As Feud progresses toward its finish line, we can’t help thinking (wishing, hoping) that someone would come along and build on what Ryan Murphy & Co., have started here. The stories of Joan, Bette and the various other people in their orbit, from Bob Aldrich to Jack Warner to Olivia DeHavilland, have us wishing that someone would develop a prestige cable drama about the history of Hollywood, done Mad Men-style. There’s so much material to work with there; so many feuds and scandals and huge personalities; so many iconic faces and scenes to revisit. We could spend hours casting it in our heads. We bring this up now, because this episode felt more like the show we keep imagining rather than an episode of a show specifically about the late stages of the legendary feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. And it felt very much like a Ryan Murphy production, in that it suffered from some fairly glaring structural and pacing issues.
Don’t get us wrong, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, it wasn’t even half bad. We got some great scenes with Alfred Molina and Stanley Tucci, as well as a couple great scenes with Molina and Molly Price. And we got even more backstory on the horror of Lucille LeSuer’s life and how it informs her “present-day” behaviors. We can’t complain about or critique any of these scenes for themselves, because they were all well-written and extremely well-acted scenes (Joan spitting rage at her brother while he spit rage right back at her was a master class) that gave you a lot of information about the emotional journeys of the characters in them. But they all felt somewhat extraneous to the stated story. Watching Judy Davis tear into the psyche of the deranged Hedda Hopper as she looks over the work of her life at the end of it is entertaining on its own merits, but it sure feels like a loss of focus or another in a bunch of really good scenes about someone else’s biography. Susan Sarandon didn’t even appear in this episode until past the halfway point, but when she did, suddenly the screen started shooting sparks again. Isn’t that the whole point here? To see these two women and how they related to each other specifically? Of course you have to establish who they are, but do you also have to delve into their director’s marriage, their studio head’s fear of getting old, and a gossip columnist’s feelings about her life?
This is our problem with the series, as much fun as it’s been for us: it’s padding the story. Worse, it’s padding it in odd directions. On the face of it, there really isn’t enough material in the real-life feud of these two women to justify eight hours of television. Most of their feuding occurred via the press, intermittently, over a couple of decades. There were very few in-person, face-to-face confrontations over their lives, which makes the dramatizing of this story rather fatally difficult. In retrospect, it might have worked better as a feature film rather than a mini-series. Which isn’t to say the series isn’t working for us overall; just that an episode like this one seems to serve only as a reminder of the ways in which it doesn’t work. There’s a huge sense of unbalance as the series progresses. We’ve seen and learned so much about Joan’s private life and past, but except for a minor issue with B.D. (who’s disappeared from the story), we get virtually nothing of Bette’s. Which is a shame, because her life was no less colorful or tragic than Joan’s and because Sarandon is matching Lange’s incredible performance every chance she gets. It’s just that she doesn’t seem to be getting as many chances.
We wonder if this isn’t partially due to the genesis of this project and Murphy’s goals going into it. He’s mentioned in interviews that he met Bette Davis at the end of her life, when he was a young man, and she supposedly opened up to him in the brief time they spent together, which is what started him on the road to this project. He’s also mentioned his desire to offer a more nuanced version of Joan than the one perpetuated by the book and film Mommie Dearest. By most accounts, Bette Davis did and said some fairly reprehensible things to and about Joan, but the series so far seems much more interested in the things Joan did to Bette. When you couple this unbalance with Murphy’s love of Lange as a performer and personal connection (however brief and possibly inflated in his memory) with Davis, it feels very much like he’s turning the series over to Joan because he loves Lange too much to take focus off her and he loved Davis too much to get into the depths of her psyche and actions.
We admit, at least some of this disappointment comes from the rather light way the show is handling the production of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, in which Bette was reported by many to have viciously enacted her revenge on Joan for the Oscars brouhaha. We haven’t quite gotten to that point yet in the story, but it sure felt like the show wants to first make sure that the audience understands Bette is Only Interested in The Art and too distracted Trying To Be a Good Friend to their Heartbroken Director. It all felt very underlined, somehow, as if to make the point that these people were simply too distracted with other things to care about Joan, rather than deliberately taking out some revenge on her, which is how most accounts of the production tell it.
We can’t reiterate enough that everyone is acting their ass off here and that virtually all of the scenes are entertaining on their own merits. It’s just that this isn’t a Mad Men-style show about the lives of people making magic during Hollywood’s Silver Age. It’s a show with a very specific story to tell and it tends to lose its spark every time it wanders away from that story.