From the Vertigo-style opening credits to the polished and precise set-design, Feud is a period piece that spares no expense or detail when it comes to looks. It’s an apt comparison to the way its stars, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), infamously comported themselves; not only on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but for much of their careers. How much of that legend is true depends on how much you trust the gossip columnists and tabloids that sensationalized the original story. And it’s in that framing that Feud has the potential to approach an old, maybe tall-tale with fresh light.
Creator Ryan Murphy frames the “feud” in a documentary taping in 1978, featuring the famed actress Olivia de Hallivand (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The device allows fellow stars like Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) to tell the “real” behind-the-scenes story. But of course, this documentary isn’t “real,” either, but invented. This is the thing about Ryan Murphy: say what you will about his particular brand of feminism or lust for camp, his narrators are rarely reliable, untrustworthy at best. What could be a simple dramatization of events is given the potential to deviate from reality; to acknowledge that truth through gossip is rarely what it seems to be.
Lange’s Crawford spends much of this first episode receiving a facial massage, hiding her drinking, putting on brows and splashing ice and witch-hazel across her face. It’s not Faye Dunaway/Mommie Dearest camp, but a far more subdued, even anxious, interpretation. Per usual for a Murphy show, Lange’s well crafted performance is one of the highlights. As for Sarandon’s Davis, glamour is less important than authenticity and bite. But viewers are not allowed to forget that these are obsessions of image, too; when Davis plays the bit part in a Broadway show, she revels just a bit too long in the applause at her mid-scene entrance.
Noteworthy moments in this first outing include the “pruning of Crawford’s shrubs,” an endless and insufferably gaudy product placement for Pepsi-Cola, and the serving of an aspic — that’s a savory gelatin dish, meat preserved in a transparent prison — by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis). Bette’s sentiment to her husband, divorce papers in tow, that she’s “the one that needed a wife,” feels particularly nasty but true. Everyone — everyone — is always being handed some kind of cocktail (but Joan only drinks that Pepsi-Cola). And a studio producer’s attempt to elevate the sexy neighbor girl in the script — “We wanna make it about her” — is a funny, hokey truism about 1960s Hollywood. More troubling is how true it remains right now.
But these tongue-and-cheek moments of “truth for women” also present problems in and of themselves. While one can tangibly feel Murphy’s desire to celebrate these legendary, powerful women, he’s doing so in the spirit of drag. When Sarandon’s Davis throws on Crawford’s old wig, paints her face white and smears on a load of lipstick, she’s dragging her old “friend” hard. One can’t help but feel Murphy’s storytelling might be committing much of the same devastation; Sarandon and Lange play their counterparts with impeccable timing and individual humanity, but the concept of the show itself panders to their in-fighting. The title is, after all, FEUD.
But I hold out hope.
There is a general notion in contemporary feminism that women must love each other. The infamous Madeline Albright quote comes to mind: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” In Feud, Crawford and Davis don’t like each other, and perhaps in moments, they hate each other. But there is also a deep respect, if no admiration. Crawford says it after scrubbing her elbows in lemon and before getting into bed — “I’ll have her respect, even if it kills us both.”
I’m apt to see how that idea develops over the next several episodes. Is Feud here to break feminism apart, demeaning its women to big personalities and dramatic pettiness in the service of overly powerful men? Or will it, by way of Murphy’s uncanny ability to flip the unreliable narrator, subvert the typical gossip spin, and show us something truly unexpected about these women and their relationship?
So far, I’m still here to find out.
Alex Landers (@1CriticalBitch) is a critic and playwright writing about women, feminism and truly tasteless horror movies. She received her B.A. in cinema studies from the University of Illinois and an M.F.A. in dramatic writing from Florida State University, believing that great filmmaking is always entwined with great criticism. Also a visual artist, Alex spends time working and painting in Chicago and the east coast of Connecticut. You can read her film criticism weekly at onecriticalbitch.com and get to know the full scope of her work at alexandralanders.com.