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Feud: Bette and Joan. "Pilot"

by Nathaniel R

The title sequence for Feud, really couldn't be better. The Saul Bass inspired graphics cut-outs act out both the iconic beats in hagsploitation classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Joan Crawford and Bette Davis's own rivalry as stars while alluding to their embattled natures (the hearts as tears is a particular fine move) within Hollywood where both had been wildly successful but not without their backs up and claws out, as it were.

When the action kicks off in Feud though we're in 1961 and both were now "has been" at least in terms of A list leading lady roles at 55 (Crawford) and 53 (Davis). Feud: Bette and Joan casts much older actresses to play them with Jessica Lange (67) and Susan Sarandon (70) which is maybe the most unintentionally positive takeaway of the show; it takes much longer to be considered "old" in Hollywood now!

I didn't want to be one of those people who picks a show about Old Hollywood apart based on inaccuracies -- I'm not actually an expert on the studio system or either of these stars as some cinephiles and these actresses devout fan bases are not to be bested in trivia in this regard, but the opening error did throw me...  

MVP of episode 1? Easily Judy Davis' deliciously aggressive Hedda HopperThe show opened at what it claims are the 1961 Golden Globes... and whether you view that as the 1960 awards (held in '61) or the actual 1961 awards, given the erratic nature of how people label awards shows these days -- curse you internet and IMDb!, both are inaccurate. Marilyn Monroe won the Globe for Some Like It Hot in 1960 for the '59 Golden Globes. So this show is already off by one or even two years in its facts! Later Bette and Joan have a conversation that suggests Joan hasn't been in front of the cameras for many years (referencing her hit Autumn Leaves in 1956) but she'd made two movies between that film and Baby Jane and one of them is at least still marginally famous The The Best of Everything (1959). We see Bette Davis on stage but both actresses were doing regular TV gigs at this point.

But let's not get too hung on minutae as emotional truth is more important than trivia truth in these equations, and it's true that Joan didn't approve of Marilyn or Hollywood's reaction to her. And some of the emotional truth, Feud probably gets right. Consider that when Joan is searching for her own projects she complains that everything written for women is either "ingenues," "mothers," and "gorgons" and... you know, that's about right, isn't it?

I'm eager to see where Feud takes these discussions of the limited roles for women and women chipping away at each other but the first episode felt hesitant. Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta Jones doing something... but I couldn't follow what... with that imitation) describes Bette Davis acting as having "ballsy intensity." I wouldn't describe Feud that way. Like most of Ryan Murphy's work the ballsy intensity is all in the concept... the execution is rather more hit and miss. 

But I'm hopeful for now. You? A few favorite things...

Favorite Performance
Judy Davis 100%. In fact I think she would have probably been a better choice for either of the lead roles than Sarandon (who looks the part, though strangely isn't trying hard to capture for Bette's iconic voice) or Crawford. As already discussed before we'd seen a frame, Lange, while enormously talented, is almost the compete opposite of Crawford in terms of star persona. It's fairly clear that Murphy, as Lange super fan, doesn't understand that. Perhaps his idea of Crawford's star persona is entirely 'Dunaway as Crawford in the second half of  Mommie Dearest' based?  Lange's appeal has always been in her vulnerability and that febrile raggedy big emotion whereas Crawford's undeniable charisma and electricity usually sprang from her confident precision and ultimate rigidity.

Favorite Joan Scene
'This is my Oscar and I'd like another one.' Yaaaas. (But can we talk about how weird it is that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford only having as many Oscars between them as Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon do?)

Favorite Bette Scene
Hmmm. This was a Joan episode, really. Though I like Sarandon's pomp and circumstance stroll on to the set in full Baby Jane Hudson costume but that's more of a director's moment.

Favorite Prop
The Books!  Feud is a little more serious than we'd anticipated but it does make good use of the haha if not lol funny punchlines on occasion. Joan glances at the cover for Chocolate for Breakfast:

No, mamacita. Nothing sapphic."

Hee. That was an infamous lesbian novel of the love that dared not speak its name in the 1950s but it never became a movie like other gay stories before Stonewall (like Tea for Sympathy or The Children's Hour or some such). (That "find your own project" sequence had me wondering if the prop department didn't have way too much fun finding 1950s books to toss on that table. Pity we don't see more of them up close!)

Because Feud: Bette and Joan likes to credit Crawford and Davis with literally everything that happened -- was there really no makeup department involved in Baby Jane Hudson's iconic look? Did Bette and Joan really choose their own costumes and if so why was Norma Koch nominated for the great costume design at the Oscars? -- I was happy to see Robert Aldritch's assistant get a moment pushing the strength of the concept from a budget and story and industry trend moment. 

