Feud: Bette and Joan’ explores a battle of Hollywood royalty

Sarandon (left) and Lange strike their best diva poses as Davis and Crawford.
Courtesy FX

Two and a half stars

Feud: Bette and Joan Sundays, 10 p.m., FX. Premieres March 5.

The latest season-by-season anthology series from absurdly prolific TV producer Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story), Feud is set to cover a different celebrity rivalry each season, starting with eight episodes on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It’s less ambitious and less socially conscious than Murphy’s similar true-story anthology American Crime Story, whose first season (about the O.J. Simpson murder trial) brought the normally trashy TV auteur a surprising amount of critical acclaim. Feud finds Murphy back in familiarly campy territory, recruiting two acting divas to chew up the scenery as a pair of acting divas known for chewing up the scenery.

Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are clearly having a great time as Crawford and Davis, respectively, and the cast is full of big-name actors acting their hearts out, even in the small parts. There isn’t really enough story here, though: The source material is an unproduced screenplay by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam called Best Actress, which Murphy optioned and expanded into an eight-episode series. The main focus is on 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the only movie Crawford and Davis ever made together, but the movie’s contentious production takes up only two full episodes.

Murphy throws in subplots for Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), among other supporting players, but the heart of the story is the bitter rivalry between the two main characters, which is entertaining and a bit tragic, given the forces (including studio boss Jack Warner, played by Stanley Tucci, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played by Judy Davis) conspiring to pit them against each other. It might make more of an impact if it were delivered more concisely, without the clumsy expository framing device featuring Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones as fellow old Hollywood stars Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland giving interviews for a fictional documentary. There’s a juicy, entertaining and still-timely Hollywood story hidden under the show’s typically Murphian excesses.

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