“Feud: Bette and Joan” is delicious fare, a mix of catty gossip and vile manipulation, a look at the dark underbelly of celebrity culture and the desperation that comes with aging out of the limelight.
It’s also a shocking history lesson that will appeal to those who crave a behind-the-scenes look at cutthroat Hollywood. And, oh yes, it’s the best-cast show since “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which, not coincidentally, was also the creation of Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story,” “Scream Queens,” “Glee”).
The feud in question here is between movie legends Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), actresses whose stars rose during the 1930s and ’40s only to fade in the ’50s as they moved toward their 50s. The two were always in competition — Davis was the far better actress, Crawford more of a star — but in the early ’60s they were brought together by a project that Crawford discovered: “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
The movie was a crazed story about two sister actresses, one now wheelchair bound, who have aged beyond relevance and are engaged in a long, bitter battle even as they live together. Studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) is well aware of the competition between Davis and Crawford and he tasks the film’s director, Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), with turning up the flames of their rivalry to garner free publicity through gossip columns. It works a bit too well.
Sarandon is stunning as Davis, the far more sympathetic of the two, while Lange brings an unhinged panic to Crawford that’s just this side of camp (and seems unfortunately accurate). The stellar supporting cast includes a wonderfully witchy Judy Davis as the flamboyant gossip columnist Hedda Hopper; Jackie Hoffman as Crawford’s right-hand woman; Alison Wright (Martha from “The Americans”) as Aldrich’s right-hand woman; with Ryan regulars Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
FX knows what it has: Before the first season’s debut it’s already signed on for a second season of “Feud,” this one built around Prince Charles and Lady Di. Ryan has an uncanny ability to go broad with drama while still investigating the cultural pressures that lead to that drama, and this series would seem to play to that strength.
He also knows how to play with subtext. Crawford had one Oscar, Davis had two; Sarandon has one Oscar, Lange has two, and the importance of Oscar in this story can’t be overstated. One major change, though. Both Lange and Sarandon are a good decade older than Crawford and Davis were when they made “Baby Jane.” Perhaps there has been some small progress in Tinsel Town.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic
‘Feud: Bette and Joan’
10 p.m. Sunday