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Over the years, super-producer Ryan Murphy has demonstrated huge imagination and heart for feminist concerns from Popular to Glee, American Horror Story to The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. His work has also entertained with the dubious spectacle of broadly drawn ladies being outrageously witchy to each other — sometimes in service of making points about cultural misogyny, sometimes because pitched bitchiness clearly amuses him. With his promising new anthology series Feud: Bette and Joan, devoted to notorious real-life rivalries, Murphy tackles these themes and tendencies head-on, and asks us to do the same. The inaugural season chronicles the enmity that existed between movie legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and blew up during the making and selling of their one, classic film together. It's a showcase for two brilliant actresses, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, and a slick, sad scolding of Hollywood's treatment of women.

Feud begins in 1960 and finds Sarandon's Davis, 54, and Lange's Crawford, 57, languishing at career ebbs. The "women's pictures" that made them stars and won them Oscars have fallen out of style, and they're too old for or totally disinterested in the demeaning, limiting range of female parts Hollywood offers them. Davis, depicted as the purer artist of the two, has retreated to Broadway, the way movie actors these days go to TV when big screen opportunities run dry. Crawford, widowed and broke, is a hot mess of vanity, bitterness, and frequent drunkenness. We meet her at the Golden Globes, soused and seething over Marilyn Monroe's victory for Some Like It Hot. "I got great tits, too, but I don't throw them in everyone's face," she fumes.

Needing income and hungering for renewed recognition and respect, Crawford convinces her Autumn Whispers director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) to develop a low-budget project with a juicy, kinda-meta casting hook: What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, a neo-gothic thriller about aged, washed-up showbiz sisters. Blanche, an invalid, would be played by Crawford, while Baby Jane, her demented, abusive caretaker, would be played by Davis, Crawford's longtime professional nemesis. In the forties, studio chief Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) pitted the two women against each other, in large part to tweak and break the uncompromising, independent Davis. Crawford thinks their storied animosity would be good for publicity, and it is. But it also electrifies their on-screen rapport, and Warner — struck by Davis' boldly bizarre characterization and over-the-top acting (which Feud suggests was something of a subversive caricature of Crawford herself) — orders Aldrich to amp it further by stoking their competitiveness, insecurities, and jealousies, personal consequences be damned. As Crawford realizes that Davis is running away with her comeback vehicle, she acts out in various ways, both fueling the film's nervy energy and threatening to extinguish it and making everyone miserable in the process — a degrading but weirdly productive vicious cycle.

Credit: Suzanne Tenner/FX

Murphy and his writers milk this tough history for compelling-enough melodrama. They're clearly partial to Davis, but there's enough empathy for both women to mitigate exploitation. Tart wit and top-production values abound, but there's also a reserve in the filmmaking; it's like Murphy wants to have fun with the material, but not too much fun for fear of being disrespectful. The writing continuously frames the Crawford-Davis feud in the context of a Hollywood culture that's institutionally sexist and ageist. It breeds Darwinian conflict among women that warps them and keeps them from increasing their power. The show argues that their loathing was more about self-loathing than hate, and that one tragedy of Baby Jane was a missed opportunity for two damaged, lonely women to find healing in each other. The third episode contains an extraordinary scene in which Crawford and Davis try to make peace and forge an alliance over dinner, and Crawford casually reveals that she lost her virginity to her stepfather at age 11 (which is to say, she was raped), as if such a thing is no big whoop. Davis is horrified by the anecdote and by Crawford's profound cluelessness. The subtext of almost every moment is Davis' haunting line from Baby Jane: "You mean, all this time, we could have been friends?"

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Feud will play best to those with familiarity with Davis and Crawford and a knowledgeable admiration of 1962's Baby Jane, progenitor of the "psycho-biddy" subgenre of horror flicks. The show hits the ground running without much set-up, filling in blanks and spelling out meanings on the fly with explain-y exposition and an awkward, drama-killing narrative device via documentary interviews with Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates). The first three episodes blow through the making of Baby Jane, giving you just enough detail to illuminate the significance of the film and the performances of is stars. Still, I wanted more. The next two episodes dig into Baby Jane's infamous epilogue, a contentious Oscar season in which Crawford (who wasn't nominated) worked against Davis (who was). A key ally and weapon in her subversions is gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played by Judy Davis in a sharp comic turn and with a variety of wonderful feathered hats that threaten to upstage everyone. I have no idea what the final five episodes will cover — a prospect that excites me and could also potentially reboot my mixed regard for the first five episodes. I hope Feud continues to expand its focus, as it does in episode 3, with a winning subplot in which Aldrich's female assistant Pauline (The Americans' Alison Wright) tries to enlist Crawford's help in becoming a director.

What grips you and holds you are the marvelous performances by huge stars of today playing huge stars of yester-year. Lange — who has thrived in Murphy's employ playing a series of broken and nasty grand dames on American Horror Story — is heartbreakingly nasty as the fragile and toxic Crawford. She blows up Crawford's "Mommie Dearest" pop persona by deepening it, exposes all the vulnerabilities of a woman who was terrified of showing any. Sarandon, new to Murphy's troupe, nails the stare, the stiffness, and the blazing, sexy intelligence of Bette Davis, humanizing her without sanding off the edges. She gives us a portrait of a self-aware woman isolated by her talent, who numbs a deep loneliness by throwing herself into work. I can watch them feud forever, even as their tragedy exhorts us not to. B

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

Episode Recaps

Feud: Bette and Joan
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