Critic's Notebook: The Faux Feminism of 'Feud'

Kurt Iswarienko/FX

By portraying Joan Crawford and Bette Davis as victims of male manipulation — and tacking on a subplot about a struggling female director — the series misses the power, intelligence and agency of the two women.

From its Mad Men-esque animated opening credits sequence showing the silhouette of a man-as-puppeteer controlling two lady marionettes, Ryan Murphy’s FX show Feud: Bette and Joan is hammering away at a clear theme: If it wasn’t for meddlesome men in Hollywood, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis could have been friends, not foes.

The notion is re-telegraphed in the second installment of the eight-episode miniseries. “At the time, we didn't know that these two great screen legends, friends of ours, were being manipulated so cruelly by the men around them,” says Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) about Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Davis (Susan Sarandon).

It may make for juicy drama, but it’s a misguided thesis statement around which to build the show. In reality, these women were hardly puppets, and their careers were defined by strength, not weakness. Murphy is known more for sensationalism than subtlety, but here, especially, his work — which focuses on the actresses as they shoot and promote their 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? — seems to have been sourced from Wikipedia and trashy biographies. His intentions in telling the tale of the fraught relationship between Crawford and Davis may have been honorable, but the result leaves us with a troublesome lingering thought: Is this idea of men pulling the strings of these women’s lives really any different from the way this miniseries lets men pull the strings of their story?

Murphy is a born-again feminist. After having zero female directors on the first five seasons of his American Horror Story (a show in which one season was about witches!), Murphy realized the implicit sexism of his ways. At a recent THR Women in Entertainment breakfast, he apologized and pledged to hire more women directors. And good for him. But Feud is hardly that intended feminism manifested.

The voices that shape Feud indeed are those of Murphy — as creator and director of at least three episodes — and Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, who wrote at least three episodes and on whose script, Best Actress, the series is based. To his credit, Murphy did hire women directors — Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Liza Johson and Helen Hunt — for at least three of seven episodes. (Credits are not yet available for the final episode). And one woman, Gina Welch, co-wrote a few episodes. But the focus in some of these female-written-and-directed episodes feels off; they’re like a “women’s interest” vertical, appendages that don’t quite fit into the narrative, tone and time of the main series as a whole.

The episode that aired Sunday night, "More, or Less," is the only one both written and directed by women, and the only one that focuses on a made-up character: an assistant and aspiring director named Pauline Jameson (Alison Wright of The Americans). “I’m a director, too,” she tells her boss, Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), in last night’s episode. “At least I think I am. No, I am.” The line rings true, but it has very little to do with Crawford, Davis and their talents as actresses.

The show is full of similar details that feel like tacked-on feminist asides. Crawford’s faithful German maid “Mamacita” (Jackie Hoffman) is portrayed as an undercover contemporary feminist, even though the series takes place about a decade before second-wave feminism was strong. As Mamacita tries to help Pauline launch her directing career, she cites statistics about women and says that studios will eventually have to make films by women for women. Very true. But would Mamacita, who preferred to scrub floors on her “handsies and kneesies” rather than use a mop (according to Crawford’s My Way of Life), really have said this? It feels like the women who made this episode got the diversity slot. To try to link the serious struggle of women directors to the story of Crawford and Davis is too simplistic, too presentist. It's as if Mamacita has traveled from the future to judge the past.

The key to understanding the feminism of Crawford and Davis is to not look at them with pity (they would hate that!) but rather to identify their own non-patriarchal strength (they were both total feminists but would surely not use modern feminist language to express that). Their feminism is, to a large extent, in the complexity of their collective hundreds of starring film roles. From the beginning of their careers, they often played working women (Crawford) or women overlooked by society (Davis). Both could be described as Crawford was in her New York Times obituary, which stated that she “personified for decades the dreams and disappointments of millions of American women.”

Crawford and Davis carved out long careers for themselves with pure ambition and intelligence. While Crawford didn't produce films for others, she did create or produce many of her own films, several of them uncredited on IMDB — including Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, as film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum described in an essay for the recent Olive Blu-ray release of that film.

In the same essay, Rosenbaum explains that the project was developed so that Crawford could play the man’s role in a western. And when the role wasn’t written to her satisfaction, she had it rewritten. “I want to play the man. I want to shoot it out at the end with Mercedes McCambridge and instead of me playing with myself in a corner, let Sterling [Haden, as Johnny Guitar] play with himself in the corner,” she is quoted as having said.

The best part of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is the ending, in which these strong roles that each woman had played are distilled into one scene. There’s Davis and her broad, completely affecting high-wire act, and Crawford’s mix of beauty, intensity and cruelty. Yet in Feud, when we see them shooting that very scene, little of that is on display, at least on Crawford’s part. Some of this is due to Lange’s inability to nail the toughness and pain that was always in Crawford’s voice, just underneath the strained elegance.

But the failure of the sequence is also due to the way it’s written and shot. The makers of Feud seem to be less interested in these actress’ formidable craft than in landing a joke about Crawford’s vanity; she's shown reapplying make-up between each take. Crawford later describes her preparation for the scene to Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis, a delight), saying, “I really had to draw on some very deep feelings. It took all the skill that I had just to bring some reality to the moment.” But she's shown in flashback putting falsies in her bra as she says the word "reality." As is often the case with this series, something with deep meaning is played for camp-comic effect.

Rather than capture the exceptional quality of Davis' and Crawford's performances in this specific scene, and the way the scene in many ways was the culmination of their entire careers, what Feud squeezes from it is one line: "You mean all this time we could have been friends?" The series' focus, disappointingly, remains how Davis and Crawford were victimized by powerful men, manipulated and instigated into hating each other by a male-dominated industry that couldn’t make room for both of them.

What Murphy and his writers seem to miss is that these were artists and professionals who, above all, used each other to better themselves as performers. In the first episode, de Havilland introduces the series by noting, “Feuds are never about hate. Feuds are about pain. They’re about pain.” (She says it twice for emphasis.) But in her final public appearance, Crawford suggested that feuds — specifically her feud with Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? — can also be about the quest to do better work. “I really think that competition is one of the great challenges of life. And we must have challenges. Otherwise, we don't grow,” she said. “I think with Bette Davis, in Baby Jane, [it] was one of the greatest challenges I'd ever had.” The complex relationship between the women was, in the end, primarily about acting; too bad Feud focuses on everything but that.