This one has potential. Horror thriller. Two broads, former movie stars a cripple and her crazy sister battling it out in their Hollywood home. 

This one (Feud: Bette and Joan) also has potential but at least from this Baby Jane fan's perspective it's way too soon to know if Feud lives up to it. 

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Reader Comments (40)

Lange is 67 and Sarandon is 70.

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Lange lacks Crawfords regal star persona- Joan was a STAR. Sarandon is more convincing but hey Davis is one hard act to follow. I like the look of the show and it's fun if you are familiar with Hollywood history. I hope we get to see Lange doing "Straight Jacket"

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

The casting did not work for me. Meryl as Joan and Judy Davis as Davis would be better for these women at this time. Sue looks too young and Jess looks and acts like Jess.

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJono

I think that Sarandon is the only person trying to at least attempt to imitate the person they are playing. In a vacuum I would say Lange performance is fantastic- she really drove the first episode- but I don't see Crawford in her performance. I don't know what Zeta Jones was doing. She doesn't look or sound like De Haviland, which is disappointing since Zeta Jones is really good with accents. We will have to wait and see what Sarah Paulsen does with Geraldine Page.

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom

You know something's off when the most intriguing character/performance is by the actress playing the maid!

PS, in 'The Lonely Life,' Davis credits her long time make-up man with helping her concoct Baby Jane's makeup...

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterrick gould

I did not realise Sarandon was 70. Wow she looks incredible.

That being said, I'm also not sold on the show yet. I think Tucci and Molina were excellent, and Davis the obvious MVP, and whilst Lange and Sarandon are good, you did highlight the problems. Davis' voice is so iconic and Sarandon sounds far too modern from my point of view; there's none of that delicious throatiness that Bette was so famous for. And Lange is all wrong for Crawford. Not steely enough, and too vulnerable, sort of as you said. Side note: loved Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell! Also waiting for Paulson; we know she'll bring it.

(Sidenote: Judy Davis is directing a play at my university currently. So wonderful to have such a legend and gifted actress to source knowledge from.)

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

Think Sarandon looks the part, bur playing Bette will never be an easy act to follow, on the other hand , as much as I love Lange she's so wrong for Crawford, it was almost uncomfortable to see her trying, I believe Sharon Stone would be fantastic in this role, she just has that fierceness and diva-like glamour that Crawford used to impose, Stone would make the role seems effortless , btw still waiting Murphy call Ms. Stone and offer her a juicy role.

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEder Arcas

Awesome Series ! Although not very accurate regarding Franchot Tone and Bette Davis while making DANGEROUS in 1935 Franchot did tell Joan what he did with Bette during the making of the Movie 🎥 My Darling Franchot did have an affair with Bette ! But was too in love ❤️ with Joan so when the movie wrapped he went back to Joan who was already engaged !

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Lear

Kind of messy, like Ryan Murphy always is--but still fun, like Ryan Murphy sometimes is. So I'll take it.

Jessica Lange really takes me out of it because I just see Jessica Lange.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Ryan Murphy's approach to casting: fill the roles with as many big-name, Oscar-winning divas as possible, whether they're appropriate for the parts or not.

Sarandon is, ironically, too young looking to be playing Davis during this time. JC's line "Davis looks old enough to be my mother" doesn't work with this casting. She's also too conventionally attractive and naturally sexy to be believable as a woman who was made to feel insecure about her looks.

Lange instantly appears 10 years older than Crawford did in 1962, and the dark hair and heavy makeup are so unflattering to her features that it's an awful stretch to imagine her as the faded beauty described in the screenplay.

CJZ is too glamorous and coquettish as de Havilland, particularly in the 1978 scenes when the character is supposed to be 62 years old. The real de Havilland was rather matronly by this time.

I'd have cast Kristin Scott Thomas as Joan and Judy Davis as Bette.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Hey everyone: I absolutely loved the pilot. I have watched it three times already. Best in show for me are Lange and Jackie Hoffman. Sarandon had some great moments in the Baby Jane drag. Thought Zeta-Jones captured DE Havilland's essence well.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

The pilot was neither as camptastically batshit as Glee and American Horror Story could get nor as on point as most of the first season of American Crime Story, but there's potential there, especially with Sarandon—I love how she is always on the verge of going full Bette vocally, but resists doing it—and Molina. I'm also looking forward to Paulson's Page. So far, however Lange, just reminds me of the lamest parts of Mommie Dearest and Season 4 of AHS. (CZJ is ridiculous, and Bates and Davis are fun to watch.)

