Is there a word that means the exact opposite of “soulmate?” That’s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two women who were destined to find, and to despise, each other — at least that’s the way FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan tells it.
Okay, let’s quickly go over the real-life basics: These two Hollywood legends were both in their 50s by the time they costarred in the 1962 cult-favorite thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. (The movie, by the way, is still very much worth watching — it’s dated, sure, but Bette Davis’ performance is so screamingly weird that I’m not sure how you could go through life without a little bit of it living inside you.) Joan Crawford plays Blanche Hudson, a screen idol who was paralyzed in a mysterious car accident at the height of her career. Bette Davis is her sister and resentful caretaker Blanche, a deranged former child star. Their (supposed) on-set tension only continued to curdle once the movie premiered — but I’ll leave it to Feud to tell you all about that when the time is right.
The pilot begins in 1978, sixteen years after the release of Baby Jane, on the set of an unspecified documentary. A man whose face we can’t quite make out is interviewing Hollywood royalty in the hopes of better understanding the notorious animosity between Davis and Crawford. (Knowing Ryan Murphy, this guy will probably turn out to be a character from American Horror Story who was also a character from Glee who was also somehow involved in the O.J. trial?) I’m curious to see how this framing device will evolve throughout the series, because right now, it feels like a pointless distraction.
First up is a disconcertingly blonde Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland. “For nearly half a century, they hated each other,” she says of Bette and Joan, “And we loved them for it.” (Worth noting: De Havilland had a crazy Hollywood rivalry of her own, with her estranged sister Joan Fontaine. Could we be quietly backdoor-piloting a future season of Feud in the actual pilot of Feud?)
Cut to the 1961 Golden Globes, where Marilyn Monroe is accepting an award — and where Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) is spitefully downing a martini. “I’ve got great tits, too, but I don’t throw them in everyone’s face,” she hisses. To Joan, Monroe is “vulgarity” personified, a telling insult from a woman who couldn’t possibly be more concerned with keeping up appearances. Crawford undergoes house-call spa treatments on her neck and scrubs her elbows with lemons to keep them “supple.” As a brand ambassador and the widow of the company’s late CEO, she publicly avows she drinks only Pepsi, but in reality she never goes anywhere without her trusty vodka flask.
But there’s a bigger distinction between the two actresses. As ruthless gossip maven Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) — who, I would just like to point out, is wearing a) a hat that looks like a large donut made of feathers and b) not one, but three necklaces — will soon point out to Joan, Marilyn’s getting parts. She isn’t.
Crawford is newly determined to revitalize her career. (There’s some financial pressure at work here, too: She’s behind on paying her gardeners.) She plows through a pile of scripts, and when none of those prove remotely suitable, she sets out to find a project for her own damn self. Her housekeeper Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) buys books with women on the cover in bulk, but Joan dismisses the characters as “ingenues, mothers, or gorgons.” But then she finds something different, Henry Farrell’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. She messengers over a copy to a former collaborator, director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), who’s intrigued by the possibility of shooting something that isn’t yet another disposable “sandal saga.” Better yet, this horror thriller would require only one set and a tiny cast.
Now that she has her director, it’s time for Joan to find her costar. Packing a pair of her own personal opera glasses, she goes to see Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), who’s starring in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. Despite her obvious magnetism and the round of applause she earns from the audience on sight, Davis is seemingly a character of secondary importance in the play. Backstage — and throughout the episode — Bette addresses Joan derisively as “Lucille,” her birth name. (But Bette Davis’ real first name isn’t Bette. It’s Ruth. So, ma’am?) As the potty-mouthed, no-nonsense Davis crankily puffs on a cigarette in her wig cap, the differences between the women couldn’t be sharper: Joan, swaddled in a fur and sparkling with diamonds, is performing even when she’s just being herself. (Jessica Lange’s Crawford has a little bit of DNA in common with Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy.)
Hollywood might neglect casting older women, Joan argues, but the two of them together is a package too irresistible to pass up — they just have to take things into their own hands. She leaves Bette a copy of the novel, and notes that she’s offering her “the title role.”
“The lead?” Davis asks. “You can call it that,” Crawford says cagily. It’s really a testament to Joan Crawford’s old-Hollywood worldview that she would think dull, (mostly) virtuous Blanche and not scenery-chewing Baby Jane was the character to play.
Over the phone, Aldrich talks a reluctant Bette into taking the part. He promises he isn’t sleeping with Joan (who has something of a reputation for working very, very closely with her directors) and tells her that putting Crawford’s name on the marquee will get distribution, but that she’s the one who’ll make it great—and that she’s too big a star for Broadway.
