Often charitably, my friends tell me that I hold an encyclopedic knowledge on film. But I have to make a confession: I know very little about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’ “legendary” behind-the-scenes rivalry during What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Ryan Murphy, FX’s proverbial “do you honestly sleep?” workaholic extraordinaire, is at it again. The force behind Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story and American Crime Story, just to name a mere few, returns to co-create, co-write, produce and direct the pilot of Feud, FX’s latest period melodrama depicting the ageism, sexism and Hollywood backpedaling of the early ’60s with all the subtlety of, well, Crawford and Davis. It’s splashy, flashy, dizzying, operatic and bombastic. It’ll be damned if it’s anything else.
Its larger-than-life appetite, as voracious as it’s vivacious, is not unlike Murphy’s previous efforts. It’s respectful, at least somewhat, but it doesn’t pretend to be civil. Knowing full well that the jittery audience is here for the juicy debauchery, it teases, but it’s also quick to unleash its fangs. While the pilot only throws out a sliver of meat, it doesn’t shy away from the trail of blood that awaits viewers in the weeks to come.
Feud is a maliciously calculated effort, priding itself on punchy dialogue, snappy exchanges (some of which include uncensored c-words!), ferocious performances and stunning production design and period decor. It’s grandiose, although it’s not yet grand. Coming hotter than ever away from The People vs. O.J. Simpson, a haunting, similarly sensationalized dramatization that was more timely, empowered, vital and urgent than anyone could’ve ever imagined, Feud doesn’t strike lightning twice. At least, not yet.
While its themes are certainly pressing, especially in today’s political climate, Feud simply doesn’t have the razor-sharp magnetism which came almost naturally to O.J. It’s beautifully produced, character-filled and, like Davis, it doesn’t mince any words. (Did I mention how they say the c-word on this show?! What a strange time we live in.) But its campy vibrato doesn’t match — and possibly can’t match — the same high-strung importance of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, nor can it feel as needed in its convictions.
It’s silly, but it’s also smart. It’s bold, but it’s also willingly brave. But it’s not quite captivating. At least, not quite yet. And there’s still time for these divas to shine. Jessica Lange gives another stupendous performance as Joan Crawford, often showcasing her deep vulnerability that was taken for granted. Susan Sarandon isn’t quite on her level, but she isn’t one to scoff at. Her take on Bette Davis is appropriately fiery and fierce. It’s the showier of the two, but it damn well should be. There’s good reason to believe this show is going to succeed, and it’s likely going to be thanks to their near-masterful work.
As per usual in the Murphy cannon, the supporting ensemble is a bit of a mixed bag. Alfred Molina is excellent —as he always is — as Robert Aldrich, the frustrated director behind the 1962 production-in-question. Jackie Hoffman, similarly, is a lot of fun to watch as Mamasita, the stern-lipped assistant to Crawford’s self-aggrandizing self. Judy Davis leaves a darn good impression as Hedda Hopper, a persistent gossip columnist, and when is Stanley Tucci bad?! Not when he’s a foul-mouthed Jack Werner, at least. But then tedious and mostly clunky flashforward interviews with Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Olivia de Havilland and Kathy Bates’ Joan Blondell hinder more than they ever help, and they often grind the bubbling titular feud to a grinding halt to overexplain things.
As far as laying the foundation for all the nastiness that’s richly in store, Feud‘s pilot is more than serviceable. It’s sharp, tactful, cunning and explosively embittered. Is that enough to make it more than winking, well-made glitziness? We’ll have to wait and see.