Ryan Murphy is to flashy anthology series what Shonda Rhimes is to buzzy dramas with strong female leads: Others may occasionally make better ones, but no one else can compete in terms of sheer, overwhelming volume.
After jump-starting the “event series” trend with “American Horror Story” — which is somehow entering its seventh season this fall with orders for seasons 8 and 9 in place — Murphy unleashed “American Crime Story.” Its first season, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” was one of 2016’s most-lauded programs, and he’s working on seasons devoted to Hurricane Katrina, the murder of Gianni Versace and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
My biggest problem with “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” was that everyone — at least everyone younger than, say, 35 — knew what happened. So, for his next based-on-a-true-story event series, Murphy has traveled further back in time for “Feud: Bette and Joan” (10 p.m. Sunday, FX), the story of the rivalry between Hollywood legends Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) that came to a head during the production of 1962’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Before I lose every reader younger than 70, “Feud” features the same showy roles for big-name talent, the same gorgeous production values and the same words rarely heard outside the confines of premium channels that have come to define “American Horror Story” — albeit with fewer murders.
“There was never a rivalry like theirs. For nearly half a century, they hated each other. And we loved them for it.”
That’s two-time Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) talking about her colleagues Crawford and Davis in a 1978 interview that, along with one conducted with Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates), provides most of the exposition about the actresses, whose stars had faded well before 1962.
Crawford, deeply in debt, had been reduced to doing her own yard work while Davis was buying groceries for herself. Told that if she wanted a great role, she’d have to find her own project, Crawford sends her housekeeper, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), to various bookstores requesting “anything with ladies on the cover.”
Out of that pile emerges “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” which Crawford takes to Davis despite their years of animosity. “If something’s going to happen, we have to make it happen,” she explains. “No one’s looking to cast women our age. But together, they wouldn’t dare say no. We need each other, Bette.”
But they can’t even behave during the photo shoot at their contract signing, as each actress angles to be on the left so her name would appear first in the caption.
Their vengeful, petty sides emerge almost immediately as Crawford shows up for work on the first day with Mamacita pulling a wagon full of gift-wrapped ties for the crew to ensure she’ll get the best lighting.
Before long, Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) is having to serve as the film’s referee as well as its writer and director. Then studio boss Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) sees how much fire their scenes have, and he orders Aldrich to make up a defamatory story about Crawford, attribute it to Davis and feed it to gossip queen Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), just to turn up the heat.
Things only get more venomous from there.
“Feud” gets the most out of its all-star cast, serving as a film history lesson along the way as Lange, Murphy’s muse for the first four “American Horror Story” seasons, and Sarandon re-create some of their characters’ most iconic film roles.
Above all else, though, it’s a hoot to see just how much these women couldn’t stand each other, as “Feud” becomes a series of increasingly clever catty insults and vindictive machinations.
“I will have her respect,” Crawford fumes at one point. “Even if I have to kill both of us to get it.”
Considering Murphy’s track record, she just might.