Review: 'Feud' (a Netflix mini-series)

April 17, 2020

‘FEUD” is a mini-series on Netflix with 8 episodes. It chronicles the infamous rivalry between top Hollywood actresses of the 30s to the 50s, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford before, during and after the shooting of the only movie they did together, the big hit “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” in 1962. Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, both Oscar winners, star as Bette and Joan.

Bette started in Broadway and moved to Hollywood. She’s been nominated as Oscar best actress for ten times and won twice, for “Dangerous” (1935) and “Jezebel” (1938). Her other acclaimed performances were in “Dark Victory”, “Now Voyager”, “The Letter”, “The Little Foxes” and “All About Eve”. Her career spans 60 years and she passed in France in 1989 when she was 61 years old.

Joan also started her career in Broadway as a chorus girl then signed up in 1925 with MGM where the reigning queens were Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, whose popularity she would later surpass as she became one of the highest paid women in the USA. But awards elude her and she wouldn’t win until 1945 when she played a mother role in “Mildred Pierce” (remade on TV starring Kate Winslet in a steamier version.) She died in 1977 in New York.

In “Feud”, the Bette-Joan rivalry is traced through interviews with their actresses friends, notably Olivia de Havilland (played by Catherine Zeta Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates). It’s a professional rivalry that turned into personal animosity. In 1961, Joan read the novel, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”, and felt it would be perfect for her and Bette. She pitched it director Robert Aldrich (best known for the western “Vera Cruz” and later the war flick “The Dirty Dozen”).

 Aldrich (played by Alfred Molina) then pitched it producer Jack Warner (marvelously played by Stanley Tucci) who agrees to do it even as she’s not in good terms with both actresses. Their hostility with each other flares up all the more while shooting the film, with Jack urging Aldrich to fan the flames even more and create a power play between Bette and Joan for more hype. This is aided and abetted by the powerful gossip columnist of that time, Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), who relished making the two actresses fight with each other. 

The movie is a big hit and it will spawn other hagsploitation films like “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte”, “Lady in a Cage”, “Whatever Happened to Aunt Emma”, etc. Come Oscar time, it’s only Bette who gets nominated as best actress and she’s on track to win her third Oscar, but Joan and Hedda launch a secrect campaign to discredit her. It’s Anne Bancroft who wins for “The Miracle Worker”  but she’s doing a play in New York so she can’t attend the awards night in Hollywood, so Joan volunteered to accept the award for her, to spite Bette even more. 

We were thoroughly entertained by “Feud” because it didn’t stoop to portray its lead characters as mere caricatures. We come out with a better understanding of both of them and their personal travails, the sorrow, pain and personal insecurities they went through. Both Susan and Jessica give creatively wicked performances. Through their hostility and vengeful spats, you get a sense of sadness and loneliness that makes them quite sympathetic. The show combines humor and drama, it can be catty but also smart and elegant. It surely shows a deep love and respect for what really makes Hollywood the dream factory for everyone: its actresses.