Ryan Murphy’s ‘Feud: Bette & Joan’: Series premiere reviewed

❉ The classic Old Hollywood battle of the divas comes to the small screen. 

With her career waning, Joan Crawford pitches a horror film with two female lead roles to producer Robert Aldrich, and suggests her rival Bette Davis as her costar. After a string of rejections, Aldrich brings the project to studio head Jack Warner, who despises both Crawford and Davis but is eventually convinced to come on board. As filming for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? begins, Crawford’s acute narcissism and Davis’ strong opinions put them at odds…

‘Bette and Joan’, the first season of the new anthology series ‘Feud’ from Ryan Murphy is everything that I imagined it would be. Catty, quotable and downright addictive. Whilst also being well acted, beautifully detailed with a script that cares not to fall into the traps of stereotypes.

Joan Crawford’s life has already been immortalised in ‘Mommie Dearest‘. Not all of what was shown in that may have been true, but there was some truth in it. It’s an image that still haunts the woman, years after her death. Thankfully, Murphy and co. have conceded to some of what that film gave us, but have also taken care to flesh her out into a more complex human being, rather than a villain. Indeed, neither of the leads are played in shades of black and white, and the role of antagonist shifts with each scene (sometimes by the minute).

To scroll back a bit, the series details the events surrounding the production of the 1962 film ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, two women with big egos, big appetites and big careers, worked together for the first time. Problem was, they hated each other’s guts. Suffice to say, the drama was as much off screen as it was on it.

Jessica Lange plays ‘Joan’, proving once again that she can throw shade like no other (and god, do we miss her on ‘American Horror Story’). Susan Sarandon plays ‘Bette’, and perfectly holds her own. Especially considering that she has more work to do. Bette Davis’ life is not nearly as chronicled as Crawford’s was, so she’s not really fighting an image here, but has to make one from scratch.

‘Bette and Joan’ has lots of little nuggets of truth in it about the reality of how the world treats older women. It’s not a pretty scene.

Ryan Murphy really has a talent for casting. You look at the cast list and think “Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell? Really?” and then you see it and it’s pitch perfect. The cast list is a veritable Who’s Who of some of the profession’s best character actors. Alfred Molina as director Bob Aldrich, Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner, and Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper? Yes, please.

The pilot episode highlights quite an important issue that seems to be a problem for artistic women to this day. Women are forced to create their own work. To find their own opportunities. Joan has to go out and find her own script, director and co-star. The studio has all but abandoned her. It strikes a particularly harsh chord that even 50 odd years later, the situation hasn’t improved. Unfortunately, it’s even worse for older women. They are forced to write, direct themselves, because if they don’t, who will?

‘Bette and Joan’ has lots of little nuggets of truth in it about the reality of how the world treats older women. It’s not a pretty scene.

❉ Despite the almost dead on casting for the rest of the ensemble, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia De Havilland just isn’t working. Does she ever truly play anyone else? I hate to say it, but…she can’t really act. It’s Catherine Zeta-Jones in a wig and aging makeup… A bit troubling since she seems to be our de facto narrator.

❉ On the other hand, Tucci was born to play Jack Warner. Google ‘Jack Warner’. I’ll wait.

❉ Love the little details. Someone really did their research. Joan’s morning ritual of ice and witchhazel on her face. Hedda’s line about her house being built by fear. Bob Aldrich throwing director William Wyler back in Bette’s face after she accused him of sleeping with Joan. (Bette had a notorious affair with him.)

❉ The little stings of old-fashioned horror-thriller music in spots make me a tinge giddy. I keep expecting someone to get knifed in a shower. Oh, well. We still get a bitch in a wig.

❉ Susan Sarandon is much more attractive than Bette Davis ever was, but there’s something about her that….has her essence.

❉ Bette calling Joan by her real name is such a dick move. I love it.

You’ll come for the cat fights and the uber campiness of it all, but you’ll stay for the loving detail and the wonderful characterisations that make up this mini-series. The only real problem with it is, that you have to wait a week for the next episode. Bring on episode 2!

Must watch viewing for lovers of Old Hollywood, strong women, catty barbs, period detail, and more shade than a grove of orange trees.

❉ “Feud: Bette and Joan” debuted on Sunday, 5 March, 2017 on FX at 10/9c.

Become a patron at Patreon!