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Review: ‘FEUD: Bette and Joan’ is exactly what we never knew we wanted

Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in “FEUD: Bette and Joan.”
Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in “FEUD: Bette and Joan.” FX

If Ryan Murphy somehow burrowed deep into my brain “Scanners”-style to mine for the TV show topic that would please me most, he couldn’t have done much better than “FEUD: Bette and Joan,” a new 8-part miniseries debuting at 10 p.m. Sunday on FX.

(The only way I know Ryan Murphy hasn’t in fact hacked my brain is because after watching five episodes, Loretta Young has not appeared.)

“FEUD: Bette and Joan” chronicles the longtime, deep hatred between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, which reached its apex during the filming of the 1962 camp hit “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” and the contentious Oscar season that followed.

Lange, a Murphy favorite, is extraordinary as Crawford – a fact that should surprise exactly no one. Lange captures Crawford’s wickedness (is evil too strong a word? No.) and vulnerabilities perfectly. And the eyebrows are on point.

Sarandon – for my money at least – is perhaps only slightly less convincing as Davis. She does a superb acting job and conveys Davis’ quirky personality and personal pain well, but I miss the distinctive Davis voice, which Sarandon doesn’t quite capture. It would be easy for such a performance to slip into caricature, and it never does; but still, I miss the voice.

While the show is absolute catnip for people like me who camp out on the Turner Classic Movies channel, don’t dismiss it just because you’re not necessarily a fan of classic film or Old Hollywood. There’s plenty of compelling drama here – and even some comedy – for everyone, and the overall themes of ageism and sexism that transcend time and social class are really what’s most memorable about the series.

And the performances, oh my. Apart from Lange and Sarandon, we get Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich, the beleaguered director of “Baby Jane”; Stanley Tucci as no-nonsense studio head Jack Warner; Catherine Zeta-Jones as Davis’ pal, Olivia de Havilland; and Judy Davis as bitter gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Further, Sarah Paulson (you knew she’d be here somewhere) shows up briefly in episode 4 as Oscar-nominated actress Geraldine Page; Kathy Bates is here and there as an older Joan Blondell; Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”) plays Davis’ daughter, B.D.; and Alison Wright (Martha on “The Americans”) is great as Aldrich’s assistant. Oh, and Jackie Hoffman steals many a scene as Crawford’s German housekeeper, Mamacita.

And “Bette and Joan” is just the first in what Murphy plans as a series of “FEUD” projects. The second installment, “Charles and Diana,” has already been announced. And if Murphy is still poking around in my brain, “Liz and Debbie” could be on the horizon.

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