A fantastic miniseries has arrived that at last fully tells the painful history of being gay in modern America — and no, silly, it’s not ABC’s dourly dutiful “When We Rise.” It’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” Ryan Murphy’s latest and rapturously entertaining anthology project for FX. After a screening of “Bette and Joan” for critics at a theater in January, I tweeted that I couldn’t speak for everyone but that I personally came away from it feeling 19 percent gayer.
Don’t let that frighten you. “Feud” is not merely an extravagant camp display or effective strain of husband repellent; other cultural critics stand at the ready to make a more serious case for its feminist text, which is considerable, but not required reading that impedes the fun. The eight-episode series, which premieres Sunday, stars Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two aging screen legends caught in one of Hollywood’s most acidic rivalries, an animosity exploited by the men who control the movie business, as well as certain women (including Judy Davis as a smart, vicious Hedda Hopper) who’ve weaponized gossip.
“Feud” presents its story as a moral tragedy for the ages, offering the usual cautions against fame and fortune, affixed with a warning label about mixing ego and liquor intake. It opens in 1962 as Bette and Joan are each at a crisis point, in an era when being in one’s 50s was considered perilously close to death. Bette, at 53, is facing her third divorce and getting mediocre notices in a supporting role in Tennessee Williams’s “Night of the Iguana” on Broadway; Joan (57-ish; her exact age remains a mystery), recently widowed from Pepsi exec Alfred Steele, just made a fruitless TV pilot and is down to a humiliating offer to play Elvis Presley’s mother in his next movie.
Fed up, Joan takes matters into her own hands, dispatching her loyal but humorless housekeeper, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), out to bookstores in search of novels with women on the covers. From this pile she chances upon Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” — a gothic psychological thriller about two sisters, one of them quite deranged, who live in a Hollywood mansion and mourn their forgotten careers in showbiz.
A master manipulator, Joan enlists Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina), a B-list director with artistic ambitions, to write a “Baby Jane” screenplay and find a studio willing to make it — with the enticing prospect that she can sweet-talk her bitterest, longest rival, Bette, to play the title role, which Joan, to her lasting regret, regards as the lesser part.
Backstage at a performance of “Iguana,” the crackling energy between Lange and Sarandon offers just a hint of the fireworks ahead. Bette has two Academy Awards to Joan’s one; both women would sure like a chance at another.
To get at Oscar, however, they must once more endure the debasing effects of Hollywood. Stanley Tucci delivers a fearsomely misogynistic performance as studio head Jack Warner, whose contempt for Joan and Bette (especially Bette, who sued Warner Bros. decades earlier) is greater than his contempt for women in general. Nevertheless, he agrees to finance the film on the cheap; when the daily footage comes in, Warner declares that “There’s so much ham up there I’m going to have to go to my rabbi this afternoon and atone.”
Are they making a terrible movie or an instant classic? We all know the answer, but they don’t. Insecurities bubble to the surface, manifesting themselves in temper tantrums and blind items in the papers.
“Feud” more than delivers on Murphy’s promise to make this series a study in recent history’s great standoffs (FX has already announced that it has picked up a second season — about Prince Charles and Diana); “Feud” also makes double sure to cross its t’s and dot its i’s as far as Hollywood purists (and period set-direction) are concerned. It’s remarkable to see a story so sordid get such tender, loving care; to see two women whose beauty and personal flaws have been glamorized by a million drag queens brought in from the glare and given back some small measure of their humanity.
In certain episodes and scenes, “Feud” feels like Murphy’s masterwork, combining his fervor for showmanship and irony with his insistence on of-the-moment relevance. It also feels like FX’s wildest indulgence of its favorite hitmaker — the show’s Saul Bass-style opening credits and careful remakes of scenes from the Crawford/Davis oeuvre speak to the sense of generosity and lavishness at play here. A viewer will definitely want to keep several browser windows open while watching the series, for furious bouts of Wikipedia fact-checking and YouTube scrutiny. In nearly every case, you’ll find that “Feud” has its story more or less straight, even when the events it portrays seem to defy plausibility.
Still, this is no mere docudrama. As we saw in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” Murphy and his writers and hand-picked actors have a firm understanding that they are working toward a common goal of enhanced reality.
Unlike the poisonous realm of “alternative facts,” enhanced reality offers a chance to dip just beneath what history and newsreels have left for us and emerge with a new contextual insight. “Feud” is just as good as “People v. O.J.” at arranging its tale along a thematic track that transcends rehash, which means that neither Lange nor Sarandon (nor any of their co-stars) are beholden to replicating exactly the mannerisms of people who were widely known and often imitated. (Lange, especially, must work against two expectations — that she embody the real Joan Crawford as well as Faye Dunaway’s 1981 portrayal of Crawford in “Mommie Dearest.”) The cast is given the same creative opportunities afforded Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown in the “O.J.” project — there is just enough freedom of departure here that entices viewers away from nitpicking and allows us to get fully absorbed in the battle at hand.
That’s another way of saying that Lange and Sarandon are simply terrific — and, it bears mentioning, both are at least a decade older than the women they’re portraying, which is a testament to 21st-century preservation.
Of five episodes shared with critics, the most delicious has to be Episode 5, written and directed by Murphy, about the machinations and schemings in the buildup to the 1963 Academy Awards ceremony. It’s no spoiler to tell you that “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” was a surprise boxoffice hit after its October 1962 release, far surpassing Warner’s low expectations. Joan’s worst nightmare comes true when Davis’s performance runs away with the movie and garners Davis her 10th Oscar nomination — nothing for Joan.
Snubbed and seething, Joan enlists Hedda Hopper’s help to reverse-engineer the ceremony’s outcomes and stage a stunning PR coup. When Oscar night arrives, Murphy’s camera follows a dolled-up Joan on a drunken, high-heeled saunter from presenting the award for best director, all the way through an epic walk around the backstage area, arriving at her triumphant upstaging of Davis, by accepting the best-actress award on behalf of an absent Anne Bancroft.
The story is Diva 101 to many of us, but if you’ve never heard all this delicious dish before, then golly Moses, are you ever in for a treat.
Feud: Bette and Joan (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on FX.