Combine two past-their-prime screen goddesses together in one motion picture. Add several ounces of wilted beauty, faded glory and Hollywood sexism. Fill halfway with ice and shake well. Run for cover.
Executive producer Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) is behind FX’s new limited drama series FEUD: Bette and Joan (Sundays beginning March 5 at 10pm ET/PT), a darkly funny account of the legendary rivalry between silver-screen stars Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) while they worked together — and often didn’t — on the 1962 thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Stirring things up are Hollywood luminaries like director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), and screen stars Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Geraldine Page (Sarah Paulson), Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) and Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess).
Davis and Crawford’s icy stares, passive aggressiveness and dirt-slinging in the gossip columns might sell tickets, but Murphy wants FEUD to tell the emotional story of two women desperately clinging to the fading light of stardom. “I think ultimately what happened to both women is very painful,” Murphy says. “I do still think they are hilarious, and their interactions are hilarious. So we didn’t want to avoid that, but we just wanted to, sort of, take it away from what people would expect and make it a little bit more emotional.”
While Davis and Crawford’s rancor ran deep, they’re both portrayed as products — if not victims — of the old Hollywood studio system that made them and tore them down. “[The studios] built up these people in a way that was quite huge, and they handled them for better or worse,” Sarandon says. “Their press, their lives, everything was handed over to the studio, to cover up the bad things, to push them in ways that might not have been accurate or true.” “You owed them deeply,” Lange says. “You owed them your lives, your livelihood, your careers, your personal life. It was certainly a trade-off, and when they were done with you, they were done with you.”
Sarandon and Lange are examples of how the career lifespan for mature actresses has been extended in the decades since the events depicted in FEUD, yet the sexism mocked in the series still exists in Hollywood. “Even though it’s set in 1962, the themes and issues in the show are so modern,” Murphy says. “Women are still going through this sort of stuff today that they went through 50 years ago, and nothing has really changed.”
But Murphy is working to improve the opportunities for women in TV and film production, and Lange cites her recent collaborations with Murphy for helping her avoid Crawford’s career fate. “I thank my dear friend [Murphy] for giving me these parts over the last five years,” Lange says. “The characters I played in American Horror Story, now this and the fact that I won a Tony on Broadway for playing one of the greatest parts ever written, and that’s because he optioned the play for me for Long Day’s Journey Into Night. If it hadn’t been for that, I think there would be very lean times. I do. I’m not offered the kind of roles that I was 20 years ago. I actually don’t think they’re out there, really. I look back and I think, ‘In the last 10 years, what parts done by women my age would I have died to do?’ I can’t come up with one.”
Jessica Lange On Joan Crawford
“For me, the thing with Joan is she was never not on, and some actors, by nature, are just not that way,” Jessica Lange said at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January. “When she was in public, she was performing, so it was very hard to find a moment where you could really discern what the heart and soul of that character was. So then as an actor, you go back to what happened to her in her childhood. This is what determined who she was: the physical abuse, sexual abuse, the poverty, all these things, she was constantly fighting against for the rest of her life. She had a fifth-grade education. As she says, ‘Everything I learned, I was taught by MGM: how to walk, how to speak, how to present your face. I mean, everything.’ So there is this great artifice. But then what becomes interesting as an actor is when that artifice falls away, and then you actually can invent what you would imagine was inside her. And there are a few little hints that I got. Like, if you listen to Crawford, she spoke the way a lot of actors, especially coming out of the silent films, like she did, were taught to speak by the studios and by the dialect coaches that were brought in from New York, this very kind of upper class, mid-Atlantic accent. And a couple times I heard this San Antonio thing come through. Whether she was drunk while giving an interview or caught off guard in a moment. But that was the other great thing, because Joan was an alcoholic. So there are moments where everything falls away, and there is this kind of ugliness and brutality to her that I think — she is a fascinating character to play.”