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I like these alternate castings.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterFaye

Come to think of it, CZJ would have been much better cast as Joan. She's 47 and has a lot more in common (on the surface) with Crawford than de Havilland, physically, temperamentally and artistically.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I haven't watch it yet, but the casting stuff is interesting. Lange and Sarandon are older, but certainly - at least in Sarandon/Davis' case - still look younger now than their character did two decades younger. Hollywood wore Davis down. She was constantly ill and tired.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I couldimagine Weaver as Crawford,she defintelyhas that regal Crawford way about her,Sarandon not doing Bette's voice takes me out of it.

Let's hope these 2 fabulous actresses manage to overcome the miscasting and create something gr8.

I totally agree on Sarandon being too sexy for Bette.

Interesting that they were washed up in 61 yet our 50 something inc Bening and Moore are doing such interesting worknowadays,so we have something to thank J and B for

No Bette or Joan fan will ever be pleased,they are loyal tothe divas.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDONUK

No knock on Sarandon, but if Allison Janney weren't so tall, I bet she would have made a terrific Bette Davis in this.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I really, really enjoyed it. I think Susan is spot on as Davis, while Jessica is probably miscast but she is always a joy to watch. I also think Bette Davis' s character will have the most interesting arc, so the best is yet to come and Susan will knock it out of the park. By the way, they are both tremendously charismatic ladies.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterferdi

There's this very interesting interview with Sarandon in Vulture. She's very open about her insecurities working on this show. For instance, she could only read one script before signing.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

This is a very good review. So many people have praised Sarandon's performance, but I just can't see her as anyone other than "Susan Sarandon" in this role. Lange, though miscast, is at least making an effort. Davis is certainly best in show, but Bates and the men are fun to see.

For what it's worth, Matt Zoller Seitz has seen four episodes and was really troubled by the inaccuracies. He says there's an upcoming storyline about an affair that never happened in real life. I do think these historical drama series should attempt to be accurate and not invent storylines.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Disappointed by the first episode, but I intend to keep watching. This should totally be in my wheelhouse... but I felt pretty meh. Some good casting - Tucci as Jack Warner! - and some bad - Catherine Zeta Jones is NOT Olivia - and some folks I'm just happy to see working (like Alison Wright as Aldrich's assistant: she was so great on The Americans). But something about it just feels so ersatz. It hasn't engaged me emotionally.

I'm giving it another ep or two to grab me, but with so much stuff to watch, it may fall off the list.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

I agree with those who have suggested Sigourney Weaver or Sharon Stone would have been a better choice for Crawford. Stone specially has that larger than life persona essential for playing the regal Crawford who in the show comes across as too tame. Who is the guy who is playing her "lover" - he seems about to turn out to be gay at any moment.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

I've always thought Weaver would make a great Joan, right down to the grand voice. Would never have thought of Sharon Stone, but it's really an apt suggestion/comparison!

Jaragon: Who is the guy playing Joan's "lover?" He is the guy standing/sitting/lying there so that Jessica as Joan can unload a limo full of expository dialogue about Crawford's life!

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterrick gould

Because Sarandon and Lange are such great actors, I find I'm not wrapped up in how much they look or sound like Davis and Crawford. I like that they've made a bigger choice to just play them as real people feeling real things, rather than invest in mannerisms. Lange's stardom and appeal are also rooted in fierce strength in ways similar to Crawford's and she's leaning heavily into that side of herself and her image. I think Sarandon going full Bette voice would have turned the show and the characterization into simple camp. The show is uneven for sure, but I don't think any blame goes to the two leads.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

It was just so hard for me to get past the dialogue. I could barely get to a point where I could consider and/or get actively annoyed by the performances.

Cause seriously? That dialogue. It's like they took a mini-biography of Crawford and Davis, and just slotted each paragraph arbitrarily to a particular name in the cast of characters.

Who *wrote* this crap? It's unconscionable.

That said, I don't get the complaints against Lange - I think she exudes Crawford roughly as much as Sarandon exudes Davis. Which is to say, not a lot, but sufficiently for what is essentially a glossy tacky telemovie.

Beyond the (lack of) resemblance to the real life women though, I think Lange is acting circles around Sarandon (who's fine but not great) as well as every co-star other than Davis.

On that note I do agree Judy Davis is unquestionably the highlight and would've been preferable in either of the lead roles.

CZJ meantime - much as I miss her - needs to never attempt an impression of anybody ever again

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I just assumed that the Globe win was when Marilyn won the Henrietta World Favorite - Female award the year after Some Like it Hot...

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Acacia

RICK : LOL I got it he is Mr Gigolo Exposition

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I agree with those saying it's better not to go for mimicry, even if we remember what Bette & Joan looked like, but to play your own version of whoever you're playing. IMO in People vs. OJ, the people who tried too much to act like their real-life versions (Travolta as Shapiro especially) ended up seeming camp, while playing the script (e.g. Darden, Clark, Cochran) was much more affecting. After a few episodes, you can put aside what the person really looked and acted like and get into this fictionalized version of whatever supposedly really happened.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

I think they're both fantastic and perfect in their roles. Omg - I even love all the smoking. There was something quite glamorous to smoking! Did everyone do it back then?

