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Season Review: Feud

Feud series review
Photo Credit: Feud / 20th Television
Having set a precedent for award-winning and binge-worthy shows, Ryan Murphy knows what it takes to make a drama. His latest creation Feud tackles notorious rivalries throughout history. It was fitting the first one tackles Joan Crawford and Bette Davis' famously bitter showdown.

After becoming Classic Hollywood screen queens, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis aged like the rest of humanity. With younger, hipper generations growing up on television as the studio system fell apart, their careers suffered dry spells. When Crawford initiated a project of two cruel sisters harboring jealousy and secrets in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, the claws came out. On-screen and behind-the-scenes, a real showdown was ignited between the duo by the studio and publicity hounds.

Legend has it that the two hated each other. Speculation around this rivalry float in every which direction, it’s hard to tell what’s the truth or was fictionalized. Adding more misdirection following the movie's release, the stars threw shade at each other in interviews only to retract them later. Instead of resorting to catty squabbles and Real Housewives-esque drama, Feud tries to ask what was the source of their hostility and why they couldn't let their resentments go.

Drawing on second-hand biographies and heresy within the industry, this version tries to be as well-rounded as possible. Even though every episode spurred sites to fact check what was true or elaborated, Murphy does a smart thing by indulging in news pieces but focused more on Crawford and Davis’ limitations, strengths, and weaknesses. He depicts an exceptional range of ageism, sexism, the pressure and manipulation they endured from Hollywood, and publicity that threatened to put the final nails in their professional coffins.

As much as they regarded each other as enemies, Crawford and Davis were more alike than they could've recognized. Personally, they suffered insecurities wrought by rejection, always wanting to be better. In love, they married multiple times, and as mothers never recovered from scathing autobiographies their daughters published, where Hollywood's elite, former spouses and friends of the actresses would decry as trash and lies. Professionally, they had different acting approaches. They maneuvered through the studio patriarchy as best as possible; both trying to transition "past their prime" as women and performers trying to not be remembered as a laughing stock, or nothing at all.  Despite what they had in common, they struggled to see each other as allies trying to live up to the fans expectation as well as their own.

To carry Murphy’s vision, Lange and Sarandon play Crawford and Davis, respectively. As veteran performers in their own right, they’re certainly perfect picks because of their range and experience. It’s difficult to replicate their characters' talent, but they managed to portray them enough in mannerisms and attitude. Each explores self-value within and out of Hollywood. As the studio drives a wedge between them, they're left to vilify each other to protect their glory days. If they reach out, it's almost in vain to their self-preservation. In doing so, they render determination and ballsiness but also great vulnerability.

Though Feud explores both titan's struggles with a well-studied range, it also takes too long to find its groove and never quite reaches the same palpable energy displayed in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. As a making-of feature, the attention to detail with the sets and costumes is extraordinary for the most part. Playing the role of Crawford and Davis off-screen from their Baby Jane characters is when Lange and Sarandon truly succeed. But put them in scenes recreating earlier work or Baby Jane, and their performances are bad copycats with cheap wigs and choppy line delivery. These small moments reinforcing what talents these women initially were doesn't match their brutal obscurity.

It's hard to imagine these icons created something so palpable as the real icons that it earned Oscar nominations and created a whole new genre by which other aging Tinseltown titans had to follow through with to stay alive too. By all means, Feud studies the legends we think we know, but we're still talking about the movie itself fifty-five years later not just because of the bloated rumors of what went on behind-the-scenes. No matter how relevant the blatant sexism and ageism in Hollywood, let alone society, still exists today, the talent of Crawford and Davis are undeniably brilliant, and on those recreation scenes, Feud misses the mark.

Primarily told in flashbacks within a fictional documentary, Murphy often employs other characters to reinforce his powerhouse leads. Some are needed, some are a pure distraction. Those connected to the main stars, such as Judy Davis as the spirited snake-in-the-grass Hedda Hopper and Alfred Molina as director Robert Aldrich caught in the middle, offer more direct sympathy. But when Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia DeHavilland and Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell, among others, intermittently pop up to offer commentary, they weakly reestablish what's already playing out. DeHavilland at least has a closer utilized friendship to Davis, while Blondell is just sorta there. As the last few episodes increasingly attempt to soften the vicious narrative created by Christina Crawford's autobiography Mommie Dearest, Davis' near identical issues aren't as greatly explored and the story starts to drop off into a heartwrenching and half-realized what-could've-been finale.

In 1962, Baby Jane revived two stars to younger generations, and fifty-five years later, Feud will re-introduce their work to even more people. It’s hard to watch the show and not want to watch the movie. That’s a very good thing. However, other than the script, and the exceptional performances, the series never quite reaches the level of palpable energy of its inspiration. Murphy's biopic of sorts intelligently swaps juicy gossip into a heartfelt catharsis, but also made me think there’s simply no way of capturing the original, and it’s okay for legends to just be that.

Rating: ☆ 
If you love Feud, you might like: 
Conversations with Joan Crawford by Roy Newquist
Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis by Whitney Stine

Have you seen Feud? What did you think?

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