comes in, Warner declares that “There’s so much ham up there I’m going to have to go to my rabbi this afternoon and atone.”
Are they making a terrible movie or an instant classic? We all know the answer, but they don’t.
“Feud” feels like Murphy’s masterwork, combining his fervor for showmanship and irony with his insistence on of-the-moment relevance. It also feels like FX’s wildest indulgence of its favorite hitmaker — the show’s Saul Bass-style opening credits and careful remakes of scenes from the Crawford/Davis oeuvre speak to the sense of generosity and lavishness at play here. Viewers will want to keep several browser windows open while watching the series, for furious bouts of Wikipedia fact-checking and YouTube scrutiny. In nearly every case, you’ll find that “Feud” has its story more or less straight, even when the events it portrays seem to defy plausibility.
Still, this is no mere docudrama. As we saw in “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Murphy and his writers and actors have a firm understanding that they are working toward a common goal of enhanced reality.
“Feud” is just as good as “People v. O.J.” at arranging its tale along a thematic track that transcends rehash, which means that neither Lange nor Sarandon (nor any of their co-stars) are beholden to replicating exactly the mannerisms of people who were widely known and often imitated. (Lange, especially, must work against two expectations — that she embody the real Joan Crawford as well as Faye Dunaway’s 1981 portrayal of Crawford in “Mommie Dearest.”) The cast is given the same creative opportunities afforded Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown in the “O.J.” project — there is just enough freedom of departure to entice viewers away from nitpicking and allow them to get fully absorbed in the battle at hand.
That’s another way of saying that Lange and Sarandon are terrific.
Of five episodes shared with critics, the most delicious has to be Episode 5, written and directed by Murphy, about the machinations and schemings in the buildup to the 1963 Oscars ceremony. It’s no spoiler to tell you that “Baby Jane?” was a surprise box-office hit after its October 1962 release. Joan’s worst nightmare comes true when Davis’ performance garners Davis her 10th Oscar nomination — and nothing for Joan.
Snubbed and seething, Joan enlists Hedda Hopper’s help to stage a stunning PR coup. When Oscar night arrives, Murphy’s camera follows a dolled-up Joan on a drunken, high-heeled saunter from presenting the award for best director, all the way through an epic walk around the backstage area, arriving at her triumphant upstaging of Davis, by accepting the best actress award on behalf of an absent Anne Bancroft.
The story is Diva 101 to many of us, but if you’ve never heard all this delicious dish before, then are you in for a treat.
“Feud: Bette and Joan” premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on FX.