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Ryan Murphy’s FEUD and the Resurrection of Hagsploitation Horror

With the FX series FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN, AMERICAN HORROR STORY creator Ryan Murphy’s pathological adherence to cult affiliations continues with his immersive, semi-biographical exhumation of two of the most iconic figures in the narrative history of cinema — Joan Crawford and Bette Davis — and in the process resurrects a brief and bygone cinematic trend of “hagsploitation” — a kind of Grand Dame Guignol, if you will. [You can read more about this peculiar subgenre in this in-depth retrospective.]

The dual semi-biopic takes place before and after production of the most famous film in the hag horror canon: Robert Aldrich’s grotesque tale of sibling rivalry, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? The series focuses on Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Davis (Susan Sarandon) funneling their contempt for one another into that film’s acidic and misanthropic tale of sisterhood, while exploring the animosity shared by Davis and Crawford via sardonic humor, venomous barbs, and destructive one-upmanship.

Hag horror movies typically featured aging ex-superstars gussied up like homicidally rabid prairie dogs, way past their expiration date and raging against the dying of the light, and were often characterized by familial friction, camp histrionics, murder and monstrous femininity — and Murphy’s FEUD taps that vein expertly.

The story opens with a pickled and bristling Crawford watching Marilyn Monroe gushingly accept a Golden Globe and drunkenly proclaiming “I have great tits! I just don’t throw them in people’s faces!” So begins Murphy’s psycho-biddy slice of historical fiction. Joan considers the contemptible material in the scripts sent her way to be beneath her, so she embarks on a quest, with long-suffering lady-in-waiting Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) to find the perfect little book to relaunch her flagging career and put the glamour-cat back in the spotlight.

The cult novel that catches her eye is a little-known Gothic horror by Henry Farrell called WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? Crawford is so enamored by the book that she takes it to B-Movie director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) and strikes an unlikely deal: if he convince the studio system into financing the adaptation, she’ll recruit her bitter arch-nemesis to co-star.

Enter Sarandon as sharp-shooting cynic Davis, whose theatre career has gone to seed, making her hungry for a role she can really sink her fangs into. When Joan comes knocking, Bette grudgingly accepts her offer — on the condition she plays the title starring role, and gets the largest proceeds from the finished production. It’s a marriage made in celluloid Hell!

Of course, Davis and Crawford are unaware that the studio suits and scheming gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) want this film to succeed — and they’ve gone to great lengths to do just that, manipulating the women into reigniting their mutual animosity, drawing as much attention to the movie as they possibly can, regardless of the consequences. All this scheming behind-the-scenes pits Davis against Crawford for the duration of the film’s production, with cast and crew caught in the cross-hairs of their melodramatic psycho-biddy, gladiatorial rivalry.

FEUD is Ryan Murphy at his unabashed best… and the best thing you’ll watch in 2017. Here are my favorite reasons why:

Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper

Davis is a fucking revelation as one of the most ruthless reporters in Hollywood history. She surrounds her prey like a vulture, making promises with slight antagonism, and her kitschy outfits and outrageous trademark hats have to be seen to be believed.

The ’60s Hollywood Setting

Money, success, fame, glamour… it’s like walking into a Jacqueline Susann novel. FEUD beautifully recreates that world through excellent production values.

Lange as Crawford

Jessica Lange will surely pick up an Emmy or Golden Globe for her role. She has such a range as an actress, and assays the troubled star with legitimate compassion and pathos, occasionally needy and prone to violent outbursts.

Sarandon as Davis

I have to confess, I didn’t think Sarandon could pull this off… but the actress truly embodies Bette Davis. Davis is easier for viewers to invest in, and Sarandon plays her as a stripped-bare woman who takes no prisoners and no bullshit… and knows she’s the most talented person in the room.

Bette Davis and Victor Buono’s Friendship

Davis had a huge gay following back in the 1960s, and struck up a friendship with lovable character actor Victor Buono (played in the series by Dominic Burgess), who was a closeted homosexual. In fact, Davis got Buono out of a few scrapes with the law after a cottaging session went sour.

Scene Recreations

Wow! Sarandon and Lange are phenomenal in recreating scenes from WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE; Lange seethes in her role as an axe-wielding killer in William Castle’s STRAIT-JACKET; and we even get a glimpse at her breakout role in the 1945 noir classic MILDRED PIERCE… I could be here all day!

William Castle

…is played by John Waters. Case closed.

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