FEUD: Bette and Joan Review: Oscar Winners Lange and Sarandon Turn Camp Into an Acting Master Class

grade_BIf you created a TV show in a laboratory with the specific aim of winning a Best Actress Emmy… it’d probably look a lot like FX’s FEUD: Bette and Joan. For better or worse.

The first season of Ryan Murphy’s new anthology series (debuting Sunday, March 5 at 10/9c) is an actor’s dream, letting Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon rip each other to shreds and chew up every bit of scenery as dueling Hollywood divas Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Their performances are fantastic enough to live up to the lofty billing — and to overlook some of the shakier aspects of the production.

Feud Bette and Joan FX Jessica Lange Susan SarandonBette and Joan is set during the filming of the 1962 camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, with aging stars Crawford (Lange) and Davis (Sarandon) playing dysfunctional sisters and battling each other for the spotlight. It’s meaty material, to be sure, and Murphy, who directs three of the first five episodes, has the boldly over-the-top touch to bring it to life. The decadent sets and costumes are dripping with old-Hollywood glamour, and it’s undeniably delicious to watch these two great actresses trade savage barbs back and forth like a pair of seasoned Wimbledon champs knocking a tennis ball around.

The mutual hatred between Crawford and Davis makes for tabloid headlines, so their director (Alfred Molina) and studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) stoke the feud to promote their picture. But the ladies also occasionally call a truce and join forces when they have a common foe, like when they both want a perky young blonde fired from the movie because she might pull focus away from them. The on-set intrigue is a fun peek behind the showbiz curtain, but Lange and Sarandon also make sure there’s real pain and pathos beneath all the bickering.

You see, things weren’t easy for mature actresses — or women in general — in the 1960s. And if you somehow didn’t know that already, don’t worry: FEUD‘s dialogue will hammer it into your skull with numbing frequency. The theme of older actresses being put out to pasture is certainly worth exploring, but it doesn’t need to be voiced aloud by nearly every character that comes on screen. And when the writing isn’t preachy, it’s self-consciously hammy, more interested in giving its actors a show-stopping monologue than in portraying the way people actually talk to one another.

Feud Bette and Joan FX Judy Davis Hedda HopperAlso, as strange as this sounds, FEUD might have too many great actors in it. The cast is positively littered with Oscar winners and nominees; Judy Davis, in particular, is a real firecracker as gossip maven Hedda Hopper. But, as often happens on American Horror Story, Murphy can’t resist cramming too many stars into too many roles — Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones pop up here briefly, only to vanish — and the narrative gets unnecessarily muddled as a result. With only eight episodes to play with, FEUD badly needs focus, and too often lacks it.

But the heart of Bette and Joan, of course, is the dream pairing of Lange and Sarandon. They’re two of our finest living actors, and both give richly nuanced performances that deserve all of the many award nominations they’re sure to rake in. If I have to favor one, the slightest edge goes to Lange, who movingly embodies Crawford’s trembling vulnerability along with her steel spine. Davis is more guarded, still wounded from years of rejection, but Sarandon’s take on her brittle bitterness is no less praiseworthy. And the two of them on screen together are, as you would expect, absolute dynamite.

Since reviving Lange’s career with AHS, Murphy has dedicated himself to showcasing female performances, and actresses have flocked to his projects as a result. Bette and Joan might be the ultimate end-result of that dedication, with two all-time acting greats pushing each other to new heights. Lange and Sarandon pay him back with performances so powerful, they could light up a row of Hollywood marquees. In fact, the two shine so brightly at times that we can hardly see all the other flaws.

THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: FEUD serves up two titanic performances that command attention, even when the non-acting aspects of it falter.

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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22 Comments
  1. Chris says:

    Judy Davis never won an Oscar. Nominated twice, but never won.

  2. Cas says:

    I’ll probably watch just for Susan and Jessica. I don’t really even know who Bette is and I only know who Joan is because of tabloids and that best dressed show. Haha.

    • Walkie says:

      AH!!!! Go watch some old movies!

      • Crawford’s talent pales in the shadow of the great Jessica Lange. She just wasn’t a very good actor. I can’t think of any films that Crawford did other than “Baby Jane” that are “Must See,” although “Johnny Guitar” is fabulous for its unintended campiness (especially the on-screen feud between Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge’s characters). She won an Oscar for “Mildred Pierce”–perhaps one of the first examples of how a PR machine brought forth an undeserved Oscar. Bette Davis, on the other hand, made many great films. If you haven’t seen “All About Eve” (her magnum opus of roles), “Now Voyager”, “Petrified Forest” with Bogie, “Mr. Skeffington,” “The Letter,” “The Little Foxes,” “Whales of August” or “Dark Victory,” then you really should “treat yo’self.” Davis and Katherine Hepburn were the Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchette of their era.

    • Ken says:

      You have it wrong LOL. that Joan who did the Best Dressed awards discussion shows was comedian Joan Rivers. Joan Crawford is the actress known for “No Wire Hangers!” screaming at her daughter.

      • Joey says:

        That’s only if you’re focusing on the film “Mommie Dearest” where the character of Joan Crawford was played by Faye Dunaway.

        • Ken says:

          I picked an easily accessible pop culture reference since she apparently doesn’t know who Joan Crawford was. You missed the entire point of the post that she thought Joan was Joan Rivers of Red Carpet events commenting on what famous people wear to those events.

    • DebG says:

      OMG! Hopefully after you watch this you’ll want to check out their AMAZING movies! Might I suggest “All About Eve” and “Mildred Pierce” before moving on to the creepy Psycho-Drama “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”. I’m sure the series will focus on this film towards the end.

      • CMC says:

        According to this article, the whole series takes place during the filming of that movie.

        • DebG says:

          Sorry, you are right. I thought of that just after I hit the comment button. I guess I was so surprised that someone didn’t know who these women were that I forgot what I read. I wish we could edit these comments!

        • Ken says:

          Actually other reviews are coming out stating that only the first 3 episodes focus on the filming of the movie. The remaining episodes will focus on other situations such as the reception of the movie, Oscar nominations, etc.

    • Marilyn says:

      It would be worth it to watch Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, to get a really good take on Joan Crawford and Betty Davis. Great movie;campy, and in beautiful black and white.

      • Rita says:

        Guess what? The price of the movie, Whatever Happened and the book skyrocketed! That’s what happens when old becomes new again :(

    • Arlene says:

      Oh, dear. Yes, go find Bette Davis movies, and she wrote books too, autobiographies about life in theatre and film. Fascinating stuff. Watch All About Eve.

    • Beckers05 says:

      That’s was Joan Rivers not Joan Crawford.

    • maregolden says:

      i think you may have Joan Crawford confused with Joan Rivers.

  3. Brian says:

    Can’t wait for this. Love seeing programs about old Hollywood. And with Ryan Murphy behind this, this should be alot of fun to watch.

  4. Joey says:

    I’m curious if they cast someone like Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper because a potential second season might focus on Hopper’s feud with Louella Parsons.