FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN: Sunday 10PM on FX – Potential DVR Alert
It’s a testament to Ryan Murphy’s clout that FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN even exists. 8 hours set in the early 1960s about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, a pair of Oscar-winning stars in their 50s who were considered has-beens when they made What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? together and are far less well-known now, built around Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, a pair of Oscar-winning stars themselves in their 60s–these are not the elements of network dreams, especially for a younger-skewing platform like FX. But if FX isn’t quite the house Murphy built, he’s certainly added on a wing or two, and that’s given him a deluxe budget to explore a footnote to Hollywood history.
Baby Jane itself, a thriller about showbiz sisters who torment one another to the point of murder, can be said to have brought camp to mainstream Hollywood, and it was easy to anticipate that with Murphy at the reins, Bette and Joan would be entirely over the top. Yet while the opening hour doesn’t lack for bitchiness and obvious beats, it’s lower-key than one might have expected. (Murphy created this season of the yearly anthology series with Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, and all three wrote the first episode, with Murphy directing.) Both Davis (Sarandon) and Crawford (Lange) are presented as fairly pathetic, not only because the movie studios had no use for middle-aged women, but psychologically as well, with Crawford a functioning alcoholic desperate for Davis’s respect, and Davis a wreck as wife and mother. They strike out at each other out of ancient grudges and because each of them is the only target from which the other can draw blood.
It’s a sympathetic portrayal, but also a reductive one, and one hopes that future episodes will broaden the scope a bit beyond Crawford being furious because Davis was getting a few hundred dollars in expenses more than she was, while Davis fumed when Crawford, a Pepsi-Cola shareholder, had a vending machine installed on the Baby Jane set. Whether or not that happens, though, what we’re given is certainly diverting. Lange, of course, is a full-fledged member of the Murphy-verse, and this Joan Crawford is basically an extension of the witchy roles she’s been playing in the various installments of American Horror Story. Sarandon has made the interesting decision not to do an all-out impression of Davis, one of the most imitated Hollywood figures ever, and that more naturalistic approach pays off at the climax of the first hour when Davis takes off the gloves and unveils her crazy-brilliant make-up for Baby Jane, designed to put Crawford in the shade.
The entire cast is star-studded, with supporting players that include Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland, Kathy Bates as a startlingly on-target likeness of Joan Blondell, Kiernan Shipka as Davis’s daughter, Alfred Molina as Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich, Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper, and Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner. (Murphy muse Sarah Paulson is still to come.) The photography is lush, and the production design lovingly recreates the homes and soundstages of the era.
It remains to be seen whether Bette and Joan will go as deep or have the kind of substance that made Murphy’s People vs OJ Simpson addictive (and award-winning), or if it’s just going to be a handsome, gossipy anecdote told at length. Even if the latter proves to be the case, the show will likely be worth the ticket.