Fame – it’s a hell of a drug. Feud is like watching Robert De Niro and Al Pacino square off in Heat, except with two of Hollywood’s living legends playing a couple of dead ones. In Ryan Murphy’s new anthology series, Jessica Lange is Joan Crawford to Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis, a pair of toxic movie divas madly in hate with each other. As Davis famously snipped, “She has slept with every male star at MGM, except Lassie.” This eight-episode fever dream celebrates how they basically invented the modern celebrity beef, on the set of their 1962 horror classic What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? And like a great rap war or WCW match, the rivalry is part theater, part real-life sincere fear and loathing. When Crawford died in 1977, her costar legendarily declared, “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
Lange and Sarandon revel in the evil vibes, cutting wrestling promos all over this project. Yet the show hits home because the story is a lot bigger than just a couple of movie stars – it’s a surgical dissection of American fame, all the brutality and blood behind the dirty business of dreams. In lesser hands, this could have been just catfight camp, but Ryan Murphy turns it into a week-by-week TV thriller, ripping into the same obsessions that drove his The People v. O.J. Simpson: money, sex, power, celebrity and L.A. as the city where all America’s most depraved fantasies come together.
Feud gets tougher as it goes on – the Oscar Night episode, written and directed by Murphy, is one of the funniest, nastiest, most brutal hours of TV so far in 2017. Both Davis and Crawford see Baby Jane as their big chance to jump back on top of the game, after years of feeling washed up. They don’t realize they’re about to get left behind by the New Hollywood explosion of the Sixties. Five years later, Davis will miss out on being on the cover of Sgt. Pepper – George Harrison stepped in front of her at the last moment, which says a lot about how fickle fame is. The show is full of old-school movie gags, like the great scene when Hedda Hopper calls up Charlton Heston to lobby against Bette Davis in the 1963 Oscar race, purring, “Chuck? It’s Hedda. I just had to call and say how much I loved you in El Cid. How I adore a man in a leather skirt.”
Lange and Sarandon chomp up the scenery – it’s a reminder that they originally made their names as stiletto-sharp comedians, before they moved into the nobility business. (Who can forget Sarandon in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Jessica Lange asking King Kong his zodiac sign?) The whole cast thrives on the hostility: Stanley Tucci, so sleazy as studio boss Jack Warner; Catherine Zeta Jones, so catty as Olivia De Havilland; Mad Men‘s Kieran Shipka, so surly as Davis’ teen daughter. Alfred Molina plays director Robert Aldrich as a bitter schlub, floundering in the years after his classic noir Kiss Me Deadly, and still a few years away from blockbuster jock fantasies like The Dirty Dozen or The Longest Yard, reduced – the way he sees it – to directing a couple of women in a trash horror flick.
Despite all the old-school touches (like Tucci listening to John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things in his office, to show off his good taste), none of this feels dated. In one chilling moment, Bette confesses that she sleeps with one of her Oscars, to the point where she’s rubbed the gold plating off it. “Every night when I watch television in bed, I hold it. He’s the perfect companion – he doesn’t talk back, he listens, he’s patient.” When she heads off to the Academy Awards ceremony, she whispers to both her Oscars, “Wait up for me, boys. I’m bringing you home a baby brother.”
Feud has already been renewed – the second installment will be the Ballad of Charles and Diana. But the battle of Bette vs. Joan feels realer, and more contemporary. I’ve always been too much of a Bette Davis stan to accept Joan Crawford as her equal, much less her rival. But this epic miniseries captures the imperious desperation these two fighters shared. That’s why their rivalry has gone down in history. (MTV ran a Baby Jane parody in the Nineties, starring a faux Madonna and Courtney Love. Madonna chain-smokes with one hand and lifts free weights with the other, watching herself on TV – “still a pretty good video” – as Courtney brings her lunch on a tray. Scary.) It captures the raw emotional violence at the heart of America’s celebrity fantasies – both then and now.