Last week saw the premiere of the long awaited event series Feud: Bette and Joan, from Ryan Murphy. The show aims to tell the story of the infamous feud between actresses Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) that lasted for decades and came to a head during the filming of the cult classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
The premiere sets the stage for the episodes that will follow, offering a primer for Hollywood in the 1960′s, which, like today, doesn’t respect aging actresses. At the outset, we see Joan, who hasn’t acted in 3 years, looking on as the much younger Marilyn Monroe accepts the Golden Globe for Some Like It Hot. Meanwhile Bette is in New York City, performing a supporting role on Broadway in Night of the Iguana, her star a bit faded.
Both Joan and Bette were icons in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Between them they earned 13 Oscar nominations and 3 Oscars (2 for Davis and 1 for Crawford). Joan, one of the greatest movie stars of all time, dazzled as Hollywood royalty for 5 decades, beginning in the 1920’s and starring in her final film in 1970. Meanwhile, Bette, the more talented actress, took her first role in 1930 and continued acting well into the 1980’s. Baby Jane, their only film together, came in 1962, and the production of that film is the setting for the series.
In episode 1, we find Joan, seeking to return to acting after the death of her husband, and searching for the ultimate star vehicle to do so, in an industry that has little use for her. When she demands her agent find her a role that will win her a second Academy Award, he informs her she’ll needs to find her own star vehicle. Initially, she finds that roles for actresses fall into three categories:
“Ingenues, mothers, or gorgons”, yet undeterred, she sets out to find something different. In a stack of paperbacks, she finds Baby Jane, Henry Farrell’s 1960’s suspense novel. Joan is determined to bring the book to the screen and spearheads the production despite being rejected by every major studio. Joan herself chooses Bette as her co-star, going so far as to travel to New York to offer her the role. Bette accepts, and what follows is campy fun: the two stars drink and smoke their way through the episode, jockeying for top billing, bigger paychecks and an Academy Award nomination.
The production is lush with velvet curtains, music by Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, perfectly manicured Los Angeles lawns, and gorgeous period costumes. The credits are straight out of a Hitchcock film. Cameos from big stars such as Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones serve as the narration. I anticipate that the pilot is just the first of many impressive episodes in this exploration of the careers of two of Hollywood’s most famous stars.
Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sunday nights at 10pm on FX. Join The Game of Nerds on Twitter for livetweets at 10pm PST, and look for Sara’s re-caps every week during the season!