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Celebrity feuds flare up and fizzle out with the blistering speed of a few mean tweets. Rarely are A-list beefs so bitterly compelling and long-fought that they achieve true infamy for how they end (Tupac vs. Biggie), or how they endure (Trump vs. O’Donnell).
The battles royale that do cement their standing in the public’s fascination, however, usually have a couple of things in common: stars of equal magnitude who share a genuine enmity and a yen for feeding the flames of rancor. Enter Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, whose decades-long Hollywood feud was sparked in the 1930s and burned hot through multiple film studios, husbands, hits, flops, setbacks and comebacks, finally peaking on the set of the only motion picture the two ever made together, Robert Aldrich’s Academy Award-winning, 1962 horror classic Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
Davis and Crawford’s long-running rivalry generated loads of gossip, reams of deliciously catty quotes (“I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she was on fire”), and inspired author Shaun Considine’s entertaining dual biography, published in 1989, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud. Now, TV maestro Ryan Murphy — riding the critical and commercial success of his FX limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story — ups the ante by assembling a cast of heavy-hitters to portray the film legends’ notorious on-set conflict in Feud: Bette & Joan (), led by Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis.
Lange and Sarandon, formidable Hollywood survivors themselves, have big shoes to fill. Murphy, directing as well as co-writing the series’ debut episode, makes it clear right from the show’s saucy Saul Bass-style opening credit sequence that this team came to play. Deploying the framing device of a documentary crew shooting a film on Hollywood feuds, Murphy first introduces beloved “two-time Academy Award-winning actress” Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to set the table, as she elucidates with grave astuteness the origins of the Crawford-Davis feud, and the nature of feuds in general. Appearing only briefly, Zeta-Jones strikes a resonantly knowing tone that perfectly fits Murphy’s facetious tale.
Feud‘s makers have gone out of their way to honor fans of cinema’s Golden Age with plenty of winking inside jokes, while keeping this well-oiled machine accessible to everyone else with overflowing dishes of Tinseltown dirt. For those well-versed enough to know that Crawford relied on her trusty German maid, “Mamacita,” as her fierce right hand and brick wall of protection, Feud rewards the knowledge with an endearing portrait by the ever-reliable Jackie Hoffman.
Mamacita warmly reflects the episode’s assertion that loyalty among women — particularly women of a certain age — can move mountains in an industry seemingly institutionally opposed to recognizing older women’s worth. But this is no screed. Any Real Housewives or Dynasty fan who loves campy, ballsy melodrama starring elegantly costumed dames battling for control over their glamorous realm will relish every shady glance and cutting bon mot. It might or might not be true that Davis took fiendish pleasure in always addressing Crawford by her given name, Lucille, but it suits the legend and it plays like gangbusters here.
Lange — who often dives into character transformation with a zeal that rivals Davis’ — wears Crawford’s thick brows, “jungle red” slash of lipstick and auburn pompadours with aplomb, but she’s no dead ringer for Mommie Dearest. Crawford moved all her life with a dancer’s silky determination, and Lange doesn’t capture that lithesome grace, though she does dial into Crawford’s very studied, and firmly protected, hauteur. Onscreen, Crawford projected an unadulterated conviction that as long as she was in the room, she was the one everyone should be paying attention to. Even when she was gone, they should still be talking about her. Lange nails Crawford’s superstar pridefulness, adding a strong dash of every performer’s need to be liked, and the rest falls into place.
Her Crawford dominates the pilot, as the industrious actress buzzes from Hollywood to Broadway, cunningly assembling all the main components of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? — including bringing the film’s harried writer-director Aldrich (Alfred Molina) on board. Bette Davis, on the other hand, is relegated mostly to tantalizing teases and glimpses, like the shark in Jaws, lurking just out of view until she screams to the center to take someone’s head off. Sarandon, who doesn’t require much makeup to accentuate her resemblance to Davis, has the cadences and comic timing down, along with Davis’ confounding mix of humility and towering self-regard.
The pilot does provide Sarandon with one showstopping moment, as Davis makes her first entrance on the set of Baby Jane in her iconically creepy pancake makeup. Sarandon delivers on every last beat of ghoulish spectacle. If the remaining episodes are half as enjoyable in pitting Crawford’s Hollywood cool against Bette’s white-hot realness, this tribute to fame, feuds and aging goddesses will have more than earned its bones.
Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-episode limited series, premieres Sunday, March 5 on FX, with a finale scheduled for Sunday, April 23 (date subject to change). Check your local cable company or visit FXnetworks.com.
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