Graphic and colorful Saul Bass-like credits set the lavish, retro tone of Feud: Bette and Joan, the Ryan Murphy series about the rivalry between classic Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. These formidable women are seen in the credits as puppets being manipulated by a large man with a cigar, followed by a lit cigarette that sheds Oscar statuettes instead of ashes. At the end of the credit sequence the two female figures weep hearts next to each other, a sign that Feud is going to delve into their pain as well as their strength.
Catherine Zeta-Jones’ glacial Olivia de Havilland is tasked with providing exposition that is framed as some kind of documentary being shot at the Oscars in 1978. As she speaks, we see Jessica Lange’s Crawford holding a gun in a scene from the thriller Sudden Fear (1952), and Lange uncannily captures the warrior-like way that Crawford held her facial muscles in this period, especially in her overly made-up mouth. We also see Susan Sarandon’s Davis in the scene on the staircase in All About Eve (1950), striking a pose and moving those outsized Bette Davis eyes.
The scene shifts to the 1961 Golden Globes as Marilyn Monroe ascends to the podium and Lange’s Crawford sits at a table and drinks with her man of the moment (Reed Diamond). After the death of her fourth husband, the Pepsi executive Al Steele, Crawford was drinking more than ever.
“I got great tits too, but I don’t throw them in everyone’s face,” she mutters to herself, and Lange uses her lowest, most guttural vocal tone here, which really gets across Crawford’s lethal bitterness in this period. Crawford had denounced Monroe after a sensationalized Photoplay dinner in 1953, and she continued to make negative remarks about her until Monroe’s death in 1962.
We see Crawford in her Hollywood domicile getting a massage and worrying over wrinkles. (Crawford had sold her house in Hollywood by 1961, but this fictionalization allows the series to give her a solid home base.) Two scene-stealers are introduced: Joan’s dour Teutonic maid Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) and the powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), who favors wacky hats. The pleasure in Ryan Murphy's shows so often comes from his dream-like casting, and it doesn’t get any dreamier or tastier than the sight of the equally gifted and idiosyncratic Lange and Davis sharing the screen together. The writing in their first scene might be less blunt, but we can’t have everything.
Searching for a comeback role, Crawford sends Mamacita out to get some books with women on the cover, and then things get briefly campy-comic. “No, no Mamacita, nothing Sapphic,” says Joan as she eyes a book called Chocolates for Breakfast with two women on the front. It seems Joan can’t pay her gardeners, but Mamacita has told them that “It’s an honor to trim Miss Crawford’s bush,” and kudos must go to New York cabaret curmudgeon Hoffman for delivering this loaded line in such a serious and deadpan way. Joan explained in her priceless book My Way of Life (1971) that she called her German maid Mamacita because she had just returned from a Pepsi tour in Rio de Janeiro and had heard “cita” there a lot. (Mamacita’s real name was Anne Marie Brinke, and coincidentally her maiden name was Hoffman.)
Rough-and-ready auteur Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) is unhappily shooting the sexy Biblical epic Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) when Joan gives him a copy of the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by Henry Farrell. Aldrich and Crawford had worked together previously on Autumn Leaves (1956), which was one of her best films and one of her very best and most imaginative performances, and so they already have some director-actor chemistry going. To get Bette on board for their project, Joan flies out to see her on stage in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana.
Davis was unhappy with the supporting role she had in that Williams play, but she proudly bowed to the audience when she would get her entrance applause every night, a detail that is exactly depicted here. Feud is a series in which it is obvious that everyone involved did an enormous amount of research to get things as accurate as possible, even down to having Davis and Crawford discuss the fact that they had both wanted to do a movie of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome in the 1940s—but had wanted to play the same part of young servant girl Mattie.
Sarandon is likely to be criticized for not imitating Davis’ voice and mannerisms more fully and expansively. Davis is one of the most easily imitated of performers—pretty much anyone can do her—but Sarandon settles for acting tough and impatient and emphasizing the “t” in all of her words as Davis did. (Vocally Davis was all “t,” so that even words that ended in “d” came out with a “t” on the end of them.) Sarandon does this “t” thing diligently, and like Lange here she says “bean” for “been” as these women both did. Sarandon’s Bette calls Joan “Lucille,” which was Crawford’s real name. There is no evidence that I’m aware of that Davis ever actually did that, but it is something that she easily might have done with Crawford.
Murphy, who co-wrote and directed this premiere episode, isolates his figures in the frame in order to let us see how expressive the production design by Judy Becker is. Everything you need to know about Crawford is in the fancy-ugly furniture she has covered in plastic and the flattering painting she has of herself on a wall, whereas everything you need to know about Davis is there in the cozy-ugly New England furnishings where she lives. Davis reads the Farrell book and agrees to the project only after ascertaining that Aldrich has not slept with Crawford, who always used sex as a bargaining tool.
Aldrich is turned down by most studio bosses, one of whom wants to cast younger actresses like Audrey Hepburn as the wheelchair-bound Blanche and Doris Day as her demented sister Baby Jane. But Aldrich gets some traction with studio kingpin Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), who made millions off both Davis and Crawford in their 1940s heyday. Tucci plays Warner as a sexist pig and a vulgarian, which he very much was, but the performer here who best captures the real person they are playing is Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell, who joins De Havilland to narrate the series. Bates exactly catches Blondell’s bright chattiness and her earthy sort of warmth.
This pilot of Feud is jam-packed with backstory that finally leads us to the first day of shooting on Baby Jane, when Davis finds her frighteningly clownish look for the film. We see Joan kissing up to the crew and then we see her staring into her dressing room mirror, and it is at this point that Lange makes the kind of imaginative and empathetic gesture that separates great actors from good ones. Crawford’s eyebrows got heavier and darker as she grew older, so much so that they started to seem like a kind of pathological symptom. I can’t say I’ve ever quite understood what Crawford was doing with these eyebrows or even what she thought she was doing. But Lange understands.
Lange’s panicked Crawford looks in that dressing room mirror and she quickly smoothes her heavy eyebrows with her hands. Lange makes it clear that these eyebrows are a security blanket for Crawford, but she also manages to suggest that Crawford knows deep down that they are too much. Her bushy black eyebrows are seen as an act of defiance and perversity, but there is also a heartbreaking thing that Lange catches underneath this that asks, “Do I still look good?” And within a split second her Joan seems to answer, “Yes, I do,” and also, “They’re distinctive but maybe everyone is laughing at me,” and also, “Fuck everyone.”
The pilot ends with Bette and Joan watching some rushes of Baby Jane and Joan asking Aldrich, “Isn’t that lighting unnecessarily harsh?” Both women were lit in an exploitative way in Baby Jane so that every line on their face was highlighted, and glamour queen Joan is fully aware of this while character actress Bette tries to look past it. This first episode ends with both of them going to have dinner with Hopper, who fully expects some dirt for her column about the hatred between them.
They did hate each other, Bette and Joan. That was real, and they had a surprisingly long list of genuine reasons for it. But Feud is about the bigger picture and about two older female stars whose innate and assumed dislike was used and manipulated by others. This series invites us to think about and seriously consider Davis and Crawford rather than just revel in the kind of bitchy and campy battling between them that has been enjoyably parodied by drag queens for over 50 years now.