Life is all about winners and losers, because no one has ever gotten a participation trophy. That’s why we can’t merely sit back and enjoy Feud, Ryan Murphy’s barely fictionalized recreation of the infamous animosity between screen legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis while filming the 1962 classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?—we need to also decide who won the whole damn war. (Here's the delicious, decades-long backstory of their feud.) Each episode, we'll be scoring the tit-for-tat beef between Joan v. Bette, two heavyweights onscreen and in the ring.
The premiere starts off with both women at career nadirs. Joan, played with admirable—though a little disappointing—restraint by Jessica Lange, hasn’t worked in three years, and is being blackmailed into giving sour quotes about Marilyn Monroe to notorious Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis, actually the campiest broad in the bunch). She’s running out of money and can’t even pay her gardeners, who don’t think that trimming Joan Crawford’s bush is quite the honor that her overly-loyal maid Mamacita (the delightful Jackie Hoffman) thinks it is, though she probably does the same.
As for Bette, a somber Susan Sarandon, she’s starring in Tennessee Williams's new play on Broadway, which seems like it would be a big deal, but she hardly even has any lines. And to make it worse, she has to wear pedal pushers onstage and drive a bar cart. (Quelle horror!)
Things are a little worse for Joan at this point, however, since her agent Marty won’t even send her anything but grandmother roles, and she really needs a paycheck so she can buy new plastic covers for her Billy Haines furniture. We have to give her credit, though. When she can’t find a part for herself, she goes out and makes her own, picking Baby Jane, the novel, out of a pile of pulp fiction and turning it into the project that would revitalize her career.
Joan's has to try so hard, though. She positions herself seductively in a turban and a pair of divine sunglasses by the pool while waiting for director Robert Aldrich (a game Alfred Molina) to come by and offer to direct the picture. Sure, that’s a bit better than raking her own leaves off the front lawn, but if she couldn’t look any less conspicuous if she tried.
Though Joan made the movie happen, she still has to go to New York and drink bottomless crow mimosas to get Bette to sign on, because she knows it’s the only way the picture will get made. “With us together, they can’t say no,” she coos in Bette’s dressing room, looking regal in her outdated fur and diamonds while Bette has her hair held together by an Ace bandage. “We need each other, Bette.” Though she’s groveling, Joan is still the one with the power.
But Bette is playing her hand quite well. She puts Joan on the back foot by only calling her by her Christian name: Lucille. She knows that the film’s success hinges on her participation, and waits until Aldrich praises her as an artist—she's always perceived herself as the superior actor of the two—before committing. Still, it’s almost not enough to even get the picture made at their old home, Warner Bros. Turns out both divas were way too diva-y for Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci, looking a little too swole for Old Hollywood) to want to ever work with them again.
So far, it seems like Joan is the one in the driver’s seat, at least when it comes to the picture, but what about all the other trappings of movie stardom? While Joan lives in a divine home, she keeps it all under Saran wrap, as if her couch is Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes. Though, she does have a freezer in her bathroom for her vodka and ice.
Meanwhile, Bette is holed up in a sad little country house, but at least she has a baller cigarette case that looks like a Lucky Strikes package to keep her company. She also gets to wear smart white shirts that are monogrammed. Also, points for having the superior haircut.
Speaking of which, Joan has a turkey neck that even her live-in facialist can’t seem to resolve. She’ll try anything to look young, from rubbing lemons all over her elbows to waking up and plunging her face into a cauldron of witch hazel and ice (thank god for that freezer). Bette's morning beauty regime, on the other hand, consists of smoking cigarettes alone in bed, which is probably awful for your health, but so much more glamorous. Joan's not alone—she has a hot piece keeping her warm at night—but she totally alienates him by going on and on about her nemesis.
Bette and Joan's first big showdown, then, comes at the contract signing, as each actress vies for the chair on the left so that she’ll be the first name listed in the photo credits. While Bette gets the chair, Joan trumps her by standing to her left and leaning over her shoulder. However, Joan then sees that her costar is making more money than she is. Let’s call this one a draw.
Once filming starts, Bette gives Joan the respect that she’s always been craving, which means she loses a little bit of her power in this dynamic. Joan arrived on set with gifts to hand out to the whole crew so that they’ll give her better lighting and props. Bette only shows up with her dour daughter BD (Kiernan Shipka, growing up nicely) in tow. That’s not going to win anyone any favoritism.
Joan has a good first day on the set, but Bette steals the spotlight by coming up with Baby Jane’s iconic white face makeup and disheveled costume, mostly thanks to one of Joan's old wigs—she’s turned Joan's old tumbleweave against her and given it a whole new life. She even gets a round of applause from the director and the crew when she comes and takes a bow.
Still, things aren’t that different for old Bette and Joan. Hedda Hopper makes them both eat fish aspic, which sounds about as appealing as eating anything in aspic. When they go to watch the dailies of their first performances, neither actress can stand to look at herself: Joan probably thinks that she’s an awful actress next to her old foe, and Bette can’t stand to look at how the backs of her hands have aged. She might wipe away a tear when she sees them, but at least she can sit through it without having to leave the room. No matter what you say about her, that Bette Davis sure is strong.
The Scorecard, Episode 1:
Blackmailed into talk about Marilyn: -5 points
Gardeners refuse to trim her bush: -1
Plastic furniture covers: -2
Finds Baby Jane: +10
Has to grovel to get Bette to sign on: -5
Successfully gets her to sign: +10
Bathroom freezer: +100 (okay, only +2)
Gets on the left at the contract signing: +3
Makes less money than Bette: -4
Gets Bette’s respect: +10
Has to wear pedal pushers: -3
Calls Joan "Lucille": +2
Is courted for Baby Jane: +5
Fierce cigarette case: +1
Is on the right at the contract signing: -3
Makes more money than Joan: +4
Gives Joan her due: -5
Creates Baby Jane’s look with old Joan wig: +15
Can sit through her own dailies: +1
Round One Winner: Joan Crawford.
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