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.
Perhaps that’s how Aldrich was viewed at the time. (In spite of a solid track record at the box office, Aldrich never won an Academy Award.) But given how Feud seeks to humanize Davis and especially Crawford, a little revisionist perspective on Baby Jane’s other key collaborator seems warranted. Instead, Feud reduces Aldrich’s work as Baby Jane‘s producer-director to the role of babysitter for Crawford and Davis; Murphy is interested in Baby Jane only as a trashy signifier of how far these once-gilded leading ladies have fallen. When Feud portrays the making of Baby Jane, it’s either to show Lange-as-Crawford and Sarandon-as-Davis doing the ol’ battle-axe routine behind the scenes, or to derisively titter at how stilted and campy Aldrich’s little B-movie is.
Granted, Baby Jane has long been misidentified as a camp classic, a movie that’s perceived to be unaware of its excesses and therefore worthy of the patronizing “point-and-laugh” treatment. Based on a 1960 novel by Henry Farrell, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has a disputed back story — Aldrich has said that it was his idea to cast Crawford and Davis (who were known to despise one another), while Crawford claimed that she initiated the project by approaching by Aldrich and her mortal enemy Davis. Either way, the rivalry between Crawford and Davis was used to promote the movie, establishing a sketchy, tabloid-oriented reputation that Baby Jane never fully shook.
Otherwise the film’s camp reputation stems largely from Davis’ outrageous performance as former child star “Baby” Jane Hudson, who is trapped with her handicapped sister and fellow actress Blanche (Crawford) inside a musty mansion once owned by silent film star Rudolph Valentino. Encased in a perfect symbol of forgotten Hollywood, Jane turns on her weakened sister, who had a more successful career, driven by the delusion that she can still have a comeback if not for that meddlesome Blanche.
With her heavily done-up face caked in foundation and ringed with garish lipstick, Davis was widely praised (and recognized by the Academy with a Best Actress nomination) for her lack of vanity in what can only be described as a grotesque performance. Watching Baby Jane now, Davis seems surprisingly modern — after all, scenery-chewing has become de rigueur for all of the men (Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto) who have done themselves up in Baby Jane makeup to play the Joker.
But is Baby Jane camp? “Camp” suggests that Davis (along with Crawford and Aldrich) didn’t realize that they were making a heightened melodrama about divas locked in a death spiral. Or, worse, that they were simply washed-up artists playing out the string in a silly movie. But that simply doesn’t make sense. Released five years before Bonnie & Clyde ushered in the New Hollywood, Baby Jane captured the collateral damage of the studio system’s final years in real time — this film wasn’t just a product of an outmoded Hollywood, it was also about that fading world.
Watching Baby Jane after screening the first five episodes of Feud — while I’ve long been a fan of Aldrich, I had never seen this particular movie — I was reminded of the mix of elegant craft and down-and-dirty nastiness from other Aldrich movies like Kiss Me Deadly and The Dirty Dozen. With Baby Jane, Aldrich successfully updated the definitive Hollywood satire, Sunset Boulevard, by somehow being an even more cynical about Hollywood as the old studios entered their post-apocalyptic period. Perhaps his own status as journeyman who was deemed unworthy of prestige projects gave Aldrich a unique perspective on how ephemeral such status symbols really are in Hollywood. In Baby Jane, movie stars are trampled over, held captive, and ultimately destroyed. The moral is tough but fair: Nothing lasts.
This is potentially rich material for dramatization that Feud mostly leaves on the table. But Murphy — the current king of prestige TV — cops a superior stance. He seems to believe that Feud is better (or at least more reputable) than Baby Jane. He couldn’t be more wrong.