Screen Savors: Rekindling old feuds

Crawford & Davis: Lange & Sarandon.

IDF RESERVISTS watch television in a Kiryat Gat community center as they wait for orders. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
IDF RESERVISTS watch television in a Kiryat Gat community center as they wait for orders.
Ryan Murphy is a genius at revitalizing genres and stories for the young television viewers. He has repackaged the musical (Glee), horror films (American Horror Story) and true crime (American Crime Story). Now he turns his talents to the story of two aging actresses who were considered has-beens — Joan Crawford and Bette Davis — and how they came to act out a distorted version of their own rocky relationship in the 1962 horror movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which instantly became a camp classic.
The new nine-episode TV series is called Feud. Future seasons will be about other feuds, but this one begins airing on March 27 at 10 p.m. on YES Drama and will continue on Mondays, as well as on YES VOD. It may sound like an odd idea for a series, but in Murphy’s hands, it’s delicious fun.
Jessica Lange plays Crawford, and Susan Sarandon is Davis.
There is a wonderful supporting cast that includes Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich, their director on Baby Jane; Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper; Catherine Zeta-Jones as actress Olivia de Havilland; Stanley Tucci as studio boss Jack Warner; Alison Wright (Martha on The Americans) as Aldrich’s assistant; and Kiernan Shipka (Sally on Mad Men) as Davis’s daughter — she may be making a specialty out of portraying the child of difficult people.
Although it might seem inevitable that the two aging divas would appear together, Crawford and Davis had always competed for roles and men and loathed each other. But, according to the series, after Crawford’s Pepsimogul husband dies, she desperately needs money and desperately wants to be in a hit film again. Along with her creepy maid/assistant Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), she reads all the scripts she can get her hands on, then finally settles on an adaptation of an obscure psychological-thriller novel. Overcoming her grudge, she convinces Davis — who has similar career problems — to sign on, as well as Aldrich as director.
The scenes where Aldrich schlepps from studio to studio pitching the project are very funny, especially a scene in which an executive is enthusiastic about the project but insists that Aldrich’s stars are “a little long in the tooth” and suggests casting Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day as the leads.
It’s worth noting that the actresses who were then considered has-beens were in their mid-50s, while Lange and Sarandon are, respectively, 66 and 69, and work all the time. Times have changed. They both tear into their roles with great energy, but Sarandon captures Davis’s energy and edge more closely than Sarandon does with Crawford.
Sarandon has always had a toughbroad persona that is similar to Davis, while Lange is more ethereal and delicate than Crawford, who always seemed a bit grotesque.
Even when she was young, she played parts – like the mistress in The Women – that had a spiky side.
But Lange is a wonderful actress, and the series works even though she doesn’t attempt a Crawford impersonation, a feat that was already accomplished to perfection by Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.
Zeta-Jones as De Havilland (who herself had a famous feud with her own sister, actress Joan Fontaine), says, “Feuds are never about hate, they’re about pain,” and that’s an interesting lens through which to watch this drama.
The production design is exquisite, and the details are fascinating. For example, in the scene where there is a press conference to show the two stars signing their contracts, they jockey for position to be on the left in the photo, knowing that captions are written from left to right, and whoever gets that spot will have her name written first. Another detail that’s hard to forget: Crawford keeps a mini-fridge stocked with vodka and ice in her bathroom.
If you’re looking for a good show to watch, why not go back to the series that started the revolution in quality TV, The Sopranos? All the episodes are being aired by HOT HBO and HOT VOD starting March 26.
Time has been kind to this series. Not only is not dated, but it’s better than ever. Watch one episode, and you’ll be hooked.