‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ Recap: ‘Pilot’

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There’s a lot to be said about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Both were icons of the silver screen, vessels of inner strength, keepers of dreams. As actresses in their heyday, Crawford and Davis embodied the qualities many women of the time strived for: beauty, grace, sophistication. And they carried the hopes and dreams of everyday women firmly on their shoulders.

In Crawford and Davis, women of the 30’s and 40’s could see themselves as they were never allowed to be. Both onscreen and off, Crawford and Davis continually defied convention. They were both so ahead of their time that the world around them was ill-equipped to keep up. They were survivors, women who were unyielding in their pursuit of success and resilient in an industry that valued them only for their youth. And yet, when time finally caught up with them, so did convention. And age. And grief.

For all their similarities and parallel experiences, Crawford and Davis never did find each other in the mix of Hollywood glitz, glamour, and competition. So, while there’s a lot to be said about these women individually, there’s even more to be said about the 40-year feud that ultimately married their legacies.

FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan, which premiered last night, serves to explore that longstanding feud and what, perhaps, might have been the driving force behind it.

Feud starts off with a great opening scene: Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), flanked in fur and downing what’s sure to be a glass of 100 proof vodka, chastising Marilyn Monroe for her revealing outfit.

“I’ve got great tits, too, but I don’t throw them in everyone’s face,” she says brazenly.

And in this first scene, we know exactly who Crawford was in 1962: a former glamour girl who’s nearing 60 and coming to terms with her own mortality. No longer is she the beauty or the star she once was. Now, the death of her youth serves only to make room for fresh blood.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Crawford jumps into action to reclaim her movie star status in the new age of blonde bombshells. Feud does a fantastic job of painting Crawford as the crafty, whip-smart woman she actually was, and we spend much of the episode following her journey to find film work that suits her — which happens to come in the form of a horror story called Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford | FX

And in Joan’s pursuit of a great picture, she brings us to Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) who’s appearing on Broadway. Right off the bat, we get the sense that Davis, too, is frustrated by her secondary place next to younger, prettier actresses. So, we find that Crawford and Davis are in the exact same boat. The question is whether they want to ride it together.

Crawford, who’d rather ride her potential last wave of fame with someone at her side, offers Davis the title role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Unsurprisingly, that’s almost enough to hook Davis for the project.

The prospect of working with Crawford conjures up strong feelings in Davis, ones that spanned the length of their careers and stemmed from a love triangle that involved actor Franchot Tone.  

“Did you fuck her?” Davis asks Baby Jane director Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina).

Here, we see the dark underbelly of Hollywood at that time (and perhaps now, too) where the expectation was that any woman who achieved anything must have given something to get it. We see even more of that dark underbelly when studio executive Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) asks Aldrich if he’d sleep with either Crawford or Davis at their present age. The answer is a firm no. 

The overarching idea here is simple: no matter their talent, their box office draw, or their legendary status, Crawford and Davis were simply too old to be in pictures. And that idea puts their competitive personalities into overdrive, resulting in the feud of all Hollywood feuds.

Fans of Crawford and Davis have heard all the fact and fiction surrounding this feud, and for many of us, the initial story unveiled in last night’s premiere was not new. But for all of you out there who have only surface-level familiarity with Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, this eight episode series seems to have all the right ingredients to help you understand the women behind this infamous feud. 

I’m looking forward to this wild Crawford-Davis ride. Are you?

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