March 05, 2017 10:30 AM

“Feuds are never about hate,” says Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) at the start of Feud: Bette and Joan, Ryan Murphy’s biting, bitter, entertaining FX series about Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and their notorious lack of collegiality during the filming of the 1962 horror classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  “Feuds are about pain.”

And these two “old broads” (Davis’ term) were aching: They signed on for Jane,  a freakish study in sisterly pathology,  to reverse declining careers. Because the studio wanted a hit and the press craved copy, the stars’ mutual dislike was stoked into hatred.

Feud arguably underestimates the strength of the actual Davis and Crawford (up on the screen, they’re anything but victims), but its first five episodes evolve into a wide-ranging history of Hollywood heading into the 1960s. The studios were on the decline, misogynistic executives still called the shots, Alfred Hitchcock’s  Psycho had tapped into a new mass audience for cheap, sensational horror — and two of the greatest female stars of the fading Golden Age played every trick and card at their disposal to extend their careers for a few more years. 

And they did continue to work, although often in the undignified “hag” genre that Baby Jane pioneered. The one thing that never really changed was that, whether the production was Davis’ Dead Ringers or Crawford’s Berserk, Davis was the greater actress and Crawford the greater star.

Kurt Iswarienko/FX

Feud is also wryly, sometimes obliquely funny and for the most part (unlike Baby Jane) not prone to camp. In a very nice throwaway moment, Joan’s housekeeper (Jackie Hoffman) tidies up Miss Joan’s place to the vintage pop tune “Town Without Pity.”

The central performances are excellent, incisive without drifting into impersonation. Sarandon captures Davis’ impulsive temperament and cutting intelligence, and Lange’s Crawford has an emotional nuance missing from the hanger-jangling Mommie Dearest. If anything, Lange may be too good: A Crawford with this much expressive sensitivity would have gotten the Oscar nomination, not Davis.

Feud premieres on FX, Sunday, March 5, 10 p.m. ET.

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