There’s an exchange toward the end of this week’s episode of Feud that is filled with such venom about what it means to be an older woman I felt my skin grow flush from anger. It’s moments after Bette Davis finds her daughter, B.D. (a surprisingly stilted Kiernan Shipka), surrounded by fawning crew men. Back home, Bette lashes out. What B.D. reads as jealousy is just Bette’s apprehension about her teenage daughter growing up too fast.
“You’re jealous because men don’t look at you anymore and they look at me. You can’t take it that your turn is over. So you’re punishing me,” B.D. whines. She doesn’t stop there. Her acrimonious insults continue, highlighting that Bette is single and lonely. Bette tries to defend her unbridled ambition and way of life, but it’s clear from the tears in her eyes that these remarks sting. To make matters worse, when Bette invites director Robert Aldrich over later that night, she says that B.D. is right. What bothers me profoundly here is that Bette comes off as a cautionary tale, an older woman taking her anger out on whatever target is nearby. Men like Jack Warner who chomp cigars refer to them as “bitches”; he seizes any opportunity he can to discuss how terribly he thinks women age. Moments like this take the focus away from both Bette and Joan’s strength and artistic impulses. In doing so, this series reaffirms the sexism it purports to critique. This makes it downright ironic when Joan remarks on a bit of Aldrich’s writing in Baby Jane, “The writing doesn’t begin to capture the way women get under each other’s skin.” The same thing can be said about Feud.
That said, there are moments in “The Other Woman” that sing. The eye-catching production and costume design, rich with resplendent gemstones, definitely helps. There are scenes that hit with surprising poignancy when creator and writer Ryan Murphy finds a way to better balance his instinct for camp and desire to send a message. I’m especially fond of the scenes where we see Aldrich and Bette working together on-set. He gives her advice on how to approach a scene she’s nervous about, which involves her singing a song that gets to the heart of Baby Jane’s volition as a character. “I don’t want to end up a joke,” she says to him.
Unfortunately, the show’s framing device — Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland being interviewed — has carried over from the premiere. The whole show screeches to a halt whenever they appear to spout more exposition. But it does provide important context for who Bette and Joan were in the early 1960s, and why they needed Baby Jane to be a success so desperately. We get re-creations of scenes from Bette and Joan’s films: the infamous “what a dump” line that Bette says in Beyond the Forest, her last film under contract with Warner Bros., is shown, for example. These scenes are especially crucial for constructing Joan’s twilight at MGM and her comeback at Warner Bros., where she earned her Oscar for Mildred Pierce. The seeds of how Warner used Joan as a weapon against Bette is evident here. (Although my skin crawled when Joan referred to Warner as “daddy” — the inference that they slept together is made clear.)
This show admittedly feels tonally confused when moments from their past films are re-created, or you see them acting on the set of Baby Jane. Feud doesn’t seem to quite understand What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a film, which comes across as a camp grotesquerie with no value beyond serving as a punch line to Bette’s and Joan’s careers. Take, for instance, when Warner, Aldrich, and his assistant Pauline Jameson (a sly and engaging Alison Wright) are watching the dailies of Baby Jane. Sarandon can’t seem to nail the intonations of Bette’s voice as that character, which makes it so these scenes lack the horror and emotionally moving quality of the film. Sarandon is much better in quieter moments when she doesn’t have to try to capture what made Bette such a great actress.
Warner, for one, is loving what he’s seeing. But it isn’t the acting that’s moving him, which he insults as scenery chewing. Instead, he feels the anger between the actresses is burning up the screen in a way that can be exploited for his financial gain. “You got to keep them at each other’s throats,” Warner advises Aldrich.
Aldrich is conflicted about this. But he’s also angry that Joan and Bette forming a surprising united front on set means he’s lost power as a director. Earlier, Joan was able to convince Bette that Aldrich doesn’t have their best interests at heart. She’s worried the “sexy neighbor” actress is going to pull focus away from them. “Let’s not fight. We have to support each other, Bette. I’m worried our director isn’t taking care of us. So we have to take care of each other,” Joan says. It’s a smart play that works. The young actress is fired, and Bette and Joan watch as she makes her tearful exit. They stand side-by-side as she leaves the set before they part. I loved this moment for the framing and the energy. It’s simple but effective. Bette and Joan don’t become best friends, but professional allies. They laugh with each other on-set. Respect grows. But despite his wife, Harriet (Molly Price), warning about the cruelty of manipulating these stars, Aldrich sinks into the gutter with Hedda. He gives her a juicy blind item, attributing quotes to Bette she may or may not have said about Joan’s padded bras and lack of artistry.
Soon, whatever goodwill existed between them is obliterated. Joan retaliates by slinging insults about Bette to the press. The mood on-set gets downright nasty. I may think this approach to how sexism can warp women’s lives is too broadly painted, but these scenes are fun. This also leads to my favorite scene highlighting Bette and Joan’s rivalry thus far.
Bette marches into Joan’s dressing room, furious at the recent gossip-column dirt on her. I don’t want to quote the entire speech Bette gives ripping into Joan, but it’s good. “Stop fitting in calls between your morning coffee and taking a shit of butterflies and moonbeams and whatever else comes flying out of your ass. If you don’t it’s your funeral,” Bette says. Seeing Joan fly out of her seat to face Bette cinches the bitchy humor here, and demonstrates how important success is to these women. Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange nail this scene. Joan, of course, does not heed the threat. She gets Hedda on her side and tries to seduce Aldrich, losing Peter in the process. Although she doesn’t seem to care much about him — she says his part needs to be “recast,” as if any lover in her life is just some film prop she can easily discard.
This makes “The Other Woman” frustrating, because the occasional sparks of real pathos and humor prove there is a potent story buried deep within this show. The intimate scenes between Bette and Aldrich also have actual humanity, but just as I was starting to like their dynamic, it’s thrown off entirely by something I wasn’t expecting: Bette and Aldrich sleep together. This story line undercuts the message the series has been hammering away at. It’s also something I have never heard of in all my years reading Bette Davis biographies. It’s odd that a show critiquing Hollywood sexism would have Bette sleep with Aldrich in order for her to feel wanted and still desirable in the wake of her daughter’s harsh words. I don’t need biopics to hew to the truth entirely, but Feud is still struggling with showing who these women were as artists or people.