In many ways, it achieves that tricky balance by being a film about itself, and its stars. In the 1935 sequence, the studio executives are watching scenes from real Bette Davis movies — 1933’s Parachute Jumper and Ex-Lady, to be precise — and dragging them: “She stinks, doesn’t she?” In the contemporary scenes, Blanche is experiencing a bit of a renaissance thanks to her old movies’ popularity on TV; she’s seen watching one of them, a Crawford vehicle called Sadie McKee, and commenting on her performance in it. These snapshots of its stars’ younger iterations aren’t just easy history or context — they allow (force, really) the viewer to blur the line between actors and characters, so when we compare them to their miserable, aged latter-day iterations, we assume they’re one and the same.
That cloudiness isn’t solely used for winking in-jokes (as in an early scene of the two legends comparing movies and roles from back in the glory days), or outright mocking (particularly Jane’s delusional comeback hopes: “Y’know, there are a lot of people who remember me. Lots of ‘em!”). They lend the film, and the actors inhabiting it, genuine pathos. And surprisingly enough, that’s even more true for Davis — who purposefully overdoes it, in her fright make-up and little-girl curls — than for Crawford, who plays it comparatively straight. Davis keeps going back to the mirror in her “rehearsal room,” drunkenly roaring that “You could have been better than all of ‘em” or singing songs from her faded youth, and the way she looks at herself, really looks, in those scenes isn’t camp. It’s an actress wrestling, semi-tragically, with her age. This may be a broad performance, but it’s not a dishonest one.
And that’s what renders Feud: Bette and Joan, though entertaining, ultimately moot: anything compelling it has to say about these two actors, about how they treated each other or were treated by their industry, has already been said by the film they made all those years ago. In the more than half century since its release, film fans have made sport of digging out What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’s copious subtext. All Feud is really doing is turning it into text.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is available for streaming and purchase via Amazon, YouTube, and the usual platforms. Feud: Bette and Joan premieres Sunday night on FX.