Feud: Bette and Joan review – dueling Hollywood dames make for frothy drama

‘It’s a joy to watch both Lange and Sarandon given so much screen-time’ ... Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange.
‘It’s a joy to watch both Lange and Sarandon given so much screen-time’ ... Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner/AP

Whether you like his output or not, you’ve got to admire the sheer industry sway achieved by Ryan Murphy. After Popular, Nip/Tuck and then Glee, he’d already established himself as an eclectic creative force but it was only with 2011’s American Horror Story, that he turned into a one-man industry.

He craftily resurrected the anthology show, packed it with stars and then recycled the same formula, this time with added awards glory, with last year’s American Crime Story. He might have slipped slightly with the cartoonish, little-watched Scream Queens, a show that brought out his worst excesses, but he’s back on safer ground with Feud. Each season will cover a different disagreement between two historical figures and he’s gone with a doozy for the first run: the battle for Hollywood supremacy between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

One of Murphy’s greatest achievements is his continuing effort to provide screen-time to older female actors who have been largely shunned or at least relegated to thankless small parts by the industry. He’s given roles to Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kirstie Alley and, in the forthcoming season of American Crime Story, Annette Bening. But his most notable casting choice has been Jessica Lange, who despite winning an Oscar, had all but disappeared from screens before her scene-stealing turn in American Horror Story: Murder House. She’s wisely been absent from the last few increasingly absurd seasons of that show but has returned to the Murphy fold to take on the dream role of Crawford, clearly aware that by merely showing up, she’s already bettered Faye Dunaway’s insanely over-exaggerated take on the actor in 1981’s Mommie Dearest.

As the show begins, it seems as if Crawford’s glory days will forever be a thing of the distant past. It’s the early 60s and the Oscar-winning actor is struggling to get work. Sure, she’s still invited to the Academy awards but pounding martinis while watching younger, more glamorous stars like Marilyn Monroe win isn’t really helping her insecurities. On the other side of town, Better Davis is in a similar rut, wasted in a thankless stage role.

The two have a long-running rivalry and after Crawford stumbles across a novel she wants to adapt, she can only think of one woman to play opposite her. Davis, hating Crawford but aware of the opportunity, signs on and the two head to battle during the tortured production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Choosing this particular feud to kick things off is both perfect and predictable, playing off the best and worst of Murphy’s talents. While it gives two fine and underused female actors meaty roles to chew on, it’s also at risk of falling into the Gif-thirsty parody of down seasons of American Horror Story, when camp bitchiness served as a limp replacement for story. But, for the most part, Murphy manages the balancing act just fine, his tight grasp of the plot mechanics a clear sign of his love for old Hollywood and the two grand dames on show.

It moves along at a zippy pace with Murphy choosing to employ two other underused female actors, Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland, to fill us in on some of the peripheral details. The era is vibrantly recreated, both in terms of production design and the complex sexism embedded within the history. There was a fascinating contradiction that saw women scrambling for the respect they deserved yet chosen female actors given more headline roles than we would see in 2017. What Murphy also does is expand upon the myth of what we think we know of Bette and Joan, highlighting the nefarious male meddling behind the scenes. This wasn’t just two divas falling out, this was an orchestrated effort to prevent two women from forming an alliance against their male bosses.

It’s a joy to watch both Lange and Sarandon given so much screen-time, playing women who helped pave the way for them to be where they are now. Admittedly, there’s a slight age discrepancy (Sarandon in particular is around 15 years older than Davis was at the time) but they both look the part, with Lange in particular moving past just an easy impression to something with far more weight. In a reversal of fortune that would make Crawford cackle in her grave, it’s likely that she’ll be the one up for awards at the end of the year rather than her co-star.

Feud: Bette and Joan is a breezily entertaining Hollywood exposé and its salient points about the industry’s cruel treatment of older women remain frustratingly topical. At just eight episodes, there’s almost too much to cover and at times, one craves a little more depth to certain moments. While it never reaches the dramatic highs of American Crime Story, it never dips to some of the silly lows of American Horror Story, yet each episode still provides enough Gif-ready reactions to satisfy his hardcore fans. The battle for small screen dominance has been won by Murphy yet again.

Feud begins on FX on 5 March at 10pm with a UK broadcaster yet to be confirmed