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

@ Jaragon and rick gould

Shame on you! That is the one and only Reed Diamond. ::swoon::

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Paul Outlaw- the actor is fine I was just wondering what role did he play besides a good looking accessory for La Crawford

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Smoking is bad for you. Even Glenn Close would have been an interesting Crawford. Oh well, it's been tried twice and did not work. Lessons learned.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterFaye

Marsha Mason - But there were elements of "mimicry" in Courtney B. Vance's performance especially. If he didn't get Cochran's voice or the cadence of his speech correct, it wouldn't have been a good performance, and he really couldn't have captured Cochran's essence, because his speaking style is so familiar. I believe Nat is making a similar point about Davis - her voice is so familiar that to not even attempt to mimic it causes problems for the performance.

This is one reason why I hate the term "mimicry" as it used to diminish performances of real people - some element of it is necessary when an actor is playing an icon. Of course a great performance will go beyond mere mimicry, but just to use "mimicry" alone to diminish a performance (as some tried to do with Natalie Portman this awards season, for example) is lazy and lame.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

...what role did he play besides a good looking accessory for La Crawford...

Precisely the role most men played in her life, according to legend. (Except Alfred Steele, of course.)

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I appreciate that we are getting a restrained Ryan Murphy out of the gate here. Glee and AHS really went off the rails too early.

Also, I really hope Alison Wright gets more to do. She was amazing on The Americans and should get more good work.

As for the rest of the cast, I am okay with Sarandon and Lange, although I agree that both are slightly miscast. No one is more miscast that CZJ as ODH. That's hideous casting. But I thought Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell was kind of genius. She's sure to add some giggles by the end.

March 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Lange is playing Lange, so that takes me out of things. Sarandon certainly has Bette's look down (how in the living gawd is this woman 70?), but the voice work isn't there. The factual inaccuracies are glaring, and I'm trying to overlook them. Judy Davis is radiantttt as Hedda Hopper! Kinda makes Mirren's version seem miscast. What could have been with Davis as Joan instead? Oh well. Gonna watch all of this regardless. Like, duh.

March 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDorian

Great review, Nathaniel. I'm disappointed in the lack of accuracy. There really is no need for it because the real story is fascinating by itself. First off, Olivia would never use the word ballsy. And in episode 2 there is such a huge fabrication that it really makes me fearful that this thing is already going off the rails. Still, Lange is really something to watch in this. It is a true tour-de-force--you cannot take your eyes off her.

March 13, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

2nd show. I'm becoming obsessed with Mamacita! Love her.

March 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

Sarandon is a beautiful woman. That's about all I have to say that's positive about this tripe. So many inaccuracies and missed opportunities and applying our existing culture's lack of class to theirs. What they're doing to Aldrich is terrible. Lange is too old as Crawford. Sarandon is not convincing as Davis. And I don't believe for one minute Jack Warner would have used the c-word in that context. He may have called them "old broads," but he actually respected each one far too much to have used that profanity about either. As shocking as it is to us to hear it today, it was a thousand times more so in the early '60s. When B.D. said her mother was jealous of her, that's something I would have expected out of Christina Crawford. Davis didn't give a damn about her looks or her youth. She said in interview after interview that the studios didn't know what to do with her because she was NOT a glamour girl. And you realize B.D. ends up playing the neighbor's daughter in the film, right? Is this how the producers say Bette tries to atone? I'm not sure where they're going with this. And does anyone really think that Victor Buono, in his breakout role, would have said to Bette Davis that he didn't think she was expecting anyone as "homosexual" as he for her leading man? That never happened. She met Vic when they sat down around the table and read the script on the very first day of rehearsal. I could go on and on, but I won't. But I will watch the rest of this to see how else they impose today's lack of standards and common decency to these "old broads" and their colleagues. (Olivia de Havilland saying "ballsy" in a television interview in 1978?! Really??? Not on your life.)

March 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBette Crawford

I've always felt contempt towards the film, seeing it just makes me feel sorry that great actresses can be reduced to such garbage. But here I am watching a re-creation because it's irresistible to see how they pull off the characters and time period.
The standouts of this so far are the production team and Judy Davis, and Kathy Bates.
The set decoration is flawless.

Tilda Swinton, Helen Mirren and now Judy Davis have all tackled Hedda Hopper but Davis is best by a mile. She's playing it as if she's channeling Rosalind Russell from His Girl Friday in 50's Hollywood. And Hildy Johnson is a great inspiration for Hedda Hopper.

Finally, yes they really did smoke that much back then.

March 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

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