For better or worse, “And the Winner Is…,” the fifth episode of FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan, is their Ryan Murphyest to date. Both written and directed by the producer and provocateur himself, it’s the anthology series as its splashiest, sensationalized and, sadly, superficial. A dramatic series that thrives on being as grandiose and flamboyant as humanly possible, Feud is nevertheless prone to overcooking its ham, letting the roast sit a little too long on the burner, to the point where all the juiciness tends to get too dry and bitter for its own satisfaction, let alone the salacious joy of the viewers. It, thankfully, never gets terrible; Murphy is too bold and audacious to truly become dull. If only he didn’t let his tiresome shortcomings get in the way of all his clear successes.
With What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? a clear, unquestionable smash with critics and audiences, it’s time to see how the film fares at the Academy Awards. As we discovered last week, only Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) walked away with a nomination, leaving her mortal frenemy (with more emphasis on the enemy these days…) Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) in the dust with no nominations. But Crawford is nothing if not bitter, and she’s not going to let Davis walk home with that third Oscar if she can help it. True, she doesn’t have the nomination, so, therefore, there’s no way she can win on her own. But that doesn’t dampen her determined, deprived spirit. Storming into the Academy offices, she doesn’t come with anger, but rather with a compromise. If she can’t get the nom, she’ll offer her services as a presenter. Preferably for either the Best Picture or Best Director category. The Academy obliges, which guarantees Crawford’s attendance.
Not that it deters Davis; she’s expected to win anyway, and she’s perpetually pampered by her fellow Oscar-winning friend Olivia de Havilland (a not-necessarily-convincing Catherine Zeta-Jones). But it does, of course, get under her skin. She’s easily raddled, not unlike Crawford, naturally. If there’s one thing Feud wants to drive home, other than the fact that Hollywood is a cesspool of disappointment, bigotry and inherent sexism run rampant, it’s that these two larger-than-life silver screen legends are not all that different. Because they can’t put their petty needs and overbearing insecurities aside, however, they are at each other’s throats, even when they’re not in the other’s face.
Crawford worms her way into making sure that, if Davis doesn’t win, she’s going to walk home the award in hand instead. Fellow nominees Geraldine Page (Sarah Paulson) and Anne Bancroft (Serinda Swan) are forced, to varying degrees, into letting Crawford take their place at the ceremonies, while Katherine Hepburn is an obvious no-show anyway. What would happen if Lee Remick won for Days of Wine and Roses? Crawford, Davis, Murphy nor Feud don’t really seem to care. There are more pressing matters afoot.
After last week’s more nuanced examination at the expectations and crushing failures of Hollywood, “And the Winner Is…” returns Feud back to Murphy’s familiar territory. There’s a lot of heavy-handedness, zoom-in shots, flashy cinematography and way less subtlely. Granted, Feud is a show that doesn’t need a lot of subtlety. In fact, it welcomes a lot of showiness, especially when it focuses on the lead drama queens at their dirtiest. But even a smidge of understated nuance goes a long way, especially during a Murphy production, and it’s shame that Feud can’t quite find that balance as proficiently as The People vs. O.J. Simpson did last year. I know I’m a broken record when I refer to that acclaimed anthology series; that said, at this point, the extraordinary “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” which Murphy also directed, was airing on TV. Perhaps it’s telling that Paulson only gets one scene in this episode, which also serves as her Feud introduction.
But there’s a lot of delectable goodness to praise in “And the Winner Is…” For one, there’s a pretty spectacular single shot that follows Crawford through the backstages of the Oscars that’s simply incredible in scope. Yes, it’s very clearly ripping off Goodfellas, but single takes — especially ones that are nearly four or five minutes long — are not easy to accomplish, and they should ultimately be praised, especially when done well. It’s the Legend defense, yes, but still. It’s some of Murphy’s most astounding direction. Similarly, I can’t sing enough praises for Lange. Her dauntless take on Crawford is never less than brutal and heartbroken, and she truly pours her heart out into every episode. You expect nothing less from Lange, I know, but even the little things, like how Crawford can so carefully shame, harass and manipulate someone in the guise of sheer praise, is simply masterful, a beautiful display of layers from an extraordinary actor.
I’m torn on Feud. You could say I’m… feuding with my thoughts, but that’s pretty cheesy. Even for me. I want to love it, and yet it’s perpetually keeping me at bay. It lets me marvel as its lavish production values, its excellent period details, and its marvelous performances, yet it doesn’t quite have the rapturous, compulsive, intensive energy of Murphy’s best, most palatable programs, and I’m not entirely sure if it ever truly will.