Feud: Bette and Joan: “Pilot” Series Premiere Review

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The premiere of Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series is gorgeously shot and instantly addicting, with mesmerizing performances from Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon.

Say what you will about Ryan Murphy, but the man is very self-aware. His projects tend to have some sort of larger significance, and often use their specific setting as a microcosm for a universal issue. A prime example is the recent The People vs. OJ Simpson, which used one of the most highly publicized trials in American history as a platform for talking about racism and sexism with aplomb.

Feud appears to be attempting to do something similar. This latest anthology series will tackle a different famous rivalry each season, and has started off with the one between Screen Queens Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. For those who hoped that this show would be full of side-eyes and back-handed compliments, don’t worry that’s all there in the premiere. But Bette and Joan‘s first episode hints at a deeper, much more interesting theme than just two fading stars vying for more time in the spotlight.

The show might center around Davis’ and Crawford’s epic feud, but it is also keenly aware of the external pressures that helped push them both to their breaking points. The episode’s visuals are breathtaking, and Murphy’s colorful vision of early 1960’s Hollywood serves as the perfect juxtaposition for the ugly behind-the-scenes behavior that occurs. Chiefly, the way women of a certain age are treated by their male cohorts. Yes, Davis and Crawford disliked each other, but their larger-than-life battle was most certainly egged on by a heavy steeping of sexism and ageism in their industry.

The pilot expresses this in both subtle and explicit ways. In an early scene, Crawford shows disgust at a young, buxom Marilyn Monroe winning a Golden Globe. Later, Davis is visibly upset when her younger co-star gets flowers after a performance of their broadway show while she gets nothing. These women were in their 50s at the time, and were already starting to feel invisible. Then, there’s the scene in which Stanley Tucci’s deviously hammy Jack Warner lays it all out on the table. These women weren’t considered fuckable anymore, and so they’re not going to sell movie tickets. In this every-woman-for-herself world, it’s no wonder that fighting ensued.

Another promising aspect of Bette and Joan is its initial handling of its titular characters. The pilot does a great job of carefully crafting their unique personas, and does well to differentiate between them. The story follows the two as they begin production on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?—the 1962 thriller about two former movie stars who are stuck together in their decaying family mansion. Right away, we can see a difference between Davis and Crawford’s approach to the work. Davis is an actress first, and is willing to dig deep for her role. The scene in which she first emerges from her trailer with her gruesome Baby Jane makeup is thrilling. Crawford, on the other hand, is far more interested in being a movie star. Whether she’s putting shoulder pads into her costume, or rubbing lemons on her elbows to make them look more “supple,” she is all about looking glamourous…even though her character is confined to a wheelchair.

Of course, you can’t talk about these figures for long without bringing up the actors behind them. Part of the draw of a Ryan Murphy production is that he’s often able to lure in some big names, and Bette and Joan is no exception. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are captivating in their roles, and they hold a truly magnetic presence when they’re onscreen together.

Crawford was a notoriously demanding actress to work with, but her persona was later taken to campy new heights by Faye Dunaway in Mommie DearestBette and Joan is smart to avoid this kind of cartoonish impersonation. Instead, Lange imbues her version of Crawford with a quietly powerful intensity. She’s laser-focused in everything she does, and her subtle facial ticks indicate that her mind is working at a mile-a-minute pace. Yes, there’s some ranting too, but Lange never fully chews the scenery. There’s some deep-seated pain in her portrayal that’s incredibly fascinating to watch.

Sarandon, meanwhile, is a total gem as Davis. She nails her dry sense of humor and affinity for quotable one-liners, as well as her signature wide-eyed stare. Davis is also unafraid to make demands, but her character has much more of a hardened shell around her. It’s great fun to watch Sarandon roll off a jab with the perfect deadpan, but it’s even more interesting to see the brief moments when she lets her guard down, such as a scene in which she she signs divorce papers while her soon-to-be-ex sleeps in bed behind her.

In its first episode, Bette and Joan has set up a minefield, where any misstep could result in an explosion. For movie buffs, it’s a real treat to see a group of ace players take you behind the scenes of one of the most famous stories from the Golden Age of Hollywood. For everyone else, it’s a poignant reminder of how far women have come, and how far they still have to go. The fact that, in real life, Sarandon is 71 and Lange is 68 provides glimmer of hope for the future. And it’s lucky for all of us as well. I don’t know if I’d want to see anyone else to take on Crawford and Davis, except for the actresses themselves. Grade: A-

 

Some Other Notes:

  • For anyone who’s interested in the business of making movies, the first episode of Bette and Joan offers a highly engaging look at how Baby Jane got put together, from Crawford first finding the book to the director Robert Aldrich pitching it to all the major studios.
  • Among the supporting players, Alfred Molina stands out as a superb Aldrich. Though he seems to be one of the only men who will fight for both Crawford and Davis, you easily get the feeling that he is motivated by personal reasons. I’m excited to see how this plays out.
  • Also a standout is Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. She wears large, feathered hats and is an absolute delight.
  • I’m not yet sure how I feel about this show’s version of a Greek chorus, which comes in the form of other Hollywood actresses being interviewed for a documentary. While it’s fun to see Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kathy Bates pop in, I don’t think their commentary is really necessary. This narrative device works well on Big Little Lies, but I don’t really like it here.

 

By Mike Papirmeister

 

3 Responses to Feud: Bette and Joan: “Pilot” Series Premiere Review

  1. SherryAva says:

    Great review! I’m putting this series on my must see list.

  2. Barry says:

    Very well written Michael! We were actually told by Sanford Dody, who ghost wrote an autobiography of Bette Davis, that Bette was also notoriously difficult to work with. I am going to go back and read his autobiography of her before I watch the show. He lived with her for months while writing the book and got to know her quite,well. Some things I can’t write here, lol. If younareminterestedmyou can follow this urn to learn more about Sanford who died recently. Keep up the great work!

  3. Barry says:

    Mike, sorry apparently can’t copy URLs to this comment section. If you are interested just google Sandford Dody, 90; Ghostwriter of Best-Selling Autobiographies. It was printed in the Washington Post back in 2009.

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