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Feud stokes the fires of its titular battle

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Photo: FX
Photo: FX
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Feud

"The Other Woman"

Season 1 , Episode 2

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One of the lines that really jumped out in last week’s Feud premiere is when Joan Crawford’s boyfriend points out that she and Bette Davis should be best friends, as they have more in common than any two people on the world. That story seems even more tragic in this week’s opener, when we get a brief glimpse of Joan and Bette bonding to get a disrespectful young starlet booted from the set. It’s the same kind of moment last week when Bette actually complimented Joan’s acting ability and Joan nearly became undone because of it. The reasons these two were at each other’s throats were based on men and careers. If they had been better at banding together, who knows how much more they could have accomplished?

But as we all know, that was not to be, otherwise this series would have a different title. Despite all they had in common—successful movie careers, Oscars, failed marriages, ultimately estranged children—the two were, more often than not, at each other’s throats. This week we see what their studio had to gain from that rivalry—and how easy it was to manipulate these aging actresses thorough their vanity and pride. Someone asked me after last week’s episode when the “feud” part of Feud was kicking in; having already seen this episode, I responded, “Don’t worry.”

To that end, Kathy Bates’ Joan Blondell does a great job of outlining the bare bones of the fierce rivalry, even though, as she slyly puts it, “Those two didn’t need a reason to hate each other… it was chemical.” Sarandon and Lange continue to lean nicely in these roles, falling just short of caricature, instead landing within lovely and impeccable characterization.

But these two goddesses are almost outshone by this supporting cast. This is Alfred Molina’s episode, ultimately, because look at all Bob Aldrich is juggling; his wife, his mistress, his two stars, Jack Warner, Hedda Hopper, the entire movie. Molina’s Aldrich, a somehow seductive father figure, draws our sympathy because we so clearly see what an impossible position he’s in, as he tries to save the picture that’s going to right his career.

But Aldrich seems inconsequential next to a warhorse like Judy Davis’ Hedda Hopper. Her costuming is exquisite, as is Davis’ performance: campy even as she almost tries to be a sympathetic friend when Joan reveals how broke she truly is. Hedda herself was such a personality, Davis is downright terrifying as the person who wields such power in Hollywood. But if our story has a villain, it’s Stanley Tucci’s Jack Warner, who diabolically wants to pit Bette and Joan against each other as much as possible, for capitalism, for the ultimate profits this film will bring to his studio.

These performances are only enhanced by what they’re surrounded by. When awards season arrives, I expect Feud to be nominated for everything: art direction, costuming, is there an award for set design? Joan’s pool. The aqua accents and plastic slipcovers she adds to her bleak dressing room. Warner’s private study, down to the horse head ice sculpture at his party. It’s cinematic quality, but Feud just shows how much TV has to offer over the latest umpteenth superhero movie.

Every woman in this series understands how much the odds were stacked against Bette and Joan: Hedda, Joan Blondell, Olivia, even Harriet, Bob’s wife. The two didn’t have much of a chance because of their gender, and even when they tried to cobble together some power, they were defeated. Ryan Murphy’s series here highlights not just the plight of Joan and Bette, but of women everywhere.

Bette’s moment with Aldrich at her home absolutely reflects the famous scene in All About Eve, which she references. Everything a woman drops on the way to the top, she’ll need again on her way down. As Margo Channing states bleakly, all of it is meaningless without a man to wake up next to, but when Bette Davis married that man in real life, it didn’t work out. You have to wonder how much living so much of their adult life in cinematic stardust affected these two actresses. Bette Davis has devoted her life to her art, sacrificing nearly all of her relationships. It’s natural that she’d turn to the man who’s crafting her comeback, and also that Bob would be drawn more to Bette, the absolute artist, over Joan, the vain ex-movie queen.

It’s a poignant scene that reminds us what all those sacrifices were for: That Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s names are as synonymous with the golden age of Hollywood today as Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. They are immortal, so much so that we are enjoying this resurgence of this movie some 55 years after it was released. Only they could ever say if it was worth it. But what’s so revealing about Feud is that it shows exactly how much they suffered, and how much they still managed to give us against unbelievable odds.

Stray observations

  • “You know who you remind me of? Not John Ford.”
  • Alfred Molina’s horror at the thought of going back to television.
  • “This is about Crawford’s tits.” “I’m all ears.”
  • Kiernan Shipka: tormenting mothers in the ’60s since 2007.
  • “What’s your name, sweetheart?” “Sylvia.” “Fuck off, Sylvia!”
  • Esther Zuckerman talked to Alfred Molina about this episode (I am beyond jealous), so be sure to check out her interview as he speculates on Bob Aldrich’s affairs with both stars.
  • My 10-year-old son is obsessed with this show. His favorite character is Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Olivia De Havilland, because “I really like the way she talks.” Unfortunately, when I recently took him to see All About Eve, he just said, “not enough action,” but my god, that is a brilliant movie. If you like Feud, and you’ve never seen All About Eve, please rectify this oversight straightway.
  • At the Television Critics Association press tour, there was a ton of speculation on what future Feud seasons could cover: Even in this cast, we have Hedda Hopper vs. Luella Parsons, and Olivia De Havilland and her sister, Joan Fontaine. Other possibilities floated around on a purely speculative nature were Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. As we all know now, season two of Feud will feature Princess Diana and Prince Charles. But how sad that so many of the possible options for this anthology series consist of women against women.
  • Episode three is called “Mommie Dearest,” so you know that I could not be more excited about it. See you back here next week.