In our often self-consciously “important” age of television, Ryan Murphy’s productions serve as a troubling tonic. Whatever else can be said about the writer-director-producer’s oeuvre, it cannot be claimed that he isn’t gaga over TV’s propensity for excess, which he sees as an avenue to cut through the euphemisms of higher-brow pretenses and tap directly into the primal emotional soup of our desires and neuroses. For Murphy, melodrama is truth.
Murphy’s work offers elaborate metaphors for show business, which he unsurprisingly sees as a circus—literally, in the case of American Horror Story: Freak Show. Somewhat more surprisingly, he considers that descriptor a compliment, as a circus at least openly revels in the various chains of subjugation necessary for yielding our amusement, dispensing with the laundering misdirection of most of first-world life’s pursuits.
Simultaneous glee and horror over this revelation—that the shape of many of our lives is achieved through subjugation—is at the heart of Murphy’s work, which is often concerned with oppressors at the top of the food chain losing their power to manipulate and becoming acquainted with the vulnerabilities of the proletariat. Murphy’s cynicism often feels like a put-on, and so does his earnestness, though it’s this latter tonality that allows his female actors to shine. His shows are often at their best when allowing a woman to give the sort of soliloquy that wouldn’t be out of place in, well, a Joan Crawford film.
In this context, it’s logical that Murphy’s empathetic imagination would gravitate in Feud: Bette and Joan toward Joan (Jessica Lange) over Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). Rivals in their heyday, pitted strategically against one another at Warner Bros. by Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), Joan was, broadly speaking, the bigger, sexier, flashier star, while Bette was the serious, more effortlessly dynamic actor who was nominated for an Academy Award seemingly every other time she picked up a script. Joan’s films were often more directly lurid, while Bette’s movies more artfully subsumed their own luridness in a kind of cloak-and-dagger respectability.
As with all of Murphy’s productions, Bette and Joan is predominantly concerned with the mass inferiority complex that’s insidiously nurtured by pop culture to keep consumers plugging away—working, fucking, buying—in the hopes that they can one day measure up to whatever impossible-to-satiate insecurity drives them. At its basest, pop culture serves to distract us from how much our social hierarchy is rigged against us, keeping us occupied with petty distractions, usually the sex lives of the almighty rich and famous, who are revealed by Murphy to have the same hang-ups.
Like the best seasons of American Horror Story and the choice portions of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Bette and Joan is structured as a series of nesting duets between two people who perpetually goad each other; each one inflames the other’s id so as to satiate a personal hunger. Joan and Bette are both beholden to Jack, a shameless patriarch who sees his studio as a kind of stable or whorehouse, encouraging each star’s obsession with the other, as they’re in competition for choice roles as well as his tacit approval. In their self-absorption, Joan and Bette render others dependent on them in turn, nurturing supplementary inferiority complexes that will probably forever require salving, particularly Bette’s daughter, B.D. (Kiernan Shipka), and Joan’s unseen here but soon-to-be infamous daughter, Christina.
Exacerbating these feuds is yet another rivalry among two women: legendary columnists Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) and the off-screen Louella Parsons. And men aren’t exempt from these tethers of self-loathing either: Film director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) is poignantly desperate for approval from Jack as an A-list artist, and his frustrations tandemly hold his personal assistant, Pauline (Alison Wright), back from her own dreams of being a director. It’s an endless chain reaction. Like everyone properly inoculated into capitalism, it never occurs to these people to unify against the architects of a system that pits them all at each other’s throats.
Bette and Joan opens in 1978, when a documentary is being made about the rivalry between the two legendary actresses—a device that underlines Murphy’s notion of each circus begetting yet another one in an endless tango of cannibalization. Stars such as Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) offer sentiments that render text out of subtext in classic Murphy fashion. “Feuds are never about hate,” Olivia says, “they’re about pain,” setting the stage for a prolonged alternating flashback to the early 1960s, when Joan and Bette’s first and only collaboration, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, is produced and released.