But she’s not the only person he has to convince. Aldrich goes from studio to studio looking for a home for the horror picture he wants to shoot, receiving increasingly baffling, infuriating feedback from the executives he meets with. How about they recast it with younger actresses—say, Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day? How about they “beef up” the “sexy neighbor girl,” a virtual non-character in the finished film (who, by the way, Bette Davis’ own daughter ended up playing)?
Aldrich finally turns to Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) for distribution. The Warner Bros. mogul bears a deep, long-standing grudge for Davis, who sued to break her contract with his studio, but it’s not so deep or long-standing that Aldrich’s offer to pay him first can’t change his mind.
With the gears of Baby Jane officially in motion, Crawford and Davis pose together for contract-signing publicity photos. The shoot becomes an unspoken power struggle when the two women jockey to see which of them can be on the left side of the picture — a subtle distinction that’ll decide whose name gets top billing in the newspaper captions.
But Joan didn’t actually sign the contract. As well mannered as she might like to appear to be, Joan “Mommie Dearest” Crawford is capable of darkness. She corners Aldrich and launches into a tirade (that takes on the distinct flavor of attempted seduction? It is weird, friends) about all the men who’ve ever betrayed her, because she discovered that Davis gets $600 more a week in expenses than she does — an “oversight” Aldrich insists he’ll take care of.
Hold up, time for another 1978 interview: It’s Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell. Blondell complains about how the 1950s and early 1960s mistreated “mature gals” like herself, Crawford, and Davis. Bette was “on top of the world” after All About Eve, but when the offers didn’t follow, she tried to embrace life as a wife and mother, marrying her costar Gary Merrill. (The one very brief clip Feud offers us of Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis as Margo Channing is utterly delicious, and I hope we’ll get to see more.) Back in the 1961 timeline, Gary comes to see Bette with their divorce papers complete with a gift bow. They start arguing, burst out laughing, then make out. The next morning, as he leaves, she gazes at the Oscar on her bedside table.
Meanwhile, Joan’s man-friend chides her for constantly complaining about Bette Davis. The resentment brewing between them goes way back, you see. When Davis tried to “screw” Crawford’s boyfriend, a costar, Crawford married him “out of spite.” Now what she’s craving most is Davis’ respect — the respect she’s gotten from “none of the bitches in this town, least of all queen bitch.” After all, as Olivia de Havilland explains, feuds aren’t about hate, but pain.
On set, Joan greets crew members by name — with the help of Mamasita, who prompts her much as Gary would Selina Meyer — presenting them with wrapped gifts. Davis arrives with her daughter B.D. (played by Kiernan Shipka, which means I have chosen to believe this is all part of the Mad Men universe) immediately dismisses Joan’s gift-giving as sucking up for better lighting and props, and scowls hatefully at the Pepsi vending machine installed on set.
During a two-woman summit in Crawford’s dressing room, Joan reveals that she’s “terrified” of shooting her first film in three years. Bette begrudgingly acknowledges that she thinks Joan is “good,” and Crawford is moved nearly to tears by this chewed-up shred of a compliment, even if it’s quickly undercut by Davis criticizing the shoulder pads and lipstick she’s chosen to wear. Despite her nerves, Joan feels confident when shooting finally begins.
In her dressing room, Bette finally settles on the “demented” look she’d dreamed of for Baby Jane: cakey powder-white foundation, disheveled blonde ringlets—a wig that Davis gleefully seizes when the prop mistress points out that Joan wore it herself in an old melodrama — smeared lipstick, and a heart-shaped “Clara Bow beauty mark.” She is show-stoppingly weird. (I will say this: Accurate as it is, Sarandon’s Baby Jane nevertheless looks about three times as polished and pretty as the original.) When she emerges from her dressing room, Aldrich and the crew can’t help but applaud. Joan is scandalized.
Watching the dailies, Joan, off-put by the sight of her relatively bare face on screen, questions whether the lighting is “unnecessarily harsh.” Aldrich assures her that they haven’t “balanced” the footage yet, but it’s painfully obvious from the look he exchanges with his assistant that he’s lying — how long can he keep this up? Tears appear on Davis’ face as she watches a particularly grotesque moment from her own performance, which strikes me as out of character. Is Ryan Murphy suggesting that Bette Davis is depressed by how old she looks as Baby Jane? Because I don’t buy that, not for a second.
Crawford and Davis join Hedda Hopper for an intimate dinner at the gossip columnist’s home. Hopper smells blood, but the two stars mostly play nice, if a little passive-aggressive. But one thing is very clear: It won’t be long before this gets ugly.
Hopper concludes the episode in a voiceover that borrows from the real story she wrote: “Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, stars of equal magnitude who ruled in motion pictures during the fabulous ‘30s, never got to know one another. Now in the Indian summer of their careers, they’re about to.”
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