If I had to choose my absolute favorite photograph of Bette Davis, I’d pick one from the 1950s onward, when her face was full of the character that only comes with age, those lantern-bright eyes full of wit and cunning. It’s photos like these that tell us why her gravestone reads, “She did it the hard way.” For Joan Crawford, an actress who shape-shifted with more aplomb than Madonna, it’s not as easy to pick a single photo that encapsulates her defining qualities. The ones that always come to mind when I think of her were taken by legendary photographer Eve Arnold on the set of The Best of Everything in 1959. Taken only a few years prior to the events of Ryan Murphy’s newest anthology series, Feud, Arnold took great care to capture the effort required to make Crawford’s glamour a reality.
These photographs of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, taken during the autumns of their careers, are able to do what Feud hasn’t achieved in its pilot episode. They reveal the women behind the Hollywood icons.
Feud begins with Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the crew hustling around them as they’re seen in profile, sitting in the center of the maelstrom. They seem to be having a cordial, perhaps even amusing conversation. Although, who knows? We never hear a word of it. Instead, it’s the voice of Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a Hollywood legend in her own right, that sets the stage for Feud’s battle of wills.
“There was never a rivalry like theirs. For nearly half a century, they hated each other and we loved them for it,” Olivia says. Murphy, who wrote and directed this episode, makes the surprising decision to frame the narrative with Olivia and another classic Hollywood actress, Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates), while they’re interviewed for a 1978 documentary about Crawford. Though it remains to be seen how they’ll figure into the rest of the season, both Bates and Zeta-Jones feel oddly miscast here. They construct these women as gossamer-thin caricatures whose only purpose is to spout unnecessary exposition. What’s most disappointing about this framing device, however, is that it robs Crawford and Davis of the ability to speak for themselves.
When Crawford finally speaks, she’s at the 1961 Golden Globes, watching Marilyn Monroe flutter onto the stage to accept an award. With each of Monroe’s breathless sighs, Crawford’s rancor becomes more apparent. “I’ve got great tits too, but I don’t throw them in everyone’s face,” she spits to her latest paramour, Peter (Reed Diamond). From there, she gets blisteringly drunk to distract herself from what Monroe represents: her own failing career and age. That’s something gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) is all too eager to remind her of the next day. Hopper smells blood in the water and isn’t afraid to attack. In this scene, Feud’s intentions become apparent: It aims to explore how sexism warps the lives of older women.
Hedda: “Men built the pedestal.”
Joan: “Men may have built the pedestal. But it’s women who keep chipping away at it until it comes tumbling down.”
With Joan’s agent offering her little help in getting a good role, she hustles to find her own. That’s where the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? comes into play. Crawford sees potential in this Gothic horror tale of two warring sisters and has-been stars wounding each other with increasing viciousness in their Hollywood home. After Robert Aldrich (a marvelous Alfred Molina) agrees to direct, she sets out to convince the only actress she believes could truly bring the role of Baby Jane Hudson to life.
Meanwhile, Bette Davis is on Broadway, playing a supporting role in the Tennessee Williams play Night of the Iguana. The chilly glances from her co-stars make it apparent she doesn’t fit in. There is a nice touch of Davis’s face dropping the moment the curtain falls. She swiftly moves offstage, where a lit cigarette and a glass of bourbon are on hand waiting for her.
“They’re not making women’s pictures anymore, not the kind we used to make,” Crawford tells Davis in her dressing room. But Davis is reluctant to team up. Seeing these two women in the same room is a study in contrasts: While others refer to her as “Joan” or “Joanie,” Davis is quick to call her “Lucille,” reminding Crawford of her real name. But chilliness or no, Crawford has impressive business savvy and understands that Hollywood won’t give either of them the roles they deserve. “We need each other, Bette,” she says. And she’s right.
All the principal players have a lot riding on Baby Jane. Crawford is broke in the wake of her last husband’s death — a particularly dire situation, given how her poor upbringing fostered a pathological desire for success. Davis is hungry for a challenging role worthy of her skill. Aldrich is desperate to prove his worth, financially and artistically, as more than just a B-movie director. These are people who live for the art they create. They refuse to be satisfied with the ordinary sunsets the world is handing them. But fighting back isn’t easy.
