'Feud': Did Bette Davis and Joan Crawford Really Hate Each Other That Much?

'Feud,' starring Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, tackles the lifelong rivalry between the two screen legends.

This image released by FX shows Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in a scene from, 'Feud: Bette and Joan.'
Suzanne Tenner, FX via AP

In order to find out whether the United Kingdom has come under nuclear attack, it’s rumored that British submarine commanders have to tune in to a particular BBC radio program every morning. If the “Today” show is off the air for three consecutive days, the naval officer must assume the worst and act accordingly.

I’ve convinced myself that Israeli submarine commanders have a similar protocol, except they have to check daily as to whether HOT 3 is still broadcasting “Grey’s Anatomy.” It would be a better irony, though, if the Israeli commander had to see if “Feud” (Yes Stars Drama, Mondays at 22.00) is being broadcast before he’s compelled to nuke Tehran/Pyongyang/Vatican City. And yes, creator Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology show could eventually become as ubiquitous as “Grey’s,” because he has big plans for it.

You’ll be familiar with Murphy’s work. He’s the American writer-director-producer-showrunner who devises a new show in the time it takes you or me to spell “prolific.” Indeed, the only other workers with such a suspiciously high output are novelist James Patterson and Santa Claus, and one of them is fictional – sorry to have to break that to you, crime fiction fans.

At this moment in time, Murphy pretty much is the American manufacturing industry. “Feud” is his fourth drama to air in the past year, following “American Horror Show,” “American Crime Story” and “Scream Queens” – and it’s only the latter that might suffer a premature (and merited) death. When people talk about a “Murphia” running Hollywood, this is what they are referring to.

To be honest, I wasn’t overly enthused by the prospect of season one of “Feud.” Bette Davis and Joan Crawford? Couldn’t we just skip ahead a season and dive straight into next year’s “Charles and Diana,” which already sounds like it will offer the best camp entertainment outside of what any Jewish Community Center could provide. Luckily for me, I didn’t pass on it.

The first season tackles those two gay icons who launched the careers of a thousand drag queens due to their ballsy characters and memorable screen roles. Both featured in the American Film Institute’s top 10 list of greatest U.S. screen legends – Davis placed second, Crawford 10th, reflecting how critics generally regarded the former as the more talented of the pair, thanks to her bravura performances in the likes of “Jezebel,” “Now, Voyager” and “All About Eve.” Some might argue, though, that Davis never delivered a performance as heartbreaking as Crawford’s Oscar-winning turn in 1945’s “Mildred Pierce” (in which, somewhat ironically, she plays the world’s most selfless mother).

In a neat framing device, “Feud” begins with various old-school actors being “interviewed” for a 1978 documentary on the two women. “There was never a rivalry like theirs,” Davis’ lifelong friend, Olivia de Havilland, (Catherine Zeta-Jones) declares. “For half a century they hated each other, and we loved them for it.”

Murphy certainly did. He says he wrote to Davis when he was age 10, and that they subsequently corresponded until her death in 1989, although his love for Crawford (who passed in 1977) is equally apparent.

Printing the legend

Did the women really hate each other for 50 years in “a feud of biblical proportions,” as De Havilland claims in the show, or was that just the hyperbole of Hollywood gossip columnists? Well, Davis did famously say of Crawford, “She slept with every costar at MGM except Lassie,” while Crawford allegedly married Franchot Tone just to steal him away from Davis. Even so, “Feud” does seem happy to “print the legend,” so to speak, when it comes to these old broads.

The show centers on the only time the actors worked together, on “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” in 1961-62. You don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy “Feud,” but it will definitely add to the pleasure if you have. “Baby Jane” is a gothic horror melodrama that plays like Tennessee Williams on crack. Davis starred in the title role as a child star who was later upstaged by her sister, Blanche (Crawford), whose own successful acting career was cut short by a mysterious car crash. She’s spent the past 25-odd years confined to a wheelchair, being abused by Baby Jane in their L.A. mansion. It’s all ridiculously over-the-top but, once seen, never forgotten.

We pick up the feud when Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Crawford (Jessica Lange), both in their mid-50s, are finding work hard to come by in a Hollywood where Marilyn Monroe is the hottest thing in town. “They’re not making women’s pictures anymore,” Davis laments, while Crawford complains that there are only three types of roles available for women: ingénue, mother or gorgon. So when Joan finds Henry Farrell’s “What Ever Happened” novel, she immediately thinks of herself and her screen rival for the movie version.

“Feud” shows its hand about what it thinks fueled the Bette-Joan rivalry in the opening animated credits, when silhouettes of the two women are seen being manipulated by a male puppet master – and that’s my only problem with the show. Davis and Crawford are portrayed as insecure, gullible actors whose emotions are controlled by their male bosses. Really? Even if we are catching them at their lowest ebb, we are still talking about a pair of canny operators who survived all the slings and arrows life could throw at them. Crawford (born Lucille LeSueur) had a hardscrabble childhood in Texas, while Davis’ grave sums up her life with the epitaph “She did it the hard way,” reflecting both her professional choices and personal difficulties. (Both women were married four times, and both were the subject of mudslinging autobiographies by their daughters.)

Murphy beats us over the head – with a consistency Baby Jane and Blanche would recognize – with the fact that these women’s enmity is being manufactured by men in positions of power. But I don’t buy the ease with which it is done. Leading the assault is Warner Bros. head Jack Warner (played by Stanley Tucci), who makes a deal to distribute the movie but tells the film’s director, Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), “You got to keep them at each other’s throats.”

Tucci may be a little too young to play the 70-year-old Warner, and a lot too Italian-American to play a Jewish mogul whose parents were Polish émigrés, but he does get some choice lines (“There’s so much ham up there, I’m going to have to go to my rabbi this afternoon to atone”). He’s outdone in the scene-stealing stakes, though, by Jackie Hoffman, who plays Crawford’s loyal maid Mamacita – delivering lines like “It’s an honor to prune Ms. Crawford’s bush” with the straightest of faces.

Murphy’s choice of leading ladies is interesting. Sarandon and Lange are both over a decade older than the women they’re playing on screen but, this being modern-day Hollywood, they still look younger than their characters (and, yes, Crawford really did soak her face with ice and Witch Hazel every morning). Neither made me forget I was watching two very famous modern actors playing the part of two iconic actors, but that would probably have been impossible. Still, their recreations of scenes from the original film are spot-on.

Even though at eight episodes, “Feud” feels a little padded (an accusation Davis also leveled at Crawford), it’s still unmissable TV. Indeed, in an age when most feuds are fought in 140 characters, there’s something irresistible about seeing two larger-than-life characters duking it out the old-fashioned way, face-to-face. Life’s a bitch and, thankfully, so are they.