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Feud: Bette and Joan - Pilot - Review: "Let the Battle Commence..."

It's been over fifty years since Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) was unleashed on the world. Since then it's become a cult-classic horror and is most definitely one of my own personal favourites. Based on a 1960 novel, the movie focuses on two movie-stars and the rivalry between them. Sound familiar? I thought so.

Feud: Bette and Joan takes us behind the scenes of Baby Jane, exposing the bitter rivalry between its two leading ladies; Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. This is most definitely the most iconic Hollywood feuds of all time. It's a feud which has fascinated me for many years and one which only enriches a viewing of Baby Jane. There are quite a few factors that go into this feud, and it'll be interesting to see how the show explores them. The fact the pair pursued the same man has already briefly been mentioned within the first episode and this is claimed by some to have been the cause of the feud. The fire gets fuelled by various incidents along the way though too, and no doubt this will be an explosive and drama eight episode season. 

"They want their stars to be wholesome with good morals...like me!"
Feud introduces us to Crawford after her reign over Hollywood has long passed. No longer the beautiful ingenue she once was in the late 1920s and 1930s, the actress has been left in the dirt. Widowed, unable to find successful projects and in the ever looming shadow of a new dawn of starlets, Crawford is desperate. The show beautifully illuminates on this vulnerability, without ever telling about such. We see her searching through books just to find something of substance, and of course she even suggests her long-standing rival, Davis, as her co-star. Although an incredible talent, Lange is the least convincing of the pair. Her Crawford has the elegance and class of the real thing, but something is missing - is it the voice? Lange often has this habit of perhaps playing herself, in that many of her characters sound the same. Pronunciations are the same, delivery is not varied, and essentially it fails to provide much differentiation in terms of playing the part (of course the character and the plot highlight the actual differences). In Feud, Lange doesn't sound like Crawford; she sounds instead like herself and various American Horror Story characters. What Lange does bring to her Crawford however is the sophistication and ability to captivate a scene. This is perhaps much more crucial than the voice, and Crawford herself even said that "nobody can imitate me".

Davis similarly is down on her luck in Feud. Whilst the Pilot focuses on Crawford, primarily because she has a more prominent role in the lead up to Baby Jane, Davis is by no means a supporting role. Sarandon is given ample opportunity to outshine Lange, and arguably she does. Sarandon has always struck me as someone not afraid to speak their mind, and of course this is part of that Davis charm. In fact, it part of what gives Davis a sense of sexual appeal against the likes of Crawford, who's a more obvious beauty. Despite having script assistance in portraying the bitter Davis, Sarandon wonderfully captures her spirit in her body language. She has the tense facial expressions of the Hollywood legend, and the stiffness. In the role, Sarandon even moves with the same (somewhat) masculine quality of the All About Eve actress. These two incredible leads are actresses, not impersonators, lest we not forget.

"Together, they wouldn't dare say no. We need each other..."
Casting in the show itself is somewhat of a statement. In its exposure of the film industry's sexism and ageism, Feud highlights there is star power in ageing leads - with the right concept. Not only has it cast two fading actress (and I don't mean that harshly) but it's given them roles significantly younger than they are. Take that Hollywood: not only is Feud employing ageing leads, but they're playing roles made for younger actresses. Lange may have graced our screens in leading roles for the past few years but that's because of one man: Ryan Murphy. The King Kong (1976) beauty's last Oscar nomination was in 1994 and take away Murphy projects and she hasn't had a Golden Globes nod since Grey Gardens in 2009. In this she was of course playing the elderly Big Edie, an incredible role, but one which certainly asserts your age within an industry obsessed with sex appeal and youth. Sarandon herself is evidently not the starlet she once was. Long gone have the successes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Thelma and Louise. She hasn't been in a Box Office hit for quite some time, and her last Oscar nomination was just a year after Lange's, in 1995. The majority of her recent gigs have been the grandmother role (or if she's lucky perhaps the mother). Of course, you wouldn't expect a 70 year old to be given the lead in an action movie, but there's more to elderly women than their maternal responsibilities. Perhaps things haven't changed that much after all. Feud however highlights that there should be a place for maturer women on screen, and in roles which aren't defined by motherhood. Lange and Sarandon are taking on strong, independent women who essentially fought back at a system which they too are challenging.

Lange and Sarandon are not the only great casting choices on Feud though. The show features an ensemble of gifted and fantastic actors and actresses, complimenting the star-power of its leads. Stanley Tucci seems a great choice for Warner Brothers' Jack Warner. Davis was quite vocal about Warner's treatment of her (and other stars) in her latter life, and it was refreshing that, so far at least, the show delved into his misogynistic behaviour but not too heavily. The impression I got from various Davis interviews is that Warner and her clashed quite frequently. This is the kind of man who would tap a women's butt after a massage, and one who would ask another man, in a 'professional' meeting, "would you fuck 'em?". Combine that with a strong-willed women, and you're likely to bring some trouble, indeed. Catherine Zeta-Jones gives a wonderful Olivia de Havilland, the Gone with the Wind starlet whose rivalry with sister Joan Fontaine would make an interesting season in the Feud anthology itself. The use of Zeta-Jones' Havilland (and others) being interviewed about the lead females is a great choice. It somewhat breaks the fourth wall and invites us in, more than a typical narrative does. Judy Davis, Alfred Molina and Jackie Hoffman are of course also fantastic additions to the ensemble.

The Pilot acts as the introduction and context to the filming of Baby Jane. It many ways it illustrates the humanity behind two of Hollywood's most legendary starlets. These are vulnerable women, who for all their flaws and fights, have been abandoned by a system which previously placed them on a pedestal. There's something heartbreaking about seeing these two women realise they're past their prime. For Crawford its the emergence of Marilyn Monroe, the envy of many women, who symbolises that she is replaceable. In the case of Davis, the young female lead in a Broadway play receives the flowers which once would have adorned her own dressing room. Growing older is something everyone experiences, and particularly for women, especially in this era, it brings an entirely new set of struggles.

"Day Five I get to kick her right in the head. I can't wait..."
Feud is a message not just for actresses, but also for people everywhere. Murphy recently said that it should remind people that women (and minorities in general) are stronger together. Everyone is stronger together. Here are two actresses, Davis and Crawford, shunned by Hollywood, but teaming up to create a masterpiece of cinema. They're both very different women; Davis is invested in the craft, even donning hideous make-up in an attempt to perfect the role, whilst Crawford cares for the fame and her own image, sporting make-up despite playing an invalid who hasn't seen the sun in years. As Lange's Davis explains though, "if something's going to happen, we have to make it happen". They need each other to succeed. This may be a compelling story about rivalry and an infamous feud, and that's why most of us are tuning in, but equally its about that mutual respect and desperation that the two women share. We all know where this goes though (particularly the 1983 Academy Awards) and although  Zeta-Jones' Havilland proclaims that feuds are about pain, it's the hatred between these women which conquers in the end...

Did Feud live up to your expectations? Let your thoughts be known in the comments below.