There are many things to say about the mesmerizing, impressive, and flawed “Feud: Bette and Joan,” the new FX anthology drama from Ryan Murphy. But there is only one way to begin: Jessica Lange.
Playing Joan Crawford in the early 1960s, financially and emotionally desperate to jump-start her career, Lange is spectacular — and a spectacle of unceasing and rabid insecurity. She is magnificently watchable as a woman who, at every moment, with every blink and every remark, is acutely aware of her own unmet needs. She’s terribly vain, and we see her getting her beauty treatments and massages, a creature of much preening; and yet that vanity is clearly born of anxiety, a deep unappeasable hunger for approval, and living as a female pawn in male Hollywood’s game. She’s a legend, but, alas, not quite a legend in her own mind.
What’s most compelling about Lange’s performance is that it’s very much her interpretation of Crawford, and not an impersonation. She gives us chance gestures and vocal tones that unmistakably evoke Crawford, but she is acting more than posing — and acting with the kind of total presence that almost always makes her into an emotional lightning rod. It must be peculiar for the other actors in a scene — not least of all Susan Sarandon, who plays Bette Davis — when Lange is in character and staring into their souls. Like many of Lange’s recent turns, in “Grey Gardens” and on “American Horror Story,” it’s an outsize performance, but that’s perfectly right for such a drama queen of a character, one whose daily spirals into self-sabotage were fueled by a flask of 100-proof booze. Even the strange angles of Lange’s face seem integral to her Crawford.
The eight-episode first season of “Feud,” which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., focuses on the tensions between the two actresses while filming the 1962 gothic classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” It gets into the sometimes amusing pettiness of a giant rivalry, including a scene in which Crawford and Davis silently vie to be the person on the left in a promotional photo shoot — because that person’s name will be first in the newspaper photo captions. But the show also digs into the larger, sadder reasons for that rivalry, as the actresses are set up against each other by director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) and studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), who likes the way their “pure, naked rancor,” as he excitedly calls it, attracts publicity. When the stars begin to get along at one point, the men secretly work to spark new clashes, feeding them lies like MGM fed Judy Garland “pep pills.”
Also a fan of the Crawford-Davis clashes: Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist played as a hissing snake by Judy Davis. Hopper ruthlessly manipulates the actresses into giving her scoop, both by blackmail and by pushing psychological buttons. At one point in the second episode, Hopper has Crawford and Davis over to her luxurious home for dinner, greeting them with the words, “Welcome to the house fear built,” an acknowledgment that she’s well aware of the vileness of her tactics. Throughout the first episodes of “Feud,” the scripts regularly give us the kinds of astute cultural retrospect — about the baseness and power of the gossip press, about the subjugation of women — that made Murphy’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” into more than a legal procedural.
The central drama of the making of “Baby Jane” in 1961 is framed by a series of interviews with actresses in 1978, during the filming of a documentary about Crawford and Davis. This gives Murphy — who wrote and directed the first three episodes — ample opportunity to comment on the action through the likes of Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) and Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Early on, de Havilland says, “Feuds are never about hate, feuds are about pain,” a line that hangs over the whole story, as we see the desperation of both Crawford and Davis in play. Watching Crawford ridding the movie set of younger, prettier actresses, and pulling Davis into her paltry plot, is to see the despair that wrenches her heart.
And Sarandon? She takes the same approach as Lange, which is to give us a Sarandon performance peppered with reminders of Davis (particularly the eyes). To me, she never quite finds a comfort zone as Davis, bringing in too much Sarandon, particularly vocally. Her scenes are well-written, not least of all the ones in which Davis devises her Baby Jane look, throwing her own vanity to the wind (and in Crawford’s face) to create a demented, cadaverous, and, now, iconic creature. Davis knows that in their contest for another Oscar, she is most likely to win by forsaking glamour and playing the showy villain.
But it always felt as though Sarandon hadn’t discovered a distinct way into Davis, and as “Feud” toggles between camp and genuine drama, between comedy and pathos, she doesn’t seem to keep her balance.
FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN
Starring: Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci, Judy Davis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Jackie Hoffman, Kiernan Shipka, Alison Wright
Sunday night, 10-11