Reading around the blogs this year, I was excited to see positive reviews for this TV series. I imagined it would only become available here on Netflix or cable, and that I might never see it. However, the reliable BBC bought the rights, and showed it on BBC 2 recently. As it is about well-known people in historical events, spoilers do not apply.
The feud in the title refers to the relationship between two former Hollywood greats, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford. Both past their best years, and unable to find work, they are finding life hard away from the spotlight, and struggling financially too. Joan Crawford sets out to find her own project, one that will give a starring role to an older woman. She buys large numbers of paperback books, reading through them until she finds the perfect story, a pulp-horror novel titled “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” She takes the idea to jobbing film director Robert Aldrich, and manages to convince him to not only direct it, but to invest heavily too.
But they need another older female lead, to play the role of Baby Jane, and he brings in Bette Davis. The two diva-like actresses have never worked together before, and their rivalry from the golden years of Hollywood soon surfaces. Aldrich also has to convince Jack Warner to allow him to use film studios, and to release the film when it is completed, not an easy task. Once filming begins, the troublesome pair soon clash, and make life difficult for everyone on set.
This is really my kind of thing. Great period feel, a wonderful cast, and that film within a film feel so familiar from the ‘old days’. Everything about this production screams ‘class’, and no expense has been spared to deliver a convincing TV drama of the highest order. Jessica Lange plays Joan Crawford with some flair, and a lot of pathos too. The studio system is examined, from casting couch to double-dealing, and actors treated as disposable commodities. So too the role of the bitchy gossip columnists, with Hedda Hopper played by the brilliant Judy Davis. British actor Alfred Molina is outstanding as the struggling Aldrich, trying to juggle the wants and needs of his difficult stars, alongside the demands of the studio bosses.
Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner displays that callousness and head for profit very well, though still comes over more as Stanley Tucci most of the time. Jackie Hoffman delivers well in a supporting role, as Mamasita, Crawford’s put-upon housemaid, managing to expand that part into one of the leads. But rising above all is the exceptional Susan Sarandon. She plays Bette Davis just right. Not trying too hard to look like her, but managing to capture the very essence of that famous film star. In a cast where nobody is bad or wasted, Sarandon steals the show, just as Bette Davis did from Joan Crawford, in the real story.
This is wonderful television for anyone interested in films and cinema. But it is also just as wonderful for anyone interested in well-made drama, and fine acting. It will have its detractors, I have no doubt. But for what it’s worth, I loved it.