When it was announced that the first season of Ryan Murphy’s new series, Feud, would focus on Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and their rivalry during the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, fans (including myself) of the actresses were understandably skeptical. Would Murphy, arguably television’s reigning auteur, do these grand dames of Hollywood justice? Or would his show be just another version of the infamous “tell all” books penned by the actresses’ daughters? Following his recent, more macabre work with the American Horror Story series, there was also the fear that Feud: Bette and Joan would only be another outlandish Mommie Dearest: just as full of over the top allegations as it was campy performances.
The series is also based on a book, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, by Shaun Considine, first published in 1989. While not without its own issues in terms of accuracy and research efficacy, Considine explores the contentious relationship between the two stars that lasted throughout their careers. I read it a few years ago when I began researching Joan’s life more thoroughly, and my own fears were assuaged when I found out it would be the basis for the show. Of course, it must also be noted that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is itself based on a book of the same name by Henry Farrell. That the story is about the relationship between two aging sisters, one a former actress, is precisely what made the film a perfect backdrop for the real life, long time rivalry of Bette and Joan.
Like the gossip columns and film magazines of yore, the Internet was abuzz as soon as it was revealed that Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon would be playing Joan and Bette. Soon, on set photos began surfacing and conversations on social media began in earnest. Initially I thought that Sarandon was a great fit and bore an almost uncanny resemblance to Bette. She did not disappoint, practically nailing all of Bette’s mannerisms, from the tilt of her chin to the way she walked. The scene in which Bette crafted Jane’s sordid, signature makeup was expertly acted by Sarandon and should rightfully become the stuff of TV legend. Arguably, Joan’s appearance was definitely the harder of the two to match; however, Lange truly excelled in portraying Joan’s personality. Lange had to have found something deep within herself that related on a profound level to Joan’s hard to balance combination of vulnerability cloaked in a tough as nails exterior. In an industry where youth often still rules the roost, Murphy’s ability to green light a show exploring the intricate lives and experiences of older women should be commended. In the end, though, all the credit must go to Sarandon and Lange for faithfully representing Bette and Joan.
The supporting cast and the sets deserve attention, too. Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita, Joan’s German hausfrau, frankly stole the show! Alfred Molina and Stanley Tucci in their turns as Robert Aldrich and Jack Warner, respectively, were also standouts. Together they made for a perfect pair in contrast to the dynamic duo of Bette and Joan. I also really enjoyed Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell– now there’s a star whose biopic is long overdue!
Feud’s production designer, Judy Becker, also accomplished a stunning feat with the sets. From the first few minutes of the first episode, before I had even formed an opinion on the series as a whole, I was struck by the show’s devotion to the time period. One aspect that is often noted about Bette and Joan is that they were as different as the homes in which they lived, and Becker perfectly captured these details, down to Joan’s infamous plastic covered furniture. Other details, such as the Pepsi machines that Joan had installed on set, were not overlooked and so much appreciated by longtime fans.
And the costumes…I can’t forget about those! Again, Bette and Joan’s styles of dress were quite opposite. Where Joan was always perfectly pressed and coiffed no matter the occasion, Bette left fancy dress almost exclusively to the silver screen. Feud’s costume designer, Lou Eyrich, is an eight-time Costume Designers Guild Award winner, and it’s easy to see why. Contrast was shown as much in the fabric and silhouettes as it was in the characters’ personalities. The working girl look of the 1960s was also expertly captured in the character of Pauline Jameson, Aldrich’s enterprising assistant, played by Alison Wright. Eyrich chose to interpret the fashion styles of the day rather than placing too much emphasis on re-creating individual outfits. Episode 5 was a notable exception to this rule, though, in which Bette and Joan’s 1963 Oscar’s ensembles were brought to life with no detail overlooked.
In the end, Ryan Murphy succeeded in making a show with just the right amount of panache and salaciousness that pays tribute to Bette and Joan, while also having a lot of fun in the process. Where I have found some of the portrayals of women in his other series to be frankly misogynistic at times, Murphy really surprised me with his conscientiousness toward Bette and Joan, and the challenges women continue to face with equal opportunity and ageism. As a fan of both women for their careers and as individuals, it really was a joy for me to watch this time period come to life in a way that’s previously only been explored in print. Of course we can also watch the real Bette and Joan in their many films and TV appearances, but experiencing the behind the scenes action is something that could only be explored in a miniseries like Feud. Rather than using the show as just another opportunity to further excoriate or sensationalize Bette and Joan, Murphy truly considered, perhaps for the first time, the individuality of each woman and treated their ongoing conflict with sensitivity. I certainly hope that Feud: Bette and Joan brings these two amazing, indomitable women to new audiences for years to come.
The following resources are recommended for broadening your knowledge of Bette and Joan.
Joan Crawford: A Biography, by Bob Thomas – This was the first book I read about Crawford and, even though there are many to choose from, it’s still my favorite. Straightforward and yet eminently entertaining, just like Joan herself.
My Way of Life, by Joan Crawford – Consider yourself lucky that this is back in print thanks to the popularity of Feud. Who needs Mamacita when you’ve got advice from Joan herself? Speaking of Mamacita, her backstory can be found here, too. This book is a must read (just don’t take it too seriously).
This ‘N That, by Bette Davis – Not to be outdone by Christina and Joan, B. D. and Bette also had to have their turn at the mother-daughter tell all’s. Bette relates her side of the story here as only Bette could!
The Concluding Chapter of Crawford website at http://www.theconcludingchapterofcrawford.com/ Devoted fan, Bryan Johnson, runs this comprehensive website focusing on Joan’s later years that’s a great companion to Feud and tribute to Joan.
Claire Sewell is a librarian and vintage enthusiast who lives with her husband, Johnny, and their cats in Houston, Texas. Her favorite Bette and Joan films include All About Eve, Berserk!, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (of course), among many others. She can be found on Twitter @clairesayswhat and Instagram @clairebrarian.