FX’s ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’: Another total knockdown, drag-out hit from Ryan Murphy

Susan Sarandon, left, as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan.” (Suzanne Tenner/FX)

A fantastic miniseries has arrived that at last fully tells the painful history of being gay in modern America — and no, silly, it’s not ABC’s dourly dutiful “When We Rise.” It’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” Ryan Murphy’s latest and rapturously entertaining anthology project for FX. After a screening of “Bette and Joan” for critics at a theater in January, I tweeted that I couldn’t speak for everyone, but that I personally came away from it feeling 19 percent gayer.

Don’t let that frighten you. “Feud” is not merely an extravagant camp display or effective strain of husband repellent; other cultural critics stand at the ready to make a more serious case for its feminist text, which is considerable, but not required reading that impedes the fun. The eight-episode series, which premieres Sunday, stars Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two aging screen legends caught in one of Hollywood’s most acidic rivalries, an animosity exploited by the men who control the movie business, as well as certain women (including Judy Davis as a smart, vicious Hedda Hopper) who’ve weaponized gossip.

“Feud” presents its story as a moral tragedy for the ages, offering the usual cautions against fame and fortune, affixed with a warning label about mixing ego and liquor intake. It opens in 1962 as Bette and Joan are each at a crisis point, in an era when being in one’s 50s was considered perilously close to death. Bette, at 53, is facing her third divorce and getting mediocre notice in a supporting role in Tennessee Williams’s “Night of the Iguana” on Broadway; Joan (57-ish, her exact age remains a mystery), recently widowed from Pepsi exec Alfred Steele, just made a fruitless TV pilot and is down to a humiliating offer to play Elvis Presley’s mother in his next movie.

Fed up, Joan takes matters into her own hands, dispatching her loyal but humorless housekeeper, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), out to bookstores in search of novels with women on the covers. From this pile she chances upon Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” — a gothic psychological thriller about two sisters, one of them quite deranged, who live in a Hollywood mansion and mourn their forgotten careers in showbiz.

A master manipulator, Joan enlists Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina), a B-list director with artistic ambitions, to write a “Baby Jane” screenplay and find a studio willing to make it — with the enticing prospect that she can sweet-talk her bitterest, longest rival, Bette, to play the title role, which Joan, to her lasting regret, regards as the lesser part.

Backstage at a performance of “Iguana,” the crackling energy between Lange and Sarandon offers just a hint of the fireworks ahead. Bette has two Academy Awards to Joan’s one; both women would sure like a chance at another.

To get at Oscar, however, they must once more endure the…