Feud: Bette and Joan is a masterclass in acting, writing and directing. While Ryan Murphy can be hit or
miss – his productions start out amazing but lose their way towards the end (I’m looking at you Glee and
Nip/Tuck). But this show really makes the most of the talent captured within. To borrow a phrase from a
friend, “This is a TV show* this is not a TV show.” Whatever you think a TV show is, this show amps it up
to the max. The series is a mixture of reality and fiction as it tells the story of a “feud of biblical
Feud centers around two aging Hollywood icons – Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. They have a long
standing rivalry, as they come together to film Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. The two actress were
pitted against each other from the start, with the Hollywood system casting them as rivals long before
they truly were. Joan craved Bette’s admiration and Bette wanted to be beautiful like Joan. Therein lies
the true conflict that tortured these women for decades. As the opening voiceover tells us: “Feuds are
never about hate. Feuds are about pain.”
Jessica Lange plays Joan Crawford with fierce resolve, and Susan Sarandon portrays Bette Davis with
raspy perfection. They pour their souls into their performances, and you can feel it. Each scene they
share is crackling with so many layers of love/hate/admiration/jealousy that they should be mandatory
scene studies for acting students. The series shows the truth of these women and why they did all the
things they did. The two actresses came up in the Old Hollywood star system where the studio heads
constantly pitted their talent against each other.
For Joan, she was always jealous of Bette’s talent and felt she never got the recognition she deserved for her own screenwork. Bette always knew she was a character actor (for those non-Hollywood types, that means they aren’t exactly pretty) and she was constantly turned down for not being pretty enough like Joan Crawford. So you can see early on that their feud only grew with every passing opportunity. And it’s heartbreaking.
One moment that stood out to me was towards the end of the series when Joan says to Bette: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?” It’s particularly wounding because they have so much in common; they could have been friends if they had been able to put aside all that poisoned them against each other.
Every actor in this production is top notch, but I have to single out Judy Davis, who plays Hedda Hopper, the Old Hollywood gossip columnist. She is outstanding and gives great depth to what could have been just a one note character. The series focuses on women in Hollywood and what it takes to succeed and stay successful in a field dominated by and, for the most part, controlled by men.
Both Alison Wright, who plays the right hand woman to the director of Baby Jane – Robert Aldrich’s (Alfred Molina), and Jackie Hoffman who plays Joan’s maid, Mamasita, are exquisite in their roles. In their spotlight scenes they show the real power and complexity behind the Hollywood system.
Joan and Bette were intertwined with each other for the rest of their lives after Baby Jane. When Joan
dies and a reporter asks Bette’s reaction, she simply says, “My mother told me to never speak ill of the
dead. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” While this is a terse remark, it also signifies just how strained and
conflicted their relationship was.
At the Academy Awards during the memorialization of all the actors who died that year, the actresses backstage comment that “2 seconds? All she got was 2 seconds – Joan gave her life, her whole career for this.” To which Bette responds, “That’s all we’ll ever get.” It’s a painful reminder that for all their fury, passion and talent, they were disposed of just the same.
This is a stand out series and I definitely could re-watch this again. The next season of Feud will focus on
Prince Charles and Princess Diana, so until then I’m with Bette and Joan.