In the vast sea of content available on streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ Hotstar, shows that are worth watching often tend to get lost. In this series of posts, we fish out lesser-known series that deserve to be your watch-list. One such show is the Disney+ Hotstar miniseries, Feud: Bette and Joan, a lightweight yet entertaining retelling of the clash of Hollywood titans, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange).
A legendary rivalry that was milked by all
Feud: Bette and Joan is a bittersweet fable about Hollywood sexism, ego and two famous duelling ladies set in the 1960s. It’s a dramatisation of the making of the 1962 camp classic movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? which was the first and last time Bette Davis and Joan Crawford united on screen. Beneath the not-so-thinly veiled barbs and zingers Crawford and Davis throw at each other, the show’s theme is how skilfully patriarchy screws with women. It’s 1961 when Feud: Bette and Joan begins. The actresses, who have been legendary rivals from the 1930s through the 50s are now considered fossils. Determined to make a comeback, Crawford finds a novel (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) to adapt, woos a director, Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) and convinces her arch nemesis, Davis to co-star. Funnily enough, Crawford has no intention of cashing in on the rivalry. She genuinely thinks Bette is perfect for the role. Their legendary hatred turns out to be just the lure to entice Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) to come on board as producer.
This is where the manipulation begins. The press manipulates the women, as does the studio. Warner is delighted with the dailies that Aldrich shares with him. And he goads Aldrich to keep the rivalry flying high between the women to ensure he keeps getting good work as he’s convinced that their rivalry is what will sell the movie’s tickets. The women are played like puppets by the men – Warner, Aldrich, their agents – and the media. Even if they do want to call a truce, the machinations by the men and the press ensure they are always at each other’s throats because the catfight narrative benefits the press and the studio. Things start off well on set but get rockier as both view the film as a lifeboat with just one seat. As it soon becomes obvious that the film is going to have Davis winning all the accolades and critics over, Crawford gets progressively sad and angry. Ultimately, all the events lead to a glorious, Machiavellian showdown at the 1963 Academy Awards where Davis is set to make history as a three-time Oscar winner.
They could’ve been friends after all
Amid all the bitchiness are profound scenes that show the intimacy and friendship between the two rivals. One day after shooting, Davis and Crawford go out for drinks. Davis hopes to soften the blow of the news of her daughter BD (Kiernan Shipka) being cast in a minor role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with some alcohol. Much to her chagrin, they bond. Crawford describes her miserable childhood as Davis listens with shocked empathy. The two women raise a glass over being schooled at brutal boarding schools. The talk then turns to their respective mothers, with Davis confiding, “I think maybe she was my only true female friend.” Towards the end of the series, Crawford has a hallucinatory episode in which she imagines Davis and her burying the hatchet over a touching conversation in her New York apartment. Davis admits that she wishes she had been kinder and that they had been friends and Crawford responds saying, “it’s never too late.”
Exquisite performances make it delightful
Crawford can be manipulative and sanctimonious. And in Jessica Lange’s expert hands, she’s an aggrieved queen, with fierce eyebrows, larger than life, equal parts seductive, haughty and anxious. Sarandon is having the time of her life playing the brassy, bold, brusque Davis with her idiosyncratic articulation and all-round verbal savagery. The two complement each other perfectly, whether they’re throwing barbs at each other or sharing surprisingly light-hearted moments. Molina as Aldrich is simply brilliant, while Tucci’s Warner is campy and perfectly detestable.
Hollywood legends and fierce rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford team up to shoot a movie, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The series is a great profile of the epic rivalry between women who could have actually been friends.
Creators: Ryan Murphy, Jaffe Cohen, Michael Zam
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Judy Davis, Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci, Jackie Hoffman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kathy Bates, Alison Wright
Seasons: 1 (2017)
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar