With “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?” Feud’s first season, and its focus on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, came to an emotional close. The two women never became friends, though we did get a fantasy reconciliation through Joan’s (a transcendent Jessica Lange) hallucination. But the season was also a journey through the dying days of the studio system, and what happened to stars who used to be owned by movie moguls as they all aged into obscurity.
Like The People vs O.J. Simpson, Feud was an anti-binge watch. The episodes connected through the loose narrative arc of time, but each hour was very much its own in terms of style, theme, and often location. Though I’m critical of Ryan Murphy for a lot of things, I think we’ve cracked the case here: he is really at his best when he’s restrained by history. The events of O.J. and Feud were real and cartoonish in their own way — they didn’t need Murphy’s camp-tastic flourishes to feel larger than life. And because of that, they focused beautifully as character studies, often deeply moving ones, where we were able to peek beneath the tabloid fodder and see real people, instead of getting twisted up in forced narrative complications.
The focus on Hollywood glamour made Feud also a delightfully stylish period piece, but it was also a touchstone to what made the women so different. And while Susan Sarandon was absolutely incredible as Davis (mimicking her dramatic eye movements and getting the exact beat on some of her well-documented live appearances), in the end the show really belonged to Lange as Crawford. Though both women clung to the trappings of fame, Crawford was more overt and showy (as she always had been), which made her final years all the more heartbreaking. The real-life details of the furniture covered in plastic and her obsessive beauty regime really made her stand out, though care was taken to never make her into a caricature.
Having said that, the finale really challenged viewer motivations for watching the series, and the very machine that brought it to us. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I actually wasn’t watching for a catfight. I love Old Hollywood, and revisiting it — even in its twilight — was always going to be a treat. But I will admit that I did find the jockeying between the two in those early years fun to watch (and that Oscars episode delightfully twisted). And in the end, Feud made us all feel shameful about it, while also acknowledging that it was popular because of those very desires. It’s a dizzying Catch-22. Where does the blame really lie? The women were pitted against each other, that’s completely true, but they were also complicit in it. They knew there was only so much room for an aging ingenue, and they both wanted the spot. And, being so different, they latched onto those differences as weaknesses, and sought to exploit them, goaded on by an industry hungry for more “hagspoiltation.”
Ultimately, Feud was a really devastating piece. Both Sarandon and Lange played their roles with such intense vulnerability wrapped in a desperate pride. The women they played were both extremely hard workers who were baffled by the idea that they couldn’t continue working just because of their age. But the real problem was that they both had been at war with the world for their entire lives, and didn’t know how to stop. That hatred made them turn on each other, as the movie business lost interest in them. They had to fight something — that’s who they were.
Though it was short, Feud could have stood to have clipped off a few more episodes to make it truly great. Still, some of its meanderings were worthwhile, and one of the most affecting stories was that of Pauline Jameson (Alison Wright), a composite character who represented young women in the business who wanted to do more work behind the camera. One of the most revealing scenes was during Pauline’s interview, where she mentions that after struggling to get recognition in Hollywood, it was documentary filmmaking that ended up giving her the creative freedom she sought. And yet even today, in 2017, isn’t that still true for women, with documentary still a mostly overlooked art form when compared to narrative film? Not so much has changed.
Feud was an acting tour de force (from everyone — I would be remiss if I didn’t also namecheck Judy Davis, Jackie Hoffman, Alfred Molina, and Stanley Tucci as a start), but it also is a showcase for — let’s not be coy — its own aging actors. It’s part of the mixed up world of Feud that is both an exposé and a scolding for all involved. It’s not just an exposé of what happened between Davis and Crawford, but what was happening to everyone has the studio system crumbled. It’s about what is happening today in Hollywood, and how we feed it with a need to always know more about the private lives and ongoing feuds among actors. It doesn’t blush at giving us exactly what we want, but it also asks us back: Is this really what you wanted?