In the second installment of Ryan Murphy‘s FEUD: Bette and Joan, his third TV franchise following American Crime Story and American Horror Story, he makes a devastating point about the work of female actors and, likely, women in general. And he does it completely visually. Three shots appear in succession like this: a block of ice cut and shaved into a horse’s head, a fruit platter diced and sliced to look like an ecosystem of animals, and Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, played by Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon respectively, talking to the press. Not only are the press creatively turning something inconsequential into a distinctly envisioned piece of work, but the two stars, at each other’s throats behind close doors, are inventing a narrative that just vaguely hides their intense disdain for one another.
There’s another point that can be made from those shots: everything is malleable and everything can be manipulated. FEUD‘s main theme would seemingly be performance itself and whether or not it’s a requirement of life. The more important question, of course, is whether or not it’s a requirement of life in Hollywood. The series, which boasts lavish, convincing production design and a fluid, vigorous pace, focuses on the making of Robert Aldrich‘s beloved whatsit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? at Warner Bros., under the thumb of infamously nefarious studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci). As Murphy depicts it, however, FEUD is also a frenzied, expressive fever dream of psychological warfare and insidious influence, where corporate interests outweigh self-interest and sex seems to be on everyone’s mind.
The core of the series is the bad blood between Crawford and Davis, the former seeing the latter as a younger, more daring version of herself. The competition is not between old school and new school, though Murphy, who directed a handful of episodes, does thoughtfully underline the different in performance styles between the two titans. The rivalry is about legacy and, as Crawford says early on, “respect.” Her desperation to hold onto the wealth, niceties, and attention that come from stardom in early Hollywood is routinely battered by Davis’ fury and refusal to expect much of anything from anyone. One commits to the sterling facade where the other commits to sullying, even exploding that same veneer.
There are honestly too many symbolic and dialectical references to how they counter and parry each other to count, but for the first time in Murphy’s career, nothing feels forced in his visual schema. Where American Horror Story has continued to feel like a protracted, increasingly loud, and frivolously violent tantrum since its very inception, FEUD shows a welcome sense of empathy that goes beyond the machinations of the plot. Here, he brings out all the insecurities, mental demands, doubts, disappointments, and avalanches of hurt in both of these women, working in a business and living in a city that wants them to say anything but what’s really on their mind. In this, the use of Crawford’s literal marriage into the Pepsi corporation is uniquely critical of what runs Hollywood, each appearance of a Pepsi product being at once amusing and hurtful in Murphy’s vision.
Crawford and Davis certainly aren’t the only people on Murphy’s mind. Alfred Molina‘s take on Aldrich shows a man caught between a lot of not-great decisions, but also an egotistical artist looking at his own legacy and enjoying the poisonous fruits of his reputation – he’s a rampant philanderer and clearly enjoys money. Beyond Molina and Tucci, however, FEUD is thankfully an almost entirely feminine enterprise, with Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper, Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka as Davis’ teenaged daughter, The Americans breakout Alison Wright as Aldrich’s right-hand woman, and Molly Price in the role of Aldrich’s long-suffering wife, Harriet. Each character feels distinctly drawn and intimately imagined by the performers and yet they all also seem to be reflections of Crawford and Davis, some coming off like ghosts and others coming off as alternative lives that they never got to live. The fact that everyone is constantly boozing, to at once attack and keep up the charade, is another delightful and devastating visual theme that Murphy returns to with vigor.
Having only seen the first three installments, it’s easy enough to call this Murphy’s best work to date by quite a margin, at once more stylistically adventurous than The People vs O.J. Simpson and more unmistakably human than any single season of American Horror Story ever dared to be. He’s also working with his best ensemble to date. Aside from the uniformly excellent aforementioned cast, Kathy Bates, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jackie Hoffman, Dominic Burgess, and Sarah Paulson also lend their hand to at once indulge the melodramatic origins of these near-mythic events and reveal the angry, desperate, and deranged underbelly of the Hollywood system. Fans of “Hollywood Babylon” and the city’s unending gossip will no doubt find plenty to love in FEUD, but it’s in its rambunctious and often quite critical depiction of La La Land and the deeply troubling things that it asks of women (and, occasionally, men) that the series finds its melodious yet unpredictable rhythm.
Rating:★★★★ – A Nice Surprise
FEUD airs on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on FX starting March 5th.