Ryan Murphy’s ‘Feud: Bette And Joan’ Is More Than One Long Catfight

“Look, we don’t have to be best pals — just allies,” Bette Davis tells Joan Crawford early in FX’s latest Ryan Murphy anthological opus, Feud: Bette and Joan.

It’s a noble sentiment that Davis (played here by Susan Sarandon) suggests to Crawford (Murphy repertory favorite Jessica Lange) on the set of their classic movie collaboration What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? And depending on which historical accounts you believe — say, the excellent “Six Degrees of Joan Crawford” series from the You Must Remember This podcast — the two aging Oscar winners understood that Baby Jane was their last shot at recapturing their former Hollywood glory, and largely played nice through production.

But if Baby Jane — a psychological horror film about two sisters, each a former movie star fallen on very hard times, tormenting each other in their dotage — was the only film Davis and Crawford made together, they had a long and messy shared history for much of their careers before they officially teamed up, so that everyone assumed they would get along almost as badly as the film’s Baby Jane and Blanche.

And at certain points after it was all over, they came awfully close.

Feud (it debuts Sunday night at 10; I’ve seen five of the eight episodes) is Murphy’s third FX anthology, after American Horror Story and American Crime Story. The series don’t always have much in common in tone or style (AHS is Murphy at his most manic, where The People v. O.J. Simpson season of ACS was incredibly powerful in its restraint), but all three are fascinated by the boxes society on every level tries to place women in, and what happens to the ones who try to push their way out.

Davis and Crawford were in their mid-50s when Baby Jane came out in 1962. It had been years since either was a top draw at the box office, as opposed to male contemporaries of theirs like Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy. The actors were treated as distinguished and admirable with age; the women as sad and decrepit. Crawford was a one-time sex symbol now cast largely as an aging cautionary tale for the young heroine; Davis was the great thespian who had never gotten by on her looks, but even she had been reduced to guest spots on Wagon Train when Crawford approached her with the Baby Jane script.

It was a last chance for them, and to a degree for writer/director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), a journeyman desperate to be viewed as something more, and who had to wrangle a pair of stars who had spent much of their career competing for the same roles and here were competing for a bigger share in the spotlight. The good news is that the tension led to a great film — “She infuriates me!” Davis vents to Aldrich at one point. “I just want to smother her with my performance!” — but it came at some emotional cost.

All the actors are wonderful, from the leads on down to smaller roles like Alison Wright (poor Martha from The Americans) as Aldrich’s assistant, Stanley Tucci as smug studio boss Jack Warner, Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and Kiernan Shipka as Davis’s sexpot daughter, plus cameos by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kathy Bates, and Murphy muse Sarah Paulson as, respectively, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Blondell, and Geraldine Page. Lange embraces the grand dame of it all with Crawford as she mounts a furious, inevitably losing battle against the ravages of time and what that means to her career, while Sarandon plays Davis with the earned resentment of a woman who’s spent a lifetime watching prettier but less gifted actresses be handed the kinds of opportunities she had to scratch and claw to get.

Given the presence of Murphy and the reputation of Baby Jane — not to mention the way that the infamous biopic Mommie Dearest forever changed the way most people think of Crawford — you might assume that Feud is pure camp. It’s not. It’s big and it’s catty, but it’s also smart and elegant, with the old Hollywood setting toning down some of Murphy’s more scattershot creative impulses. This is him doing his best to recreate the era that gave birth to Baby Jane, and there’s a classical simplicity to many of his writing and directing choices. Even when he gets fancy, like a long, Touch of Evil-esque tracking shot backstage at the Academy Awards, it feels appropriate to the moment in question (and the amount of control that Crawford can still exert over such a setting, even long past her prime). And the title sequence is such a thing of beauty, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking the late Saul Bass himself designed them. (Actually, it was Kyle Cooper.)

Murphy adapted Feud from an unproduced screenplay by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, and there are times when the series starts to strain as it expands the initial idea to fill eight hours. Production on Baby Jane wraps at the end of the third episode, and the Academy Awards — where the feud between the two was at its cruelest and most public — occur in the fifth. There’s more story to tell past that, but also a slackened pace and some filler material; Toby Huss does an excellent Frank Sinatra impression, for instance, but Feud devotes too much time to Aldrich’s woes trying to direct him in 4 for Texas.

Watching Feud, it’s hard not to imagine an alternate reality where Davis and Crawford got to this age during the era of Peak TV, and Murphy or someone like him reached out to resurrect their careers the way he’s done so gloriously for Lange, whose early career reflects aspects of both women (a great beauty, but also a great actress with two Oscars on her shelf).

Crawford didn’t have a Murphy, so she had to try to save herself. (As the Oscar ceremony approaches, Geraldine Page suggests, “Hollywood should be forced to look at what they’ve done to her.”) But as Feud skillfully depicts, things got very uncomfortable along the way.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com