“Feuds are never about hate — feuds are about pain. They’re about pain.”
With those foreboding words, softly coo’d to camera by Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta Jones) — a contemporary of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s, in the midst of an interview about the two stars — we’re off on the sordid tale about one of the most epic feuds in Hollywood… Not to mention one of the most anticipated new series on FX, created by the network’s golden goose, Ryan Murphy.
The two legendary actresses had hated each other for years — fuming both publicly and privately over perceived slights, stolen boyfriends, and invisible plots against them — when, both in their 50’s and seeing roles either dry up or handed to a younger Hollywood, the two bitterly agreed to put history aside and make what would become the biggest movie of its day.
The goal of the first episode of “Feud” is all about setting the stage, as it were; getting to know the Hollywood that Ryan Murphy has lovingly recreated. The expansive sets of the old Warner lot are bustling with set builders and lighting crews; we see in wide shot the lavish offices of studio executives, like Stanley Tucci’s Jack Warner; the gold interior of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper’s (Judy Davis) mansion would make Midas weep.
The story unfolds like this: Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), having been out of work for a couple of years and told that the roles she wants, nay demands, just aren’t being made, sets off to find something worthy of her talents. With the help of her devoted maid Mamasita (Jackie Hoffman), Joan comes across the new novel “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” — and the gears start grinding. With the help of a quaint Pepsi-Cola care package (Crawford was their spokesperson), she manages to get director Robert Aldrich out to a pool for a meeting about the movie, and to help seal the deal Joan promises she’ll get him the perfect co-star.
“Who’s that?” Aldrich asks. In response, Joan simply lies back on her lounge chair, all cunning smile and fabulous turban.
…Enter Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon).
Having her own trouble finding work in Hollywood, Bette’s returned to Broadway, and we find her in a bit part in a new Tennessee Williams play, “Night of the Iguana.”
In a scene that sets up the rest of the series, Joan goes backstage to Bette’s dressing room to offer her the role of Baby Jane Hudson. It’s the first scene the two have together and the small dressing room instantly chills.
“You were wonderful tonight, Bette,” Joan offers. “I don’t know why you didn’t get better reviews.”
“What the hell do you want, Lucille.” Bette snarls.
And with that exchange, we get a window into a lifetime of animosity. But Bette knows Joan is right, Hollywood just isn’t making the types of women’s movies they used to: “If something’s going to happen, we have to make it happen. No one is looking to cast women our age — but together, they wouldn’t dare say no.”
The devil works in mysterious ways sometimes — and in this series, it’s wrapped in furs and jewels. As she glides confidently from the room, Joan stops at the door, and turns to Bette with one last enticement.
“I’m offering you the title role.”
“The lead?” Bette asks, turning in her chair, wig cap still on.
“You can call it that…” Again, that cunning smile. End scene.
The best thing that Murphy and his team, known for their over the top plots, have done is keep the story straightforward (it is history, after all) and let everything around it spill with the drama and camp his audiences have come to expect. The music between scenes swells with tense violins, supporting actors like Stanley Tucci and Judy Davis get chances to expertly chew lines and shoot side glances as only they can do. But there are touches that will assure viewers that they are watching a Ryan Murphy production.
One of the best scenes in the first episode is when Bette finds inspiration for the look of Baby Jane in her dressing room, using an old wig Joan had worn in a movie years ago: As “Psycho”-esque music begins to swell, Bette cakes her face in white makeup, adds a “Clara Bow beauty mark,” and — marching on set bathed in spotlight — sarcastically curtsies before Aldrich, Joan, and the crew, over-enunciating a greeting: “Hello, Da-ddy!”
But if all this exposition sounds more “American Crime Story: OJ Simpson” than “American Horror Story: Any of Them” — it’s because it is. “Feud” is an homage to the romantic notion of a bygone era in Hollywood, an era of movie making that Ryan Murphy claims is what inspired and captivated him growing up. Ultimately what “Feud” wants to prove — and succeeds, at least, in its first 60 minutes — that sometimes true life is camp enough of its own.
“Fued: Bette and Joan” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.