This Sunday night, grab your popcorn and sit back to enjoy one of the greatest catfights in Hollywood history.
Ryan Murphy (“Glee” and “American Horror Story,” among many others) turns his focus on the legendary “Feud” between iconic actresses Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). Billed as an anthology series, “Feud: Bette and Joan” premieres Sunday, March 5 and runs eight consecutive weeks on FX at 10 p.m.
As Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) reveal in delightful cameos that serve as barely concealed exposition, it’s a tough time for aging actresses in Hollywood in 1961. Marilyn Monroe is in her ascendancy; studio moguls are scared of television and desperate for younger audiences, actresses are considered “over the hill” at an age when their male counterparts are just starting to look “distinguished.”
After a series of failed television pilots, Academy Award-winning actress Joan Crawford decides to take matters into her own hands. She sends journeyman director Robert Aldrich a copy of the just-released novel “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?,” a horror story about two reclusive sisters who were both actresses. Despite years of tension between them, Crawford asks Bette Davis, also fallen on hard times in Hollywood, to be her co-star.
The rest is Hollywood history: verbal and physical fights on the set, a battle over the Academy Award and a grudge match that lasted until Crawford’s death in 1977. Murphy and his stable of writers and directors mine this comic material for all its worth; Murphy’s Hollywood geekery is on delicious full display.
The team also captures the dark side of Tinseltown: the ageism and sexism that cuts down these two stellar actresses who are still in their prime and the ruthless way studio head Jack L. Warner (Stanley Tucci), feckless director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) and vicious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) manipulate the pair for their own gain. They also capture the self-destructive and self-dramatizing tendencies of the two fading stars who are desperate to stay in the public eye and pay the bills.
There is unfortunately a basic problem with the material. After a while, it starts wearing thin. Murphy and his team also seem to miss a lot of opportunities. They capitalize on the presence of “Baby Jane” co-star Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess), a gay man who idolizes Davis, who bails him out after he is caught in a police raid at a gay cruising ground.
But, gossip columnist Louella Parsons is reduced to a voice on the telephone, even though her bitter rivalry with Hopper would seem to offer a handy mirror to the Crawford-Davis feud. Christina Crawford, who is trying to launch her own acting career, also remains unseen.
Nevertheless, the actors have a wonderful time with the script at hand. Both Lange and Sarandon are great fun as Crawford and Davis, chewing scenery to their hearts’ content and trying not to wallow too much during their lingering dewy-eyed close-ups. And love or hate “Mommie Dearest,” it’s nice to have another Crawford screen interpretation of Crawford besides Faye Dunaway’s.
Tucci and Davis roar through the script and energize their scenes. Molina is great as the long-suffering director caught between his producers, his stars and his own philandering. With her dry delivery and pitch-perfect physical comedy, Jackie Hoffman nearly steals the show as Mamacita, Crawford’s German maid.
Despite this star power, the real find of the series is Burgess, whose layered performance as the quirky and proudly gay Buono gives the series a grounding it often lacks. The growing friendship between Davis and Buono is a highlight and hopefully Buono’s Oscar nomination for “Baby Jane” will be mirrored by Burgess’ Emmy win for “Feud.”