In American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, Ryan Murphy proved that tabloid archeology — long the province of cheesy reenactments — could double as art. Feud, his new anthology series for FX, triples down on that gutsy premise. The eight-episode series, which starts Sunday, will dramatize one sensational feud per season. First up is Joan Crawford's epic rivalry with Bette Davis, which came to a head when they were filming Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. But where American Crime Story sought to contextualize not just a murder trial but a particularly fraught moment in American history, Murphy's latest experiment is lighter and campier. While it occasionally takes on Hollywood's sexist history, its dedication to pleasure — from its cast right down to its stunning title sequence — is absolute.
Nowhere is this winking love letter to gossip clearer than in Judy Davis' brilliant characterization of Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist who made Hollywood miserable. Pictured here in a sequence of hats so sculptural they deserve their own museum, Davis humanizes the public relations wars that powered the rivalries between the two stars. That turns out to be essential to this well-meaning ode to our pettiest human impulses: The thing about delicious, malicious gossip is that — to understand it — you have to appreciate not just the mechanics (i.e. Hopper) but the market pressures driving it and the emotional context that makes it sting. Feud delivers on all three counts. "Feuds are never about hate," Catherine Zeta-Jones says as Olivia de Havilland, her eyes filling up with tears as she adjusts her jewels and dishes to the camera about her old friend. "Feuds are about pain. They're about pain."
At one level, it succeeds: Feud captures the insidious way caring for people compounds the damage you're able to inflict. Susan Sarandon plays Bette Davis with a commonsense bluntness that's strikingly sympathetic (so much so that it sometimes obscures the real Davis' capacity for cruelty). Jessica Lange plays Joan Crawford — the more grotesque figure here, reversing the terms of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? — with a cloying, overripe sweetness that's as manipulative as it is genuinely needy. For all the bad blood between them, she craves Bette Davis' respect. (This is made clear in a clumsily expository scene — of which, it must be said, there are more than a few.) Alfred Molina plays director Bob Aldrich as a beleaguered man on the edge of failure. And while we see him cruelly manipulate his stars into hating each other — this show clarifies that men scheme at least as much as women — we also see how badly he feels about it.
This last is a message intriguingly at odds with how Davis, for one, described the film industry in interviews. "There is no affection from there to here," the star famous for suing Warner Brothers said once, talking about the studios. She might have found Stanley Tucci's Jack Warner, the affable Mephistopheles in Murphy's show, more believable than the sympathetic underdog Molina plays. "But there was, for many actors, great gratitude from there to here," she says.
That's a gentle description of the relationship between actors and everyone else that leaves a great deal out: To hear Davis tell it, she was never praised by a single director: "Actors are complete suckers for good parts, and for just saying 'you did a good job, Bette.' Never. Never," she said, suggesting that studios could save a fortune if they'd pay actors with roles and praise.
This is ludicrous, of course: Murphy shows just how much Aldrich praised his leading ladies, and how they leveraged their own loneliness against him, usually using their unhappiness to extract better lines. Professional concessions as a form of care. (I have to praise Molly Price here for her performance as Aldrich's wife Harriet — she's easily the most memorable thing about the few scenes she's in.)
Crawford was less of an idealist about the actor's relationship to the system that destroyed her. She would later describe Aldrich as "a man who loves evil, horrendous, vile things." "If the shoe fits, wear it — and I am very fond of Joan," Aldrich wittily replied, when asked to comment.
Here's the thing: Davis' pleasantly idealistic misrepresentation of an industry that runs on money — for actors as well as studios — captures the intrinsic unreliability of Murphy's source material. And what makes Feud fun is that (as with The People vs. OJ Simpson) there's so much source material to choose from. Interviews, books, films — there's heaps of stuff to sift through as you wait for the next episode. Here, for instance, is Joan Crawford's first television interview. She's promoting The Story of Esther Costello and introduces her very young and comely costar, Heather Sears. But look at how oddly she clutches and immobilizes Sears' hands after she sits down — as the latter says, a little helplessly, as if the thing were scripted: "I have to communicate with my hands." It's a marvelous little taste of Crawford's need to steal focus.
Or here's Dick Cavett asking Bette Davis why "big stars — women — are not necessarily very good friends?" Davis' response starts diplomatically enough: "We don't work together very often," she says. "I don't think it's by any intent or jealousy or not wanting to know each other," she adds, pointing out that "all those people were occupied all those many many years, and it does not leave much time to have many friends." But by the end of the segment, once Cavett has moved away from the obvious subtext — her rivalry with Joan — she's shifted gears. She tells a story about a wasp that stung her after getting caught in her dressing gown. Cavett wonders whether Joan Crawford might have put it there. "A gun maybe," she jokes, "but not a wasp." In 1967, Crawford, asked about the "constant fiction" that she and Davis were "positively daggers drawn," told Philip Jenkinson that "she'd kill you if you heard her say 'Bet.' But she's a fascinating actress, Bette Davis. I've never had time to be friends with her, because we only did the one picture."
Those are later interviews, of course: It's just as interesting to watch footage from right around the time Feud deals with. Here's Bette Davis on "What's My Line?" shortly after Jane? premiered, trying to disguise her voice. (And here's Joan Crawford's appearance on the show a couple of weeks earlier — with her daughters, the hapless "twins" who make an appearance or two in Feud as well).
Speaking of daughters: While Feud deals gently with the daughters of these grandes dames, the feuds to come between these two mothers and their daughters are a major subtext. Kiernan Shipka plays B.D. Merrill, Davis' lovely but theatrically ungifted daughter as a blossoming teenager. Some of Feud's most raw and painful material comes from their scenes together. Christina Crawford — the daughter who would go on to write Mommie Dearest about Crawford's parenting methods — gets a mention too.
When it comes to a project with this rich a backdrop, what gets left out is at least as interesting as what makes it in. Murphy is a pro at weaving Hollywood history into his Hollywood fiction. One curious omission, then — given how much he clearly likes riffing on the films with which Feud is in dialogue — is Davis' relationship with her sister Bobby. There are plenty of cinematic nods to All About Eve in Feud, and I'd have expected Davis' complex relationship with her sister to offer some fascinating parallels to the dysfunctional sisterly relationship in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Instead, Davis is shown in deep isolation at home — an isolation even more extreme than Crawford's, who at least has her maid Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman, magnificent in this) to keep her company.
Feud is an enormously sympathetic — and pleasurable, and delightfully bitchy — hodgepodge. It combines the trashy spectacle of stars in decline with the glamor they still embody, and leavens the mix with the occasional vitaminic reprimand to the structural sexism that made all this possible. Formally indecisive, it's mostly a period drama that gets sporadically reframed as a 1978 documentary (although an entire episode can go by without Kathy Bates or Catherine Zeta-Jones appearing as 1978 Joan Blondell and de Havilland). Much of the dialogue is stunningly unsubtle.
These are flaws, but — like its protagonists — the series succeeds thanks to its exquisite looks and tremendous talent. This is a messy subject, and the messy approach often works. Feud captures the cruelty of the ecosystem that needed those two to hate each other as much as they almost did — and the naked capitalism that fomented it. "So much money to be made or lost," as Crawford put it, looking regally defeated in an interview that aired long after Jane? "So much talent to be made or lost too."