Aldrich goes to studio after studio for funding, only to be met with disparaging remarks. Crawford and Davis are too old, they tell him. The role of the “sexy neighbor girl” should be expanded into the lead, one executive suggests. Aldrich himself is considered unbankable due to recent cinematic failures. His last resort is Jack Warner (a deliriously arch Stanley Tucci). Warner becomes the embodiment for every misogynistic ill that Murphy seeks to critique. He isn’t a person, but a symbol. The first words out of his mouth to Aldrich are, “Would you fuck ’em?” (Apparently, all that matters is whether Crawford and Davis are desirable — not their actual talent.) From there, Warner frames himself as Zeus with Davis and Crawford as mere goddesses he gave form to. Davis, who was under contract with Warner Bros., especially evokes his ire. What Aldrich sees as Davis wanting “a say in her own destiny,” Warner frames it as selfishness: “That bitch Davis sued me in 1936 to get out of her contract!” His anger reaches a crescendo until he slams his hands onto his desk and angrily proclaims, “The cunt!” Aldrich is only able to persuade Warner to help fund and release the picture by sweetening the deal — but, of course, his troubles are far from over.
While Davis and Crawford are tensely cordial leading up to the filming, the dramatic differences in how they approach acting causes problems on set. Crawford desperately craves Davis’s respect. For a moment, she thinks she finally has it after Davis visits her dressing room to make sure they’re on the same page about making Baby Jane the best film it can be. But when she also suggests that Crawford “lose the shoulder pads,” the old animosity bubbles up. Beauty and the illusory qualities of Hollywood are what Crawford aims for as an actress. For Davis, it’s the truth of the character.
We watch as Davis carefully crafts Baby Jane’s look: stark white makeup, blood-red lips, a childish dress, a tacky blonde wig. We only see the totality of her transformation when she walks onto the set. She’s made Baby Jane into a demented doll. She’s a woman trapped in the amber of her childhood. The moment is heightened when a crew member turns a spotlight on her. As she walks onto the set, everyone admires her creation with a mix of horror and awe. The camera stays on Davis’s face as she strides, in slow motion no less, with an air of defiance. Crawford is appalled. But Aldrich and the rest of the crew clap, admiring her artistry. That only makes Crawford angrier.
One of the episode’s best sequences, surprisingly, has nothing to do with their feud. Instead, it concerns the dissolution of Davis’s fourth marriage to fellow actor Gary Merrill (Mark Valley). When Bette comes home, she finds him lounging in her bedroom. The desire and wounds that exist between them are immediately apparent. “I’m the one that needed a wife,” she says, as they parse out the reasons their marriage failed. The sequence, which flutters between flashbacks and the present, is remarkably engaging, but it would be far stronger if not framed by Blondell discussing in voice-over how the role of wife and mother is the only one Davis never mastered. The sentiment is already clear enough: For Davis, the professional is the personal.
When Merrill presents Davis with his signed divorce papers, an argument erupts. Their venom eventually gives way to lust and the two end up in bed together. When she later signs the divorce papers in the hushed darkness of her bedroom, looking at Merrill asleep, there is a genuine sense of sorrow and longing. For the first time in the episode, Bette Davis feels real.
In his monumental essay on film, James Baldwin wrote about Davis and her cinematic contemporaries: “One does not go to watch them act: one goes to watch them be.” In this first hour of Feud, Sarandon and Lange don’t come across as if they’re being these actresses, but merely acting as them. The episode does have its share of fun and engaging moments. Whenever Judy Davis saunters across the screen as Hedda Hopper, it’s hard to not be enchanted by such a larger-than-life, openly bitchy character. But on the whole, Feud strikes a weird tone between campy excess and a desire for genuine pathos. The campy flourishes, like a piercing string score meant to highlight Crawford’s fury at Davis, feel humorless. The more dramatic moments that aim for docudrama realism — particularly Crawford studying her face or complaining with little subtext about her professional options — don’t have the depth required to really critique Hollywood’s treatment of women. Murphy obviously loves Crawford and Davis, but if this first episode is any indication, he reveres them the way someone would a figure in an old history textbook: with great distance and little humanity.