Even today, there aren’t many great roles for women of a certain age not named Meryl Streep. Feud: Bette and Joan, Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series for FX, addresses that issue with a fun, entertaining looks at the struggles of Hollywood actresses from 50 years ago. The ironic twist is that, by making this series, Murphy is actually succeeding in giving great roles to older actresses, including Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Judy Davis, Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Feud features narration by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kathy Bates as actresses Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell, offering their thoughts to a documentary filmmaker in 1978 on the struggles of women in Hollywood during the 1950s and ’60s. But the real story is all about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis making What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
The pilot brings all of the elements together for the film as we see the early stages of Bette and Joan’s feud. And right from the beginning, they’re fake smiles and nonstop power moves are a delight.
Joan Crawford Finds Her Comeback Role
The meat of the story begins at the 1961 Golden Globes where Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) watches young starlet Marilyn Monroe win an award. Joan is tired of being “Yesterday’s It Girl” because she still sees herself as the center of the world. She wants to get back into film, also because she needs the money as her nest egg is running out ever since her rich husband, the CEO of Pepsi, died.
Joan brings her Oscar from 16 years ago to her agent’s office demanding another one, but the only roles out there for women her age are playing Elvis Presley’s grandmother. Joan is forced to find her own role, sending her maid and right-hand woman Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) out to find books about older ladies. That’s how she stumbles upon the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s a horror thriller about two sisters, former Hollywood stars, living together and fighting.
Joan Gets a Director
Joan sends the book to director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), who is eagerly looking for something new to do instead of the same old sandal-and-sword epics. His assistant Pauline (Alison Wright) urges him to do it because it’s a small cast with one set and he can have final cut.
Joan Gets Bette Davis
The last piece of the Baby Jane puzzle is for Joan to recruit her co-star. She wants Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), who she finds at her stage production of The Night of the Iguana. Joan meets Bette in her dressing room and the scene is filled with passive aggression, such as when Joan goes out of her way to bring up Bette’s bad reviews.
Joan is able to convince Bette to join Baby Jane because no one is casting women their age, so if they want to be in films, they need to make it happen themselves. However, the origins of their impending feud are evident right from the start, like with this telling exchange:
Joan: “I’m offering you the title role.”
Bette: “The lead?”
Joan: “You can call it that.”
Bette reads the book and calls up Robert, who begs her to be in the movie. He tells her that he needs her to make it good, already being forced to choose favorites among the stars.
The Struggle to Make Baby Jane
With his stars on board, Robert has a hard time convincing studios to actually make a movie starring two older actresses. Eventually he brings the project to the head of Warner Bros, Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci). Warner is depicted as the epitome of the misogynistic, male-dominated Hollywood, slapping his masseuse on the ass and questioning whether or not any guy’s would want to sleep with Bette and Joan.
Jack has had problems dealing with Bette and Joan in the past, knowing how difficult and demanding they can be. He’s particularly angry at Bette because she sued him many years ago and even though he won the lawsuit, it ended the studio contract system. He wants her to suffer, but his mind changes when Robert offers to pay him first. It all comes down to money.
That sentiment is echoed at the contract signing where Bette and Joan lock horns and Joan rants and raves to Robert because Bette is being paid more than her. Joan claims that it’s all about trust, but then she demands more money. Robert agrees and it’s clear that this is going to be a horrible experience for him, being broken down on both sides by these two powerhouse women.
Vignettes from both Bette and Joan’s marriages and relationships start to reveal that they’re basically the same person, two strong-willed actresses who demand respect, but they’re both too devoted to trying to be the best. If they could simply get past their own egos, they’d probably be best friends.
The First Day of Baby Jane
On the first day of principal photography, Joan shows up with gifts for the crew and even installs a Pepsi macgine on the stage. Bette thinks she’s sucking up to get better lighting while her daughter B.D. (Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka) thinks Joan is just being nice.
The two stars meet up in an attempt to bury the hatchet. Bette states clearly that they may not like each other, but they both need the film to do well and they’re both talented, so they should focus on the work. Naturally, Bette gets one jab about Joan’s shoulder pads and makeup that undoes all of that good will. Joan immediately begins seething under her skin that Bette is trying to tell her how to act.
Joan films her first scene and gets positive feedback. She feels great, but then the spotlight gets stolen. Bette creates her own “demented” look for her character, using an old wig Joan wore in a film from the ’30s and painting her entire face white for dramatic effect. It’s comically terrifying and Bette struts out of her dressing room as the crew shines two spotlights on her.
Bette walks right up to Joan and Robert, takes a bow and reveals her accent for the role by saying “Hello, daddy.” Robert starts to clap and the entire crew joins him as Joan slinks away into the darkness. Now that’s an entrance.
The episode ends with Bette and Joan attending a dinner party with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis). Hedda wants the dirt, but the two actresses play nice (well, as nice as they can). Hedda is disappointed, but anyone can see how much turmoil is brewing just beneath the surface. Things are going to get ugly.
Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10/9c on FX.
(Image courtesy of FX)