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The Crawford-Davis Duel Fuels FX's 'Feud: Bette and Joan'
March 5, 2017  | By David Hinckley
 

When film icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford made their only movie together, it generated good copy that they didn’t like each other.

The question now is whether this 55-year-old gossip column item, which exploded while they were filming the 1962 horror cult classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, is worth eight hours of our contemporary lives

That’s what we get in Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-part FX series that debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.

Created by Ryan Murphy, whose enviable run of hits includes Glee, American Horror Story and American Crime Story, Feud frames the Davis-and-Crawford story as epic human drama. It touches on the frailty of life, the insecurity of celebrity, the tyranny of aging, the trials of parenting, the obstacles endured by women and the power of Hollywood to make everything feel like it’s being projected on a giant silver screen.

Accordingly, Feud gives us long atmospheric passages in which Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Crawford (Jessica Lange) try to salvage their youth in front of a makeup mirror, or numb the pain of passing time from a metal flask, or converse in veiled terms that touch on everything except the truth.

It’s a TV show that Hollywood will love the way Hollywood loved the movie La La Land, because it suggests that all the trappings and all the artifice really do, in the end, make what happens there into a magical, timeless part of our lives and culture. It also argues that art mirrors life in the way too many people, perhaps especially women, are simply thrown away as they age.

Then there’s the other way of looking at Feud, which is that it’s a beautifully packaged, elaborately staged and remarkably elongated Access Hollywood segment about talented and neurotic movie stars who made the smart move of teaming up for one final spin on the carousel.

Consider, for instance, some of the dialogue.

Crawford tells director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) that she will do the picture “if you can satisfy my demands.” He replies, “Can anybody, Joanie?”

Davis rescues Charles Laughton from a sordid gay-sex bust. He says he hates to lie. She says, “Lying is what we do for a living, kid.”

Aldrich’s assistant looks at him after the latest Davis/Crawford dustup and says, “Well, boss, it looks like you got yourself another war picture after all.”

It’s that kind of series. Since eight hours gives Murphy enough time to throw in every misstep and character flaw in both Davis and Crawford – plus, to be fair, some of the nice things they did – it’s not surprising much of the dialogue sounds as if it were dredged from the Hollywood gossip well.

Gossip column queen Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) pops up regularly, providing a convenient opening to discuss all manner of dirt.

When Hedda’s on break, other actresses like Olivia De Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones, right) show up on the pretext someone is shooting a documentary on Crawford, Davis or famous Hollywood actresses.

Outside that realm but on the definite plus side, Kiernan Shipka from Mad Men has a decent role as Davis’s daughter. It calls for her to smoke, enabling her to put that Mad Men training to use.

Feud, which has already been given a second season in which it will tackle Prince Charles and Lady Diana, does address some wider issues of Hollywood.

That includes, notably, the way the studios treated women. Davis and Crawford both had to fight, we’re reminded, to get even a portion of the rewards and respect they earned.

But looking at Feud as a socially conscious production about the subjugation of women would be like looking at Titanic as a film about the unpredictable movement of North Atlantic icebergs.

We know why we’re really here, and it’s a free-will choice whether we want to rubberneck for the full eight hours.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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