With American Crime Story, TV emperor Ryan Murphy laid down a challenge for himself and his collabrators: Could they take the anthology format that made American Horror Story into a reliable hit and apply it sucessfuly to another genre? With The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Murphy and company did better than that; they created a modern TV masterpiece.
With Feud, Murphy and company have a new challenge: taking another True Hollywood Story hook—here it’s the legendary rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford—and transforming it into another entertaining, relevant-but-not-preachy piece of essential TV. I don’t know if Feud can ever reach the heights of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, but I do know it’s damn fun television that will leave you craving the next hour.
Though flashbacks do take us to their earlier careers,Feud: Bette and Joan’s story proper picks up in the early 1960s, when both stars were struggling to find substantial roles in a Hollywood system that valued youth and beauty above all else. (Are you seeing the modern relevance yet?) Tired of scripts offering her only “ingenues, mothers or gorgons,“ Crawford (Jessica Lange) stumbles upon What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and decides it will be her comeback vehicle. To add to the publicity around the picture, she also decides to pursue her old studio rival Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) to serve as co-star. What begins as an icy collaboration between soon turns uglier, as slights both real and perceived morph into a battle in the Hollywood press, a series of on-set fights and a showdown at the 1963 Academy Awards, all tied together with an exploration of ageism, sexism and a celebrity culture that encourages the two women to stay at each other’s throats.
If that kind of conflict is something you think you’ve already heard about through countless celebrity blogs, just hear me out. Yes, Feud deals in many well-worn Hollywood themes, from the old star trying to become new again to the director who wants to be looked at like an auteur just once. And you know what? That’s precisely the point. These are battles we’re still witnessing and still fighting. Hollywood is stil eatng its own, and we’re still fighting for the scraps. Just to drive that point home, at one point a character in Feud muses that, as women increasingly outnumber men in the national poulation, by the 1970s the movie market will be forced to grant at least half its attention to women. Now how’d that work out for everyone?
None of which is to say that Feud is an interminable lecture about Hollywood sexism, anymore than People vs. O.J. was an interminable lecture about race in America. The heavy stuff is there, yes, and it’s hard to miss, but so are the icy put-downs, venomous one-liners and movie-star myths writ large. All of those juicy, unctious little bits are there, and the show is very often happy to roll around in them and get positively filthy.
Speaking of the cast, it’s impeccable, anchored by Lange and Sarandon, who turn in a pair of Emmy-worthy performances. Sarandon’s as sharp and merciless and Lange is cunning and volatile, and they come together like fire and ice, givng you all the glorious hate you want to see while never slipping into caricature. They make a half-century-old war of words feel new and surprising again. Show up for them and stay for an incredible supporting cast that includes Alfred Molina, the phenomenal Alison Wright, Judy Davis dripping with old Hollywood cool and Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kathy Bates serving as a glamorous Greek chorus for this particular American tragedy.
Feud might be a little too obvious for some tastes. It might sometimes trip a little over its own cleverness and linger a ittle too long on points it already made hours earlier. It might even tell us a story we don’t think we need to hear anymore. It might do all of those things, but I don’t care, because I was hooked from the opening minutes, and I’m betting you will be too.
Feud: Bette and Joan premieres this Sunday on FX.