Battle-Axe Royale: Femmes turn fatal in ‘Feud’

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford lock horns in a show that re-imagines the shooting of ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’


Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis (left) and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in a still from ‘Feud’.
Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis (left) and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in a still from ‘Feud’.

The term battleaxe is considered a pejorative. This is tragic, since not only does it refer to a dominating, fierce and voluble older woman, but it is one terrific word, heavy-metal and evocative, well worthy of being weaponized and taken back. Not a word meant merely for Bertie Wooster’s less-likeable aunts, it belongs to strong women who know their place better than the one pointed out to them.

Feud, a delicious new series streaming on Hotstar, and broadcast Friday nights on Star World Premiere HD, is about two who do the word proud. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were Hollywood legends with spectacular careers who happened also to step on one another’s well-heeled toes. A lot.

Early in the series, as the actresses smile for the cameras to announce a film together, an old photographer predicts how both ladies will jostle to be seated on the left chair. The one who makes it to the left side of the picture, you see, will get first billing in newspaper captions the next day. Davis slides into the left seat with the determined poise of a football forward. Yet, right before the flashbulbs go off, Crawford pauses, and—oh so graciously—gets up to stand supportively next to her colleague. To the left.

They’re just getting started.

Their real-life rivalry gleamed with salacious gold, what with Crawford marrying Davis’ leading man, and Davis rejecting a script that led Crawford to her first Oscar. In the early 1960s, however, ageist studios had cruelly cut short both their careers, forging an unlikely, one-time-only alliance. The two actresses collaborated on a horror drama called What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, and Feud tells us what was, and what may have been.

Ryan Murphy, the creator of Feud, is a prolific showrunner who sets his pitch right at the start. Glee didn’t hide its shrillness, American Horror Story was all mood and shadow and shock casting, and last year’s fantastic American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson explored race and fame via extreme close-up. That’s the thing with Murphy’s television: We immediately know what we’re in for—and end up watching it anyway.

As hinted at by the gorgeous Saul Bass-style animated opening credits, Feud is at once old-Hollywood gloss as well as devastating psychological grief. Each eyebrow is meaningfully arched, every third line is a quip, and yet there is silence and anguish. Think Sunset Boulevard, by way of Hail, Caesar! The show sings, sure—and boy, can it hit the high notes—but also sighs. Like a clever Broadway hit, it sells us miserable lyrics using a rollicking melody. While showing how viciously press and producers pit these women against each other, Murphy makes the audience complicit in the exploitation as we devour this irresistible narrative.

Only true aces dare fill shoes this iconic. Susan Sarandon is a magnificent Bette Davis, all brass and moxie, downright irresistible as she waves her cigarette like a wand and keeps cutting to the chase. And yep, she truly does seem to possess those eyes immortalized in song. Jessica Lange, as the older and so-called “lesser” actress, is genuinely heartbreaking as we frequently catch up with her flailing, mid-avalanche. Davis is a stage-trained and revered actress, while Crawford—with unmatched longevity and a career that spans back to the silent era—has the stardom. The show massages these beliefs: As the audience, we believe not that Crawford was a lesser actress but that she was considered lesser, which, on all counts, is true.

Sarandon is a marvel, but Lange, rubbing lemons on her elbows to desperately cling to her youth, is even better.

Stanley Tucci plays studio head Jack Warner as a contemptible hound, Alfred Molina’s version of director Robert Aldrich is all haplessness, and while it’s always amusing to watch actors play other actors—Catherine Zeta-Jones is Olivia De Havilland, Toby Huss is Frank Sinatra—the less marqueed names are more interesting. Jackie Hoffman plays Crawford’s woman-at-arms, Mamacita, with stoic strength and great, surprisingly great reserves of hope, while Alison Wright plays a character called Pauline Jameson, who wants to be a director despite being a woman. More than anything, this is a show about rampant, unchecked sexism—how it drove the leading ladies to the desperation we see—in old Hollywood, but, to this day, actresses complain rightfully about equal wages, and the climb remains astonishingly uphill for the female film-maker trapped in the patriarchy of the studio system. The more things change…

The universality goes beyond Hollywood, naturally. I can only imagine the thrilling potential of a show about, say, the making of Silsila (1981), with Jaya Bachchan and Rekha shooting daggers at each other and Amitabh Bachchan spending long hours locked in conciliatory coaxing. Or a film about the all-encompassing 1990s war between Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi. None of this may actually have happened, of course, just like in Feud, but the story scurrilously lives on—and, by that measure, deserves a telling. We, of course, are unlikely to do so because of litigious estates because of whom our biopics exclusively flatter their subjects (and, also, because who could possibly play Madhuri Dixit?).

Also read: Will ‘Big Little Lies’ and ‘Feud’ show the way for Bollywood?

I began watching Feud as a glorious bit of escapism, superb actors pitched high and hammy, having an infectiously good time with dynamite dialogues. The cinematography is inventively, evocatively vintage, full of swoops and hard-pans. One actress is on the board of Pepsi Cola, so the other brings a Coke machine to the sets. What’s not to love about watching two tremendous women try to weigh each other down, even literally?

A few episodes in, however, the laughs give way to inward melancholia. The show remains buoyant but, sharply and brutally, it hews closer to the bone. This is now a top show, perhaps the finest new drama on television. Simultaneously both tabloid and character study, Feud shows us that the stars we cheer for and root against are human too—or, at the very least, nearly human. And that they deserve not to be stared at. Sometimes.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print.

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