It’s a story about two actresses locked in a bitter rivalry. While the conflict is primarily psychological in nature, it (allegedly) turns violent on occasion. Ultimately, the conflict functions as an allegory about systemic ageism and sexism in Hollywood, and how it chews up iconic stars and spits them out as embittered has-beens.
I am referring to Feud, Ryan Murphy’s new eight-part series that depicts the infamously poisonous relationship between Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). But I’m also talking about the one film that Crawford and Davis made together — and one of Feud‘s primary subjects — 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Murphy uses the mythology of Crawford and Davis’s extended “cat fight” to explore the ways in which women are marginalized in Hollywood as they enter middle age. These are the same themes that Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich originally explored 55 years ago, when he cast two of the most famous actresses of Hollywood’s golden age and instructed them to expose the wanton neediness at the core of every movie star.
Based on the five episodes made available to critics, this subtextual harmony between Feud and the movie inside of Feud is one of the most fascinating aspects of the series. Feud depicts celebrity as a hall of mirrors — it’s a TV show headlined by two movie stars who play movie stars who headlined a movie about movie stars. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if this effect is entirely intentional. For all of the superlatives that Feud earns — it’s handsomely filmed, impressively acted, and for the most part thoughtful executed — the series’ biggest weakness is Murphy’s apparent misunderstanding of Baby Jane and his downright condescending attitude toward Aldrich, one of the great genre filmmakers of his era.
Aldrich — who also directed Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen, and The Longest Yard, among dozens of other films in a 36-year career — was once praised by Peter Bogdanovich as “a maverick who played by the rules,” an establishment auteur who worked in “an ornery iconoclastic fashion that produced a number of complicated, darkly ambiguous works.” In Feud, however, Aldrich (Alfred Molina) is depicted as a sad sack hack who is dismissed by studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) as a “loser” after his latest film Baby Jane becomes a major hit nominated for five Oscars.