Let me begin by saying that I’ve been looking forward to Ryan Murphy’s new FX anthology drama Feud: Bette and Joan from the moment that it was announced. As a long-time lover of classical Hollywood, of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and of women’s pictures, this seemed like the perfect mix of everything I loved. And indeed, if the first episode is any indication, it will more than fulfill my expectations.
When it comes to playing abject (anti)-heroines, no one excels like Jessica Lange. Since her several-season run on Murphy’s other successful series American Horror Story, Lange has become acknowledged as one of the leading actresses of her generation, a woman able to not only inhabit her roles but to bring to her flawed characters a deep well of humanity. In Joan Crawford, that most contradictory of classic Hollywood actresses, she finds a character worthy of her tremendous abilities. Within a little more than an hour, Lange has managed to show us the dark depths of Crawford’s tortured soul.
While I personally strongly dislike Susan Sarandon, she does an extraordinary Bette Davis. This is the tough-as-nails actress who took no prisoners and drank and swore with the best of them. And as Joan Blondell says, she always puts the professional before the personal, and as a result she is able to attain heights of acting glory that remain the envy of her nemesis and co-star Crawford. There is no question that Davis was a better actress than Crawford, and in Sarandon she has found a fitting avatar, a woman unafraid of telling everyone in her path what she thinks of them.
Indeed, it seems to me that part of what makes Feud such a compelling show is the fact that a high-profile series has provided a vehicle for two aging actresses. And the series goes out of the way to show that Bette and Joan, for all of their acrimony, actually have far more in common than any other two women in their world. They are both vestiges of a Hollywood system that made use of their talents while caring little for their welfare (as evidenced by Stanley Tucci’s reprehensible Jack Warner). Yet, precisely because they are products of a system that sets women against one another and that has already left them behind, they also find that they can never express any true affection for one another.
Whatever his failings as an auteur, Murphy has a keen eye for a story about the relationships among women, and he knows how to make these stories truly emotionally resonant. One can’t help but be reminded of Billy Wilder’s extraordinary work in Sunset Boulevard, or the many women’s pictures produced during the height of classic Hollywood (the ones in which Crawford and Davis made their reputations). As with those other films of yore, Feud immerses us in a world of pathos, sadness, and delicious poison, so that we can’t help but take pleasure in the seething hatred that slowly re-emerges between these two powerful women.
Murphy also has a keen eye for colour and decor, which is readily apparent with his new outing. The hues seem to pop off the screen, sometimes a little too garish for comfort, a searing reminder of the larger-than-life personalities and heightened emotions these two women experience as they find themselves in a maelstrom of vitriol and ever-deepening and decidedly mutual loathing. They can’t seem to escape from their surroundings, bound together in a cycle of destruction that threatens to consume them both.
All in all, the pilot of this show hopefully bodes well for a thrilling and delicious season of venom and vitriol. Could you ask for more?