The lethal rivalry in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? concludes with a mournful epiphany. After living for decades with the accusation that she paralyzed her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) at the height of the latter’s stardom in a jealous rage, Baby Jane (Bette Davis), who was blackout drunk that fateful night, is shocked to discover that she was innocent all along. “You mean, all this time, we could have been friends?” Jane asks, her face lighting up as she imagines the life she could’ve had — an existence softened by love.
There’s no reason why Crawford and Davis had to be friends as well as colleagues; one of the perks of non-fame is that no one will chide us for failing to become besties with our officemates years after our death. The fictionalized versions of those screen legends in FX's Feud get as close to camaraderie as they probably ever will early in the third episode, when they grab dinner after a long day of bickering on the Baby Jane set. In a dimly lit booth, Joan (Jessica Lange) and Bette (Susan Sarandon) finally see what everyone else does: that they’re much more alike than not. The two women certainly view themselves very differently, as revealed by their stories of their first sexual experiences. Former sexpot Joan lost her virginity at age 11 to her stepfather, whom she claims she seduced. Serious artist Bette didn’t go under the sheets with a man until her wedding night, when she was 27. But both actresses had tough moms to whom they gratefully owed their thick skins, as well as difficult relationships with their own daughters. Bette reminisces that her deceased mother was her “only true female friend.” Based on Joan’s reaction, it’s likely she never had one at all.
No other scene in Feud, which premiered Sunday night, comes close to matching that tête-à-tête’s earnestness or emotional complexity, at least in the first five episodes (out of eight). “Feuds are never about hate,” pronounces Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones), herself one half of Hollywood’s most notorious sisterhood, in a 1978 documentary interview that serves as the series’s framing device. “Feuds are about pain,” Olivia clarifies, articulating creator Ryan Murphy's thesis for his latest show.
Feud presents much gnashing of teeth, but it’s too skin-deep to pierce our hearts. At the start of the ’60s, Joan and Bette are in a bad way, personally and professionally. In the “Indian summer” of their careers, as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) notes, the two icons of ’40s cinema hope to perk up their flagging prospects with Baby Jane, maybe even win another Best Actress Oscar. That’s as far as Bette’s intentions go, anyway. Still embittered by her adversary’s disregard for her talent, Joan channels Scarlett O’Hara — or perhaps a Bond villain — as she vows, “I will have her respect.”
Baby Jane was billed as a palimpsest of rivalries: Jane versus Blanche, Davis versus Crawford, the assumed competition between any two beautiful women over male attention and between actresses vying for a limited number of roles in particular. But there’s no depth in Feud, only contradictions. The show wants to give us both the catfights and the critiques of the sexism and ageism that pit Joan and Bette against each other — and ends up staging neither satisfyingly. Instead of a couple of formidable fighters, we’re offered a pair of petty pawns easily manipulated by men, namely Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) and studio chief Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci).
At its heart, Baby Jane is about women who want to work but can’t find the opportunities to do so. The hour-long pilot droops for a long while in the middle, but jolts awake when Bette gets to do the thing she loves most: creating her Baby Jane character’s look by donning a blonde wig (that Joan had worn in another movie a long time ago, natch) and perfecting her grotesque-former-child-star costume with a little black heart on her cheek — the “Clara Bow beauty mark.” Disappointingly, then, the scenes when the two actresses are actually seen laboring are few and far between. Joan whiles away the hours on beauty regimens while prattling on to her maid/confidant, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman). Bette mostly smokes alone in the dark.
There’s much to decry about the discrimination that Joan and Bette face, which include the film industry’s (supposed) pivot toward younger women, the ever-present question of an actress’s “fuckability,” and a later subplot about the plight of female would-be directors that involves Aldrich’s indispensable Girl Friday (Alison Wright). Shot in Technicolor pastels and jewel tones, Feud is a gem of production-design genius — the crinkle from Joan’s plastic-encased furniture is its own catchphrase, and Hedda Hopper’s hats deserve their own spin-off. But like Baby Jane continually belting “Camptown Races,” Murphy keeps clanging on with the one tune he knows, about how terrible it must be to be an older woman. There’s a special kind of way women get under each other’s skin, declares Joan. One could say the same about how Ryan Murphy regards aging women.
After quitting American Horror Story after four seasons, Lange is stuck in yet another role about a vain, aging show-woman. Sarandon’s the one you won’t be able to stop watching, probably because she imbues her underwritten character with so much mystery. Like its two protagonists, Feud waits for no man: The first five installments encompass at least two years. Still, it’s difficult not to wonder how much more plot there could possibly be, so repetitive are the preceding story lines. If Murphy truly felt for Crawford and Davis, he’d have written them something new to play.