Movies · TV

‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ Is an Inessential Series About an Essential Movie

By  · Published on March 5th, 2017

What ever happened during the making of ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ isn’t enough to fill the 400-minute running time.

There are a few ways you may be disappointed by Feud: if you expect the first season, Bette and Joan, to be a camp spectacular; if you want it to be a deep look into a true story you might not otherwise care about, a la The People vs. O.J. Simpson; and if you, at the very least, want a compelling eight-part miniseries that leaves you each week with great anticipation for the next chapter. This satisfies none of those things, but it’s not a bad show. It’s just probably not the one you want.

Bette and Joan chronicles the making of the 1962 movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with focus on the feud between stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. More than the typical behind-the-scenes Hollywood drama, such as Hitchcock and My Week With Marilyn, there’s the presumed promise this time of something rambunctious, given that Baby Jane is a classic for being brilliantly over-the-top, plus the title hints that we’ll be treated to a riotous rivalry, a war of women like the one in the movie.

But it’s a surprisingly muted portrayal, not that distinct from other biopics. Bette and Joan, which producer Ryan Murphy adapted from a feature-length script optioned years ago called Best Actress, is like a sequel to Hitchcock since Baby Jane piggybacked somewhat on the success of that movie’s film in focus, Psycho. The series feels like it’s been stretched from a more condensed work, too. I’ve so far seen the first five episodes, and that’s already been a more than sufficient amount of time to spend with this story.

Like those other Hollywood biopics, this primarily appeals to fans of the subject matter – the movie, the stars, and film history and the industry in general. For that simple attraction, Bette and Joan works fine. It has been fine from the get-go of the series’ announcement. Murphy is now in the game of true stories involving famous people, and his casting alone, as it was with O.J., is a form of entertainment in its own right. Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford is perfection. A dream come true.

If the casting itself is fulfilling, then production stills further the delight as we see them embody the roles. The series itself, therefore, winds up a big bonus, like seeing certain Annie Liebovitz portraits come to life. And in the series we do see the actresses impeccably recreate film and TV scenes that we can compare against our DVDs or with YouTube clips. Plus there are people playing Olivia de Havilland, Victor Buono, Frank Sinatra, Anne Bancroft, Gregory Peck, Geraldine Page, Patty Duke, and so many more stars of that era. None of them are cheap imitations, either, save for the use of longtime Sinatra impersonator Toby Huss. It’s all a bunch of fun for fans of celebrity, as is pausing the show to fact check this or look up more on that.

If you’re not interested in the story behind Baby Jane or that sort of thing, there’s little else that appeals to just anyone to make this must-watch television akin to O.J. That series was a sensation because it follows events that are intriguing on a surface level. The story of the Simpson trial is not just rich with heavy social themes, it’s also filled with intense struggles for its real-life characters and, more importantly, has a great plot. Much of it was briefly visible at the time through the extensive courtroom coverage of the trial, fodder that could be elaborated upon in the backstage of it all.

Bette and Joan doesn’t involve a tale quite so enrapturing. The performances are great, as can be expected from a cast including Sarandon and Lange, as well as Alfred Molina as director Robert Aldrich, Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner, and Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper. And the storytelling is as good as it can be, sometimes even dazzling when the material is there, as it is in the fifth, Oscars-set episode. But the series isn’t, in total, gripping or exciting. Usually it’s just laying out layer after layer of themes of female repression and competitiveness. It’s an ironic criticism, for sure, to complain the series is too concerned with what’s below the surface, but without an actual firm surface in the first place, that which would be below it is just a big hole.

The series begins with both Davis and Crawford at a low point in their careers, neither being offered interesting lead movie roles like those of their heyday. They’re also at certain points in their private lives where their children are grown up and their latest and final husbands are recently deceased or divorced from. Each of the women is in her 50s, which may as well have been death in their industry. Crawford, desperate for work and money, finds a horror novel about (and calling for) two elder stars by Henry Farrell and has the genius idea of pitting herself against Davis, a former fellow Warner Bros. contract player whom she’d never worked with before.

Using a mock documentary framework (one that is distracting and inconsistent, not even featured at all in the third episode), we learn during a 1978 interview shoot with de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) the back story of why Davis and Crawford’s pairing was sure to be contentious. They were indirect rivals during their time at Warner Bros. and in their work in general, women competing for dwindling good parts written for women of their talent and stature.

There’s discussion early on in Bette and Joan that they just aren’t making women’s pictures like they used to. Well, with this series we get a women’s picture paying tribute to women’s pictures, though it’s never as melodramatic in tone nor complex in narrative as the best of them. There’s instead overplayed ideas of how women were mistreated and manipulated in Hollywood, with tons of reaction shots from wives and secretaries who may as well be breaking the fourth wall, Jim-from-The Office-style.

It’s more tinseltown meets Mad Men, complete with Kiernan Shipka in a terribly played daughter role (Davis’s, who was cast in a small part in Baby Jane), most prominently featured in a terribly boring motherhood episode that maybe aims to better humanize the Crawford of Mommie Dearest. And don’t be surprised if you wind up thinking of superhero battles like Batman v Superman as you’re made to realize in the end that Davis and Crawford should have worked together against the system rather than let it keep throwing them against each other for the sake of publicity and control.

If there’s anything to keep you watching week after week, it’s what gets you there in the beginning: seeing famous people playing famous people and doing it well enough that it’s not just a two-month costume party unfolding before our eyes. It’s irresistible for a certain audience in love with Hollywood stories (hopefully you’re already familiar with the You Must Remember This podcast, which already did an episode on the Davis and Crawford feud), forgivable enough for what it lacks in an earned engagement of its own.

And if there’ll be any sort of legacy for this series inspired by legacies, Lange should be remembered down the road for her standout work as Crawford. Sadly, the Emmys and the Golden Globes will just wind up nominating both her and Sarandon when it would be much more fitting and deserved for just Lange to be recognized. There’s more going on with the character emotionally, and Lange does the better job of showing us a complicated woman in Crawford that’s contrary to anything seen done of her before.

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Lange is the best part of something that is just a supporting effort compared to the level of achievement in biopic miniseries we’ve seen from the Murphy franchises thus far. And now it’s hard to see how much better Feud can be as an idea going forward, too. At least so long as each season involves portrayals of well-known figures, the show will do fine on that basic marketability. Hopefully they can also be as thrilling as we expect them to be once we’re tuned in.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.