FY Spotlight - Feud
One of Bette Davis’ most famous lines from the movies was this gem from “All About Eve”:
“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” The line could just as easily have been applied to the tense months Davis spent on the same Hollywood sound stage with her arch rival, Joan Crawford. The two Oscar winners were making one of the creepiest horror thrillers of the ‘60s, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
That story has been brought meticulously to life in an eight-hour, limited run series from red hot executive producer Ryan Murphy (Glee, The People v. O.J. Simpson). The title? Feud: Bette & Joan.
Murphy teamed two modern day Hollywood legends to play Davis and Crawford: Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon. Catherine Zeta Jones, who plays Olivia de Havilland, joins them in the series along with Mad Men prodigy Kiernan Shipka (who plays Davis’ daughter Barbara).
Stanley Tucci (seedy and hilarious as Studio boss Jack Warner), Alfred Molina (director Robert Aldrich) and Judy Davis (purr-fect as gossip maven Hedda Hopper), round out the cast. Lange and Sarandon sat next to each other as they took questions earlier this year in Pasadena, Calif., at the Television Critics Association’s semi-annual press tour.
They told reporters they both did their homework on the actresses they portrayed. “She had a fifth grade education,” Lange said of Crawford. “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.”
Lange added Crawford was “always on,” always playing the movie star in public. “I never go out without looking like Joan Crawford,” Lange said, quoting the actress. “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”
Sarandon told the producers she needed a voice coach to capture Davis’ eccentric speech-pattern. “I’m so sloppy and slow, and she has got that thing that’s been imitated so many times.” Sarandon hooked up with voice coach Tim Monich and listened to Davis’ voice on her phone night and day.
“The series very much deals with ageism in Hollywood. “Joan was ten years younger when this takes place than I am now,” Lange pointed out, “and yet her career was fi nished because of her age.”
While it’s hard to believe, Lange is 67; Sarandon is 70. Crawford was 58 when “Baby Jane” was released in 1962; Davis was 54.
Ageism, and how Hollywood worships only youth, is a big part of what Feud is all about.
“What I love about the show,” says Murphy, “is even though it’s set in 1962, the themes and issues in the show are so modern, and women are still going through this sort of stuff today that they went through 50 years ago, and nothing has really changed, and we really wanted to lean into that aspect of the show.”
Besides ageism there’s sexism to deal with. Crawford had to push to get the film made. She discovered the book it was based on and took it to Jack Warner; she was the one who insisted Davis be cast in the showier role.
It was quite a come down for a former star who emerged back in the silent cinema as one of the biggest names at MGM through the ’30s. Crawford was struggling to resurrect her career and was well past what the industry considered her best before date.
“What happens,” Lange asked, rhetorically, “when that beauty is no longer considered viable, because it’s equated with youth, you know?”
As Sarandon pointed out, “Joan was the beautiful one.” Davis, the two-time Oscar winner, was more of a character actress, “so, in a way, her acting career could continue. The big movie parts, one that might draw a third Oscar, however, just weren’t there anymore. She saw “Baby Jane” as her last swing at the big time.
Ageism still exists in Hollywood, says Sarandon, but she feels the bar has been pushed a little. She mentioned that when she was a young actress, “you weren’t supposed to have children.” (Sarandon has three, the same number of children as Davis.) “I was told on many occasions not to bring up the idea that you had children, because in some way, that would cut into this idea that you weren’t sexy or sensual, or whatever.”
Lange didn’t think things had changed at all for women. “Well,” countered Sarandon, “we’re working.” “When I started, it was over by 40,” added Sarandon. “So definitely, the line has been pushed.”
Especially by Sarandon, who, at 42, played the older woman in 1988’s “Bull Durham.” The film won her a Golden Globe along with a real-life partner, her much younger co-star, Tim Robbins. (After two children, the two split in 2009.)
Sarandon never met Davis, although she almost played her years earlier at the request of Davis’ daughter, Barbara (the project fell through). Lange never met Crawford, although she did meet Davis. Lange figures she was only 26 at the time; it was at an award ceremony.
“I remember her saying to me, ‘You better court the press, honey.’”
When he first arrived in Hollywood, producer/director Murphy met and was able to spend some time with Davis, who died at 81 in 1989. He expected her to be a “larger than life camp figure, which she helped, I think, propagate,” he says. “In the public view, she rarely turned that off.”
In real life, however, Murphy found Davis, “very emotional and real.” Crawford and Davis’ real life feud did not end after “Baby Jane” wrapped production. The two actresses kept sniping away, leaking nasty stories about each other in the tabloid press.
When Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for the “Baby Jane” and Crawford was not, Crawford got in touch with all the other actresses who were also nominated in the Best Actress category that year, offering to accept on their behalf should they be unable to attend the ceremonies.
That’s how, when Anne Bancroft’s name was read as the winner for her performance in “The Miracle Worker,” it was Joan Crawford who took the stage and accepted the Oscar Davis so desperately wanted. These two were the original mean girls!
“Feud: Bette & Joan” premieres Sunday, March 5 on FX and FX Canada.