There’s a scene in the opening episode of Feud where Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange and director Ryan Murphy are just having way too much fun.
It’s the moment where Bette Davis (Sarandon) settles on her costume for an ageing Baby Jane during the filming of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and marches onto the set just to see how Joan Crawford (Lange) would react.
The crew watch on like gladiatorial spectators, and Murphy ramps it up with all the lights and fanfare he can muster. It’s pure Hollywood, borders on camp, and is delicious, ‘licious fun!
Feud is that kind of diabolical drama, inspiringly dramatising the behind-the-scenes war that went on during the filming of the iconic 1962 film (personally, I’d secretly hoped Kylie & Dannii would reprise it).
As the drama tells us, Joan Crawford was a golden age star struggling for roles while young blood such as Marilyn Monroe was attracting all the attention.
When Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) tells her, “Men built the pedestal, darling, not me. There’s only room for one goddess at a time,” Joan replies, “Men may have built the pedestal, but it’s the women who keep chipping away at it until it comes tumbling down.”
By 1962 many had forgotten her Oscar win for 1945’s Mildred Pierce.
“I would like another one,” she declares.
Accustomed to her luxury lifestyle, Crawford had to dig deep when faced with a lack of enthusiasm from studio bosses sending her maid Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) to bring back books about women from the local library. While most fell into broad categories about ingénues, mothers, and gorgons, Mamacita finds one book “about a baby” that took Crawford’s interest.
Spurred on by the horror elements surrounding the two middle-aged characters, she beseeched director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) to board the project.
For the role of Baby Jane, Crawford had her sights set upon Bette Davis, despite the two being old foes. She approached her during a Broadway run insisting, “They’re not making pictures for women anymore” and “No-ones looking to cast women our age. We need each other Bette.”
But studio bosses would still prove to be a hurdle with Jack L. Warner (Stanley Tucci) telling Robert Aldrich that Bette Davis suing him was responsible for the star system coming crashing down.
“I created goddesses!” he shouts, amid various expletives, misogynistic punchlines and a preference for younger female leads. Audrey Hepburn? Doris Day, anyone?
Somehow, Baby Jane came before the rolling cameras, despite the two stars never fraternising, disagreeing over salaries (one was getting just fraction more) and repeated on-set histrionics.
“Day 5 I get to kick her right in the head. I can’t wait,” Davis coos.
Casting two brilliant actresses as Crawford and Davis gives this rollicking tale even more attraction. There are times, depending on the lighting, when Sarandon’s chain-smoking recreation is eerily good. Crawford is more difficult to pull-off without resorting to the melodrama of Mommy Dearest that has dogged Faye Dunaway for years. They veer from seething subtext to open warfare.
Ever-reliable Judy Davis makes quick meat of Hedda Hopper, part-onlooker, part-mischief maker, part-narrator, while even Kathy Bates is in there as actress Joan Blondell and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland.
It has to be said the production values are also high in this saga, dripping in retro sets and locations, moodily-enhanced by a soundtrack with crooner tunes. The end result resembles Douglas Sirk visuals full of autumnal hues and domestic decor.
Yet what remains inescapable is the way the Hollywood system treated women, and the bitterness and vanity that gripped those fighting to stay at the top.
Feud doesn’t hold back in its bid to spill blood, and I suspect it’s had a bit of a field day with that thing called dramatic license. Fasten your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy night.
Feud begins 8:30pm Sunday on Showcase.