The great surprise of Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan is that it’s not the major camp-fest almost anyone would’ve expected, given both Ryan Murphy’s history and the subject matter of this series. It’s impossible to tell the stories of Bette Davis’ and Joan Crawford’s decades-long dislike of each other without throwing in at least a couple of decent drag-queen-style pokes, but Murphy is astonishingly restrained so far, focusing instead on deeper, more poignant (and even timely) topics of agism and misogyny in the entertainment industry. In his telling, the two grande dames of Hollywood’s golden era are not reduced to their drag queen caricatures but instead portrayed as complicated women with serious character flaws at the mercy of a system and industry that spent decades chewing them up until they could no longer exploit them anymore.
Somewhat elegantly, their dueling points of view are presented as similar, but still at odds with each other. Crawford is an aging beauty who yearns for the respect she never felt she got as an actress and Davis is an artist, desperate for the chance to continue making art and resentful of the kinds of attention lavished on less talented, more beautiful actresses. Both of them are low on opportunities, if not low on money. Murphy knows a thing or two about going meta, as anyone who watched Glee regularly knows, but even for him, having two aging movie stars play two aging movie stars making a movie about two aging movie stars – and then deciding to make the themes of the piece about aging and movie stars – is … somehow admirably pure and simple in its approach.
The dinner scene with Hedda Hopper – the “ambush,” as Bette called it – showed what is likely to be the main thesis of the series; that these two women were smart and capable, more alike than either could admit, and would have been a formidable duo had they learned to be allies. They both saw immediately what Hopper was trying to get out of them, conferred quickly, and smoothly sailed through the evening, deflecting any attempts to openly pit them against each other. The scene makes their dislike for each other very clear, hints at the reasons why, shows how much is at stake for both women and then pulls back from any sort of throwdown, choosing instead to show them as smart, savvy, and occasionally on the same page. This will make the coming breakdown of their uneasy truce all the more tragic. The tagline for “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is the somewhat awful “You mean all this time we could have been friends?” and it seems pretty clear Murphy is going to take that and run with it.
There was always a question built into the casting of this show: How well were the two principles going to pull off their respective impersonations? The results vary. Neither actress is choosing to do a straight-up mimicry of the original, which is a smart choice; first, because their private selves were almost certainly not as theatrical as their public selves. And second, because they’re two of the most impersonated actresses in the history of Hollywood. Both of them have been the punchline to a million drag queen acts for decades. Lange is doing next-level work here. There are touches of Joan in her walk and mannerisms, occasionally in her voice when she gets angry. She looks almost nothing like her, which does take some getting used to, but the version of her that she constructs is convincing and cohesive. It’s easy to buy into it. Her Joan isn’t the cold-cream-smeared monster-clown of Mommie Dearest, but a rigid, scared, insecure woman who has done nothing but fight and work her whole life, sacrificing not only normalcy, family and relationships, but her very personality for career and stability. It’s slipping away from her and her desperation is as palpable as her need for validation. This is Joan Crawford as a fragile, exhausted woman rather than merely an uber-bitch with drawn-on eyebrows.
Sarandon, at this stage of the game, is trying to find her footing. It’s possible she may have the harder job of the two actresses. Joan Crawford may have become something of a drag punchline over the years, but the woman herself had a fairly understated, if highly imperious manner. Bette Davis was a living caricature in a lot of ways. Her wide-eyed gesticulating and clipped way of talking was distinctly hers in every way, whereas Crawford’s mannerisms were somewhat typical for screen goddesses of her period. In addition, there’s just something a lot more delicious about an aging screen goddess desperate to get some respect before her light fades, as opposed to a highly respected, if difficult artist who can’t find work as much as she used to.
There’s also the rather indelicate issue of Sarandon’s looks. The story of Bette Davis – throughout her career – is the story of an artist forced to act uncomfortably like a beauty queen in order to get work, and constantly feeling ill-suited for the part. The story of the aging Bette Davis is the story of an actress who more or less abandoned attempts to look glamorous in the traditional sense. Bette wore dresses and jewelry and makeup, of course. She just never grasped and held onto her looks the way Crawford did because she never felt defined by them the way Crawford did. In short: the feud between Bette and Joan is in many ways the feud between an artist who was always made to feel insecure about her looks and a beauty queen who was always made to feel insecure about her talent. But that’s not always easy to play out when you’ve got Susan Sarandon playing the one who doesn’t care about her looks. Sarandon does resemble Davis far more than Lange does Crawford, but Sarandon is both too good-looking for what the story’s trying to portray and too aware of her looks to completely abandon them the way Davis did. There’s a scene of her walking up the stairs of her home that’s all about her hips and her sashay in a way that’s totally Sarandon but totally unlike Davis. On the other hand, if she’s struggling, it’s because she’s developing a more complex version of this person than her surface image would have allowed. Davis is restless, struggling for something she can’t define, wounded, a little offended, and scared. At the same time, she’s bold, committed to her art, and a button pusher with a too-sharp tongue and a need to assess everyone else in the room before they get a chance to assess her. Like Lange’s Crawford, she’s not likable per se, but she’s complicated and she has an agenda that’s easy to understand and support.
And if we sound like we’re picking both portrayals apart, it’s because both portrayals are so intense, layered and well-done that there’s a lot to unpack. Like we said, Sarandon’s not there yet, but she’s still doing very good work. Lange is doing amazing work and will almost certainly get an Emmy nod if the next seven episodes are on this level.
So far, the storytelling is unfussy and almost methodical, lining up all the events, one after another, with a fairly straightforward approach. The pacing seems a little off, only because there are seven more hours to fill and they’ve already started filming “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Then again, that would be par for the course for Ryan Murphy. This may be direct, mature and well-told, in a way that shows off Murphy’s growth as an auteur, but plenty of the pure Ryan Murphy touches are on display, including a love of glamour and wit, divas, costume design and art direction. The show is quite the feast for the eyes, opening with the mid-Century (and slightly tawdry) glamour of the 1961 Golden Globes and lovingly lingering over both Joan’s Hollywood Regency-style house and slightly insane beauty routines. The costume design (which we’ll be covering further) perfectly reflects each character as we know them, and lovingly recreates several looks from semi-iconic pictures of them. It’s all a bit of a love letter to super-fans of old Hollywood, loaded with little visual easter eggs and callbacks, just as it practically states outright its attention to tell a respectful tale of two of its longest-reigning queens.
We are SO in. Keep your eyes peeled for a “Bette and Joan Style” post later this week.
[Photo Credit: Kurt Iswarienko/FX]