Hit or Sh**: FX’s FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN

In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.

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FX’s new series FEUD is from the mind of FX golden boy Ryan Murphy. Murphy has an immensely intelligent way of pushing the boundaries of what is allowed on TV. His forays into shock television with NIP/TUCK and AMERICAN HORROR STORY have proven hugely successful for his home network. From there, Murphy has expanded his catalog with the anthology series AMERICAN CRIME STORY, which established Murphy as a skilled dramatist of true crime. With FEUD, Murphy is continuing his “based on true events” anthology format, but this time, he is focusing on a vendetta between two people. I cannot think one better or more juicy to flagship the show than the feud between screen legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.

FEUD’s pilot is immensely absorbing and spells abundant promise for the rest of the season. The weekly title sequence of the show is right out of Hitchcock, a sharply drawn minimalist cartoon montage with plenty of visual symbolism. It depicts the hatred between these actresses with tongue-in-cheek humor, showing them throwing each other off the Hollywood sign and stabbing each other for Oscar statues. This opener does an excellent job of familiarizing us with the show’s tone, one of humor, melancholy, and viciousness. With this campy introduction, we are ushered into Ryan Murphy’s biting world.

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OMG! It’s Catherine Zeta-Jones!!! Where have you been bae?!

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After the title sequence, we’re introduced to screen actress Olivia de Havilland (played with a warm, sexy drawl by Catherine Zeta-Jones). The year is 1978. Havilland is being interviewed about the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, which ignited several years earlier in 1961, when the two actresses starred together in the horror classic WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? Their sabotaging and backstabbing enthralled Hollywood with “biblical proportions.” This interview with de Havilland (which is dispersed in small doses throughout the pilot) is a clever way to examine the story from afar and reflect on its legacy. Havilland starts the season off with one whopper of a quote: “Feuds are never about hate. Feuds are about pain.”

This poignant sentiment gives us a taste of what this show is truly about: the pain of two women, who inhabited a Hollywood that became more hostile to them each day they aged. At one point in their careers they were on top of their game, but now they find themselves fighting for the smallest scraps. The pressures of trying to remain relevant in a youth-centric society created the environment where their feud flourished. The show examines 1960s Hollywood and presents to us incredibly interesting themes. The decaying of the studio system thanks to the dawn of television, the valuing of sex appeal over artistic integrity, misogyny, and ageism are all explored.

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Joan Crawford making Bette Davis an offer she can’t refuse (but probably should)

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Jessica Lange (as Joan Crawford) and Sarandon (as Bette Davis) absolutely deliver, and carry this show above the clouds. Their skilled portrayals of these screen legends are electrifying and absorbing. Lange plays Crawford as a flawed alcoholic, desperate to retain her relevancy in a forever-changing Hollywood landscape. Crawford is especially vain, and hilariously tries to hold onto her grandiose vision of herself. On the other hand, Bette Davis seeks creative fulfillment and a better outlet for her talent. She could care less about the “attention” that Crawford craves. Susan Sarandon nails the intense sensuality of Bette Davis, in addition to her no-nonsense bluntness. Bette Davis was more willing to plunge to deep depths for roles, unconcerned about how she would look in the process. Crawford, on the other hand, was a master manipulator of her public persona, only wanting people to see her the way she wanted. Although they are in similar career funks, Crawford and Davis are polar opposites, and the premiere episode does a great job of showing this.

One particularly powerful scene that illustrates their dichotomy is the unveiling of Bette Davis’s character look for WHAT HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?. Bette Davis is unafraid to honor her character’s derangement and get ugly, smearing clown-white makeup on the face and adopting a crazed appearance. Joan Crawford, who is also playing a sheltered recluse, decides on a glamorous look: painted nails, glamorous makeup, and her signature meticulous brows. Davis boldly revealing her look during the first day of filming is a clear indicator of the turbulence to come. Marching straight up to Crawford, Davis smiles in her intimidating look, face smeared with war paint. Crawford, the egotist that she is, is of course horrified. She is even more horrified when the film’s director Robert Aldrich approves of the look’s authenticity.

I was completely enamored by the world of this show. Its depiction of female celebrity is shockingly timely and leaves us with many gripping insights into modern Hollywood. Based on the pilot, I will definitely be coming back to see more from Lange and Sarandon, who are worthy adversaries. Their chemistry in every scene is alive with suspense and possibility. I also commend the supporting players for excellent performances: Stanley Tucci, Alfred Molina, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kathy Bates, and Jackie Hoffman contribute so much to the premiere. If the pilot is any indication, we are in for one delicious, bumpy ride.

Verdict: Hit

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN airs on Sundays on FX

Max Schafnitz

Max is a pop culture addict enabling his addiction with a steady IV drip of movies, television, and music. Don't come for him unless he sends for you.

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