The five (of eight) episodes of Bette and Joan that were screened for the press follow a resonantly ironic trajectory. Joan initiates the Baby Jane project to resuscitate her stalled career, approaching Aldrich, her Autumn Leaves director, to helm the project and cannily recruiting her rival as co-star, only to rekindle her war with Bette and watch as the latter walks away with all the press and kudos, including an Academy Award nomination for best actress, which puts Bette in line to score a then-record three Oscars for a woman.
Watching Bette and Joan, as well as Baby Jane, one wonders how Joan could have ever believed that this turn of events could have gone another way. Jane, Bette’s role, is the cherry of that film’s sundae: a moving and show-stopping camp turn that would prove hugely influential to on-screen villainy. Bette played a Ryan Murphy role decades before the concept existed, creating a character that pivoted on an irresolvable mixture of empathy and fetishistic carny-style freakishness. Blanche, Joan’s role, is the straight woman of the duo, another of the actor’s martyrs. Joan is superb in the film, but it’s the sort of role destined to be overlooked by a committee that likes their acting in all caps. In effect, Baby Jane pitted two legends against one another, asking them to provide a caricature of the role for which each was collectively known, as Bette was infamous for her villains and Joan iconic for suffering mightily.
Bette and Joan is at its canniest when contrasting Bette and Joan’s respective vanities, understanding that Bette’s has aged better than Joan’s, and that Joan was misguidedly devising, in Baby Jane, the rules that would enable her own upstaging. Villains are always in style, while martyrs go in and out of vogue—something that Bette, a brilliant actor and show-woman, seemed to understand. In one of the best scenes in the series, Bette creates the look of Jane, picking a wig that was apparently used in one of Joan’s old films, devising a ratty, tatty, white-makeup-clad hag—part Miss Havisham, part kabuki demon—who existed as an act of Bette belching Joan’s pretenses of youthfulness and austerity back up into her face. In Bette and Joan, Bette devises Jane’s look on the fly, marching on set one morning in the middle of one of Joan’s takes, a crew member shining a spotlight on her for figurative reasons that suggest the birth of an icon. Murphy’s shameless obviousness is intoxicating here, as he’s not only printing the legend, but devising his own.
However, Bette and Joan is often unusually hinged by Murphy’s standards, as it can’t decide whether it wants to titter at a catfight or plumb the psyches of two great actors. Murphy wrote and directed three of the first five episodes himself, and his alternation between these impulses can feel characteristically mechanical. The pity Murphy tries to engender for Joan will likely feel distasteful for Joan fans, who revere her for the unapologetic will she projected on screen; her vanity was only one facet of her work, as she un-self-pityingly captured the dehumanizing, isolating price of exceptionalism, which was by all accounts autobiographical. Lange gives a lovely performance, particularly when Joan heartbreakingly confesses that she never received respect from peers like Bette, only “from men, men whose admiration I already had and whose respect I never craved.” But one thinks of her more as Jessica Lange—a titan in her own right—than as Joan Crawford. She achieves little of the uncanny yet deconstructive portraiture that Faye Dunaway astonishingly managed in Mommie Dearest.
As Bette, Sarandon is more surprising, perhaps because this is her first time working with Murphy. She doesn’t aim for mimicry either (an overrated endeavor anyway), but instead locates the commonalities that exist between Bette Davis and Susan Sarandon, namely a sensual, self-protective stylishness that springs from a powerfully intuitive sense of humor. Murphy’s sympathies obviously reside with Joan, which paradoxically empowers Bette as a character and Sarandon as a performer to riff with greater intuition. Sarandon walks away with Bette and Joan in a manner similar to how Bette stole Baby Jane.
The two episodes not directed by Murphy, but by Gwyneth Hoarder-Payton and Liz Johnson, respectively, flatter Sarandon further, embracing earnestness more confidently than Murphy, connecting the rivalry between Jane and Blanche explicitly back to Bette and Joan and, really, to all women manipulated into fighting for male society’s affections. (Perhaps Hoarder-Payton and Johnson, women in show business, are less amused than Murphy by the prospect of Joan and Bette eating each other alive.) This parallel culminates in one of the most startling moments of Sarandon’s career. Playing Bette playing Jane, Sarandon looks into the eyes of Lange playing Joan playing Blanche, and delivers the best line from Baby Jane, which could apply not only to women, but to anyone determined to fight each other for our masters: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?”