In the age of diss tracks and subtweets, celebrity feuds are more rampant than ever. From Drake and Meek Mill to Taylor Swift and Kanye West/Katy Perry/(insert name here), it seems like half of Hollywood has a score to settle. “Feud: Bette and Joan” proves that this trend goes back decades by retelling a story of monumental celebrity warfare. Millennials may not be familiar with the lifetime rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but they will instantly recognize their loathing in contemporary stars.
“Feud” marks producer Ryan Murphy’s third television series this year, after “American Horror Story” and “Scream Queens,” nearly putting the “Glee” producer in league with Shonda Rhimes. Even before the debut of his latest FX show, Murphy’s successful track record has already secured “Feud” a second season that will spotlight the relationship between Prince Charles and Princess Diana of Wales. As for the inaugural hate-fest, “Bette and Joan” couldn’t be more fitting.
Crawford (Jessica Lange) is petty, unable to accept that she has been dethroned by the “amoral” Marilyn Monroe. Davis (Susan Sarandon) is in a similar strait, unable to find satisfying work on Broadway. Realizing that leading roles for older women are no longer being written, the two enemies join forces to create them instead via horror film “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” As soon as they sign their contracts, the two women fight over everything from their salaries to their placement in publicity photos. Director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) is tasked with keeping the peace – and more importantly, keeping either star from walking away.
Despite the feud of “biblical proportions” promised by the show’s documentary-framing device, the relationship between Davis and Crawford thus far seems stuck in a high school hallway. A dressing room conversation between the two at first signals mutual respect. “You’re really good,” Davis says. “I mean that.” Seconds later, however, Crawford accuses her co-star of being controlling, leaving Davis to storm off in search of a revenge stunt.
The show stays loyal to history while offering plenty of camp, but the loose recap of the actresses’ troubled past together fails to convey why they behave the way they do. Competing for roles and for men is never pleasant, but not receiving a thank you card after sending a congratulatory bouquet is hardly grounds for bad-mouthing someone’s career.
The drama may not yet be explosive, but the seeds have at least been planted. With a slap to his young masseuse’s ass, the temperamental Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) epitomizes the film industry’s blatant ageism and sexism in the 1960s. Rather than address their frustrations with their industry, Crawford and Davis actively choose to aim their arrows at each other instead, much to the delight of the tabloid press.
Lange and Sarandon both shine in their roles, and Jackie Hoffman’s Mamacita makes a great foil as Crawford’s German maid and sole confidant. She obediently waddles around the study with a wagon full of pink gifts for grips, rolling her eyes at her boss’s effort to win favor from the crew. Kiernan Shipka’s B.D. Sherry parallels Mamacita as a counterpoint to Davis, questioning why her mother would pounce on a blonde wig once used by Crawford as a staple to her costume. It will be side characters like these who will serve as a gateway to the stars who, despite multiple congruences, are utterly alone in the cosmos.
The real story behind “Feud: Bette and Joan,” however, will not be about the violent enthusiasm Davis exhibited while kicking her co-star in the face for the camera, nor will it be about Crawford’s successful sabotage of her rival’s Oscar campaign. The real story of “Feud” is in the pain that celebrities inflict on themselves. The prideful one-upmanship is merely dessert.