'Feud: Bette and Joan': TV Review

Doesn't have 'O.J.' depth, but it's a lot of fun.

Ryan Murphy's latest FX anthology will thrust stars Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, who play Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, respectively, into awards conversations for the next year.

In his latest attempt to anthologize the totality of America's cultural history, Ryan Murphy has transitioned from the shared 1990s experience of the Trial of the Century to the Hollywood mythology of the 1960s. If People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story felt like unexpected terrain for Murphy to mine, FX's Feud: Bette and Joan is a perhaps more predictable fascination. The diva devotee's undeniable passion for the material, plus a cast of almost gratuitous distinction, helps cover for a narrative that's sometimes more juicy than weighty.

Opening with a Saul Bass-inspired credit sequence that still fills me with cinema-loving giddiness after more than a dozen viewings, Feud was extrapolated from Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam's script Best Actress by Murphy, with Tim Minear as his most frequent writing collaborator.

Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) has become unemployable due to Hollywood's ageism, misogyny and the myopia of an industry trying desperately to lure young viewers away from the vapid scourge of television. When she gets the script for a pulpy adaptation of the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Crawford sees the opportunity for a comeback, but only if she can recruit fellow Oscar-winning titan-in-decline Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). The two stars have never worked together, but they have a simmering rivalry that goes back decades. It's up to journeyman director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) to keep them from killing each other, though a peaceful collaboration may not be in the best interests of headline-craving studio chief Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) or notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), who is willing to take sides for whichever actress will give her the tawdriest scoops.

Set just five years from Bonnie and Clyde, this is Hollywood on the edge of a cliff, an industry desperately trying to hold onto its faded Golden Age glamor, and in Davis and Crawford, Murphy has the perfect ambassadors: former matinee idols scraping and clawing to remain desirable in a business that would prefer they be maternal or entirely invisible.

The combination of Davis and Crawford, both eternal camp icons, the production of a movie that is beloved as a camp classic and Murphy, no stranger to camp embrace, suggests only a piece of what Feud is going for. Surely there is humor in the largesse, but there's every bit as much sadness to what both women must go through to avoid sliding into the has-been abyss. Murphy and his leads have too much respect for these legends to let their conflicts become Dynasty-style catfights, balancing the fun of behind-the-scenes shenanigans with the desperation the women were feeling, using individual episodes to focus on Davis and Crawford as mothers and wives or lovers, showing the power their femininity affords them and its limitations as they woo Aldrich and the camera's affections.

The show's own affections go back and forth between Davis and Crawford, and the five episodes sent to critics are a swinging pendulum of sympathies for their characters and awards sentiment for Sarandon and Lange, who will surely be butting heads for a year of trophy-striving. The first episode seems balanced toward Lange, whose exaggerated beauty regimens and lack of polite filter dominate, but just as I'd etched Lange's name on the hypothetical Emmy, Sarandon slipped in and, with the quiet yearning of those well-cast Bette Davis eyes, dominated the second episode. Lange's is the bigger performance, Sarandon's the more calculating. Murphy and the other directors, including Gwyneth Horder-Payton and Liza Johnson for the third and fourth episodes, respectively, aren't playing favorites.

Feud doesn't have a distracting "What show do you think you're in?" or "Why don't you look or sound anything like the real person?" performance like John Travolta or Cuba Gooding Jr. in People v. O.J. The cast, from the biggest of Oscar winners to a handful of lesser-knowns, is tremendous. Catherine Zeta-Jones delivers glamor from another era as Olivia de Havilland, while Kathy Bates is a cackling, dirt-spilling treat as Joan Blondell. Tucci noshes on scenery with vulgar abandon and Davis oozes cunning poison, and if they're overplaying Warner or Hopper, I have no idea. As perhaps the most developed of the male characters, Molina sometimes makes Aldrich seem like a button-pushing buffoon, but Feud finds empathy in his thwarted aspirations to be seen as more than just an artless hack.

Going down the cast list, praise is due to Kiernan Shipka, charmingly awkward as Davis' daughter, and Alison Wright, differently calculating as an assistant with greater aspirations. Also, watch out for veteran character comic Jackie Hoffman, stealing scenes with deadpan deviousness as Crawford's German maid and confidante Mamacita.

Thematically, Feud works almost as an eight-episode extension of the tremendous "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" episode of People v. O.J., exploring the machine that marginalizes women of a certain age and the challenges of fighting that machine and maintaining dignity, only occasionally letting that focus wander. Played with uncanny precision by Dominic Burgess, Baby Jane co-star Victor Buono lets Feud give a nod to the plight of closeted actors in Hollywood at that moment and also to smartly weave in Davis' treasured ties to the gay community.

"This isn't real life, this is Hollywood," Bette instructs Hopper and, indeed, if a strength of People v. O.J. was regularly finding ways to use a contained story to speak to nearly every facet of American life, Feud is often restricting itself to the trifling problems and precariousness of this pocket of privilege, not real life. You can even feel Murphy straining to figure out exactly how much story he has here. Baby Jane, which presents as the series' backbone, has already been released by the wheel-spinning fourth episode, drawn out because Murphy wanted to give the 1963 Oscars an episode of their own.

It happens that that episode, written and directed by Murphy, is a cinema nerd's delight, with cameo impressions — Gregory Peck! Patty Duke! David Lean! Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page! — a killer extended one-shot (with a single masked cut) of Crawford navigating backstage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and the rivalry's coup de grace, which I won't spoil for non-obsessives. With some awareness of what's left, an episode this good runs the risk of making the last three feel like a lot of postscript. We'll see.

How much knowledge is really required to enjoy Feud? None, but some background helps. You don't need to have seen What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to understand what Aldrich, Crawford and Davis are up to, but familiarity helps you enjoy how accurate a lot of the reproductions are when it comes to the movie's sets and also to Sarandon and Lange's performance nuances. Karina Longworth did a full series on Crawford in her fantastic You Must Remember This podcast, including a great episode on Baby Jane, and having that as context is invaluable if not essential. Even when you can tell that Longworth and the Feud writers did some of the same research and the actors have been presented with dry biographical monologues, Sarandon and Lange are canny enough to transcend a Wikipedia entry.

The nostalgia for a 50-year-old company town kerfuffle might not be as great as for a trial watched by millions every day for months, and a lot of Feud is tailored for fanatics, for the sort of person who gets wonky joy from shifting aspect ratios and color saturation levels or can appreciate a good off-hand reference to Franchot Tone or already awaits the silver sparkle of Crawford's Oscar gown. Fortunately, production designer Judy Becker and Lou Eyrich's costumes flawless period evocation can be appreciated without a Ph.D. in film studies and the ample pleasures of watching four Oscar-winning actresses and a slew of other stars backstab, conspire and strive for excellence should make Feud: Bette and Joan another success for Ryan Murphy. I'm already eager to see what discord is on tap for the second season.

Cast: Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci, Judy Davis, Jackie Hoffman, Alison Wright, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dominic Burgess, Kiernan Shipka
Creator: Ryan Murphy from Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam's script
Best Actress
Showrunner: Ryan Murphy and Tim Minear
Premieres: Sunday, March 5, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)