For months, the classic film community has been abuzz about FX’s mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan. From the day it was announced to the season finale, it seems like just about every classic film fan has had something to say about it. One thing that can be safely be said for sure is that among classic film fans, there isn’t one overwhelming opinion of the series. Some have loved it, others have loathed it, and I fall somewhere in the middle.
After having spent several years of watching other Ryan Murphy-produced projects like American Horror Story and American Crime Story, one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t gauge the quality of a series (or a season, given that his shows often change themes season-to-season) based on any one single episode, which is why I waited until I’d seen the entire series before giving a review of it. Unlike some other projects Ryan Murphy has done, which started out strongly and turned into a trainwreck by the end, Feud is at least pretty consistent in overall quality. There weren’t any episodes that truly wowed me, but there weren’t any episodes that completely bored me, either. While it had its flaws, Feud is a far cry from the disaster that was Lifetime’s Liz and Dick.
Although Feud was mostly promoted as being about the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, it wasn’t the sole focus of the show. It goes beyond the completion of Baby Jane and the 1963 Academy Awards and goes into the production of Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte and what both Davis and Crawford’s careers were like after working together, going all the way through to Joan Crawford working on Trog and her final days in her New York apartment.
You can’t talk about Feud without commenting on Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon’s respective performances as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard about their performances is that neither of them tried to sound very much like their real-life counterparts. Personally, this didn’t bother me too much. I can see that they were clearly trying to avoid having their performances being called drag queen-ish or being compared to Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. I actually liked both of their performances. It took me a little while to warm up to Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, though. For the first few episodes, I felt like she was phoning it in, but I started to like her more as the series went on. Jessica Lange did a great job of capturing the more human and vulnerable side of Joan, but certainly didn’t shy away from the competitive side, either.
Feud‘s supporting cast was pretty terrific. I loved Dominic Burgess as Victor Buono, Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper, and Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner. Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita, Joan’s housekeeper, was also a real scene stealer.
I’m not going to get into just how historically accurate or inaccurate Feud is. I’m not particularly knowledgeable about this era of either Davis or Crawford’s careers and there’s been so much gossip and speculation around the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane that I’ve never been 100% clear on what’s real and what’s fiction. However, I will say that Feud seemed pretty accurate to the things that I do know to be true. There isn’t much in here that I didn’t already know or haven’t at least heard before. As with any biopic or film based on true events, there will always be some level of dramatization involved. Feud is no exception and those who have worked on the show have gone on the record to confirm this.
Throughout the run of the series, much was said in the media about how much attention to detail went into recreating things like the 1963 Academy Awards ceremony, right down to the color of the nail polish worn by Joan Crawford that night, and Joan Crawford’s home in Brentwood. The level of attention that went into creating these settings certainly didn’t go to waste; the sets were truly fantastic and were one of the best things about the series.
While so much research went into recreating locations, shockingly little attention was paid to some of the smaller details. For example, in the second episode of the series, B.D. gets into an argument with Bette and B.D. yells about how she grew up listening to Bette say things like, “When’s that old hag Norma Shearer going to give it up? When’s Claudette Colbert going to put herself out to pasture?” This probably wouldn’t stick out to someone who has no knowledge of Hollywood history, but as a fan of Norma Shearer, I thought this was a terrible line. It’s extremely unlikely B.D. would have ever heard Bette say anything like that about Norma Shearer. B.D. Hyman was born in 1947, 5 years after Norma Shearer made her final film. So by the time B.D. would have been old enough to remember her mother saying anything, it certainly wouldn’t have been tirades about how Norma Shearer needed to hang it up already. And although Claudette Colbert did stick around longer than many other contemporaries of Crawford and Davis, she was slowing down by the early 50s.
The biggest thing I really didn’t like about Feud is how they used interviews with Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell to frame the main action of the series. First of all, I didn’t particularly care for the casting of Catherine Zeta Jones as Olivia de Havilland, but at least it made sense for Olivia to be there since she was the one who ultimately stepped in to finish Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. There really wasn’t a reason to have Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell in this at all since these were supposedly interviews for a documentary about Joan Crawford and Blondell and Crawford never made a movie together; Crawford didn’t even work at Warner Brothers until after Blondell had left.
I know a lot of Joan Crawford fans were frustrated by Feud because it only focuses on her career when it was in decline and they feel that makes her look kind of pathetic. This probably wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that so much of what a lot of people know about Joan comes from the movie Mommie Dearest. While I liked that Feud showed Joan’s more human and vulnerable side, which is something you don’t really get in Mommie Dearest, I do agree that it would be nice to see a film or mini-series which also covered the early days of her career and how she worked her way into becoming one of the greatest movie stars of all time.
If you go into Feud without any knowledge of Joan Crawford’s career, or Bette Davis’s career for that matter, it’s probably going to be a bit like watching Sunset Boulevard — you’re told Norma Desmond was once a major movie star and there are details to back that fact up, but you pretty much just take the movie’s word for it that she once was a huge star. Not actually seeing that history isn’t necessarily a detriment to the movie. However I will say that I thought the finale was the most powerful episode of the series because I went into it knowing exactly how big of a fall it was for Joan. And I can say the same about Bette Davis. You can certainly enjoy Feud even if you don’t go into it with any knowledge of either of their careers, but just remember, you’re only seeing one era of their lives and careers.