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FX’s Feud makes a bittersweet cocktail of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s famous rivalry

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange reveal the human beings behind two legends.

Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) square off at the Oscars.

If FX’s new drama Feud were a person, she would smirk at you over a lit cigarette, swish her tumbler of straight booze on ice, and raise it in your direction with a silken, if slightly sour, smile. She’d be just as likely to cut you down with a withering remark, or to launch into an exhaustive tangent about some stretch of her life, as if she was reading her own Wikipedia entry.

No matter what, she would always be too magnetic to ignore.

The first season of Feud — an anthology series from Ryan Murphy that will focus on a different famous rivalry every season — tracks the rapid escalation of the long-simmering resentment between Hollywood legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, during the production of 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Through the five episodes (of eight) that FX sent out to critics, the show is gorgeous to look at, as befits the meticulous glamor of its setting and characters, and it’s acted with equal parts humanity and melodrama across the board.

Feud also shows how Crawford and Davis fought for their legendary status from the beginning of their careers to the bitter end, daring their fans and agents alike to just try to replace them with a younger model. By the time Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? came out, both were fighting to remain relevant, or at the very least, to prove their worth as Hollywood was trying to cast them aside.

As Bette and Joan — played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange — stare down both each other and the looming expiration dates of their respective careers, Feud blames their unrest on everything from Hollywood’s sexist ageism to the larger than life women themselves.

The show isn’t exactly subtle, but to be fair, neither were Bette and Joan.

Feud knows that the best Hollywood drama always happens offscreen

Joan meets a co-star, is not thrilled

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis famously clashed throughout their careers, just as any talented, ambitious actors who repeatedly end up competing for roles and acclaim might. As the stories go, their rivalry peaked on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, in which Davis played an aging former child star clinging to the past, and Crawford played her meeker sister. According to Feud, both Crawford and Davis explicitly booked the film to boost their visibility in the eyes of youth-obsessed Hollywood.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? opened to significant box office success and critical praise. Davis earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, while Crawford famously did not (the fallout of that conflict comes to a head in Feud’s gripping fifth episode). But in the decades since the movie was released, Baby Jane has become a go-to example of high camp. Davis’s melting showgirl in particular has touched the hearts and minds of drama queens everywhere; it’s no coincidence that as I type this, I’m missing a whole mess of Feud promotional events hosted by ferociously funny drag queens. (I see you, FX.)

Feud both indulges Baby Jane’s melodramatic reputation and casts the veil clean off it, to reveal the more human motivations and much dirtier politics that unfolded out of sight of the cameras. Feud does show some of the actual filming of Baby Jane — in the show’s first episode, we see Lange perform an astonishing scene from the film — but the real drama takes place almost entirely away from the set. A toxic cocktail of the era’s Hollywood misogyny and the actresses’ latent fury spills over into their homes and Los Angeles restaurants that act as strategic stages. There are several stark scenes set in studio offices where male executives like Warner Brothers co-founder Jack Warner (played by an explosive Stanley Tucci) do their best to pull all the strings.

With all the spectacle of some of Hollywood’s most colorful players at his fingertips, Murphy seems to have found his sweet spot between the studied realism of American Crime Story and hyperbolic terrors of American Horror Story. The decadence of 1962 Hollywood — not to mention Feud’s stunning costume and production design — allows him to luxuriate in the richest details while telling stories about high glamor and the wasted scraps it inevitably leaves behind.

Feud needs a pair of actresses that could rival Bette and Joan to work — and found one in Sarandon and Lange

Sarandon as Bette Davis.

Feud’s scripts and direction relish every ounce of drama they can squeeze out of their source material, but the show wouldn’t be half as captivating without Sarandon and Lange. They both embrace the opportunity to capture the essence of these screen sirens with as much compassion as digging into the most vulnerable parts of someone’s life could possibly allow, before unleashing Bette and Joan’s trademark acidic wit.

Lange has a particularly hard job. By most accounts, Joan Crawford was a notoriously demanding actress, and Feud paints her as unapologetically cutthroat. Still, her legacy has been distorted over the years, most notably by Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of her as a vicious, rapidly melting clown woman in 1981’s Mommie Dearest, and Feud does its best to avoid furthering that two-dimensional take.

In Feud, we meet Joan after the sun has set on her reign over Hollywood as one of its most beautiful stars. She’s restless, miserable, and angry in ways she can’t even express to herself. Lange imbues Joan with a concentrated intensity that deliberately overpowers almost anyone else onscreen, particularly as the character becomes trapped in her own desperate paranoia. And given what we know of Crawford’s forceful disposition in her real life, such a heightened portrayal is an accurate choice on Lange’s part.

As Bette, Sarandon gets to step into a character that Feud ultimately has a better grasp on. The show’s higher degree of comfort with Davis becomes more and more obvious with every passing episode, and is undoubtedly rooted in Murphy’s personal experience with the actress. Murphy, who worked as an entertainment journalist before he got into television, once did an interview with Davis that ended up stretching into a fourth hour as the two chain-smoked cigarettes. And as Murphy recently told my colleague Todd VanDerWerff on Vox’s new I Think You’re Interesting podcast, this conversation was in fact a key inspiration for Feud.

Sarandon’s Bette makes demands and takes no shit, but when she’s most vulnerable, she doesn’t crumble so much as sigh, her wide eyes reluctantly tearing up when she folds into herself. But Sarandon still laces Bette’s iconic, dry-as-rocks humor with a warmth that bursts out in barks of laughter, or leonine smiles that stretch across her expressive face. While Feud is definitely fascinated with Joan Crawford, it would much rather grab a drink and shoot the shit with Bette Davis.

The show doesn’t always know what to do with its characters outside of Bette and Joan, but its actors perform the hell out of them anyway

As the steel-willed Bette and Joan, Sarandon and Lange are fantastic, but they’re also surrounded by a stellar supporting cast.

Judy Davis brings the Rita Skeeter realness for her role as wicked gossip columnist and Crawford confidante Hedda Hopper, who had schemes and dreams that lay far outside the limits of her stories’ final copy. Alfred Molina finds nuance in the potentially flat role of Baby Jane’s frustrated director Robert Aldrich, whose savvy assistant Pauline gets a compassionate portrayal from Alison Wright (formerly The Americans’ secret weapon). We even get a glimpse of Kiernan Shipka’s ongoing quest to prove she was always one Mad Men’s strongest actors, tapping in here as Bette’s fed-up daughter, B.D. (Also: Tucci gets to scream “Cunt!” on primetime television, a rarity he does not let go to waste, bless him.)

Elsewhere, as Crawford and Davis’s contemporaries Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell, Catherine Zeta Jones and Kathy Bates have a much harder job to do. They’re saddled with the thankless job of dumping story details in between scenes, speaking to us about the rivalry from a couch in flash-forwards to 1978 interviews. Zeta Jones and Bates do what they can, but listening to them lay out the details of the feud and its participants’ lives gets clunky fast, especially when the show jumps back to the ‘60s again and Lange and Sarandon pick up where they left off over expository drinks.

In these moments, it becomes clearer that Murphy had so much information at his fingertips that he wanted to cram it all in there — an instinct that makes for some messy transitions, but one that becomes quickly understandable as you get to know the fearsome pair that was Bette and Joan.

Feud premieres Sunday, March 5 at 10 pm on FX.