“The writing doesn’t begin to capture how women get under each other’s skin,” says Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) in Feud: Bette and Joan, Ryan Murphy’s limited series recounting the making of the 1962 gothic horror classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? “The intent is there, but the execution is lackluster.” Kudos to producer-director-co-writer Murphy for being brazen enough to stock this production with lines like this, which amounts to offering critics a full sack of golf clubs with which to beat him. After a few episodes, even the most charitable viewers might sigh and settle on the nine-iron. Murphy is still riding high after the success of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, but this is a weak follow-up. The limited series needs a rock-solid, original take on Crawford’s rivalry with her co-star, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), to justify the decision to stretch this thing out to eight episodes. Barring that, it needed a consistent, laser-focused tone. Feud fails on both counts.
The writing is mainly to blame. Working from an acclaimed unproduced screenplay titled Best Actress, by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, Murphy and his regular American Horror Story co-writer Tim Minear present a take on the Davis-Crawford relationship that too often feels like a heap of research that hasn’t yet been shaped into art. And it’s self-contradictory as hell. Feud is a critique of Hollywood misogyny that fixates on its female stars’ pettiness and cruelty toward each other, as well as their obsessions with their hair, makeup, skin, and weight. The show is almost luridly fascinated with the sight of Crawford’s skin-maintenance rituals, but it tries to frame them as sympathetic biographical details that drive home the double standard Crawford and Davis battled throughout the second half of their careers: Men become distinguished as they age; women just age. Unfortunately, whether Feud is rubbernecking at film-industry sexism or decrying it, it never seems fully invested in either perspective. It lacks the nerve to lean into the freak-show aspect and produce a sort of Kabuki theater of stereotypical gender role-playing, as John Waters or Lee Daniels might have done had they been in charge, and as Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich (played here by Alfred Molina) did so magnificently during Crawford and Davis’s heyday, turning a low-budget horror film with two faded stars into an Oscar-nominated box-office smash. But at the same time, Feud is not intuitive and insightful enough to get inside the heads of two great, troubled actresses while their director and his boss, studio head Jack Warner (scene-stealer Stanley Tucci, whose first line is “Would you fuck ’em?”), contrive to escalate their resentments into a catfight that will play out in the press and create advance publicity.
The result ends up stranded in a no-woman’s-land of dramatic inertia, not particularly engaging as a soap opera, docudrama, satire, or anything else. Murphy’s camera comes at the action from ominous low and high angles, viewing the characters through wide-angle lenses that slightly caricature their faces and bodies and transform the show’s period sets, costumes, and props into a mausoleum of mid-century wealth: a blocky 35-mm. motion camera looming atop a crane, a hi-fi cabinet the size of a sofa, a banana-Creamsicle-colored Cadillac with tail fins driven by gossip queen Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis). All appear to be in mint condition and are presented with as much fanfare as the show’s human actors. But the writing pushes against the semi-gothic visuals, treating Davis and Crawford’s story as a sympathetic but tediously prosaic exposé of Hollywood sexism — one that often requires its actresses to deliver dialogue that could be lines from a hypothetical Vox explainer piece titled “What You Don’t Know About Hollywood in the ’60s.”
Some of the narrative embellishments are both specious and unnecessary. Feud superimposes a weird critical narrative of Crawford and Davis as performers, portraying Davis as a brave, gritty, and “real” actress — posthumously validating Davis’s (possibly apocryphal) insistence that she was “the Marlon Brando of my generation” — while making Crawford seem as if she were too obsessed with glamour and money to properly cultivate her own genius. A Google image search of “Bette Davis” and “glamour” should instantly put to rest the idea that Davis wasn’t worried about her appearance or public image, and watching any scene of Crawford in Mildred Pierce or Johnny Guitar should instantly shatter the idea that she wasn’t a Davis-level talent. Worse still are the bracketing sequences of former screen goddesses Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) and Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) giving interviews backstage at a 1970s Oscar telecast for a documentary about women in Hollywood. As if Feud’s Wikipedia-level summing up in the Bette and Joan scenes weren’t clunky enough, Blondell intones, “When Bette had to choose, she always picked the professional over the private.”
Lange is spot-on as Crawford, playing most of the series from a defensive crouch and sometimes lashing out like a cornered animal. Sarandon, who’s been described as having Bette Davis eyes her entire life, finally gets to train them on Davis’s world; her performance, more so than Murphy’s script, seems to have a fully developed point of view on its subject, paying special attention to the fine undercurrents of conflicting emotion Davis feels when the spotlight leaves her and she has to deal with being a mother (to Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka). And there’s smart backup work by a deep bench of character actors, some of whom do skilled impressions of actors you might not have thought could be imitated. (“Mark Valley captures the essence of Davis’s ex-husband, actor Gary Merrill” is not a sentence anyone expected to read.) But much of the time, Feud fails to do either its actors or its subjects justice, and there are so many anachronisms and unbelievable moments that your eyes might ache from rolling. De Havilland describes Davis’s work as having “a ballsy intensity”; I can picture Murphy saying this, but not his characters.
It’s a shame. Over the past couple of decades, TV networks have aired a number of intelligent showbiz docudramas, but none that zeroed in on a single project in depth. The finest examples of the form, TNT’s James Dean (starring James Franco) and ABC’s Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (starring Judy Davis), ran two and three hours, respectively, and covered their subjects’ whole lives. The rise of the new TV anthology, in which the unit of measure is the season rather than the episode, could encourage filmmakers to pore over the cultural history of Hollywood in granular detail. Murphy’s Feud deserves credit for getting there first, but that’s about it.
*This article appears in the March 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.