When Dames Take Aim
Ryan Murphy’s affection for the brilliant Bette Davis lies at the heart of Feud, his FX anthology series that, in its debut season, dissects the actress’ long rivalry with Joan Crawford.
Hollywood has never seen a feud like the one between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, larger-than-life screen legends who outright despised each other.
Their discord spanned five decades, beginning in the 1930s and ending with Crawford’s death in 1977. Between them, they had three Oscars, eight husbands and two tell-all memoirs written by resentful daughters. Their on-screen talent was eclipsed only by their bitter off-screen rivalry — a vendetta stoked by the studio that employed them and a press that baited them.
Now, more than 50 years after the only film they ever appeared in together — the 1962 camp horror classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? — their battle has been gloriously reimagined in Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-episode limited series that premiered on FX in March.
“These women were legends and survivors,” says Ryan Murphy, a creator, writer, executive producer and director of the series. “They came up in a star system where there was only room for one ‘It Girl’ in Hollywood. If they were men, none of this would have happened — no one would have ever tried to pit Gary Cooper against John Wayne.”
Feud is conceived along the lines of Murphy’s hugely successful anthology series American Horror Story, which switches out stories and actors each season. (For 2018, FX has already ordered 10 episodes of Feud: Charles and Diana, which will focus on the royal couple’s complex relationship. Murphy will cowrite with Jon Robin Baitz.)
Less than a minute. Rumor has it that’s how long John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions, took to greenlight Bette and Joan. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Murphy has been almost a one-man cottage industry for the network, having created Nip/Tuck, AHS and last year’s Emmy-winning The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, in addition to Glee and Scream Queens for Fox.
It also didn’t hurt that his pitch came with attachments that would make any network exec weep: Oscar winners Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Crawford and Davis, and Alfred Molina as Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich.
“Ryan invented the notion of the [modern] anthology, a series of closed-ended miniseries under a particular title,” Landgraf says. “When someone invents a genre and says, ‘Here are my movie stars that are going to be in it, and here’s the idea for the first season, and here are a bunch of ideas for next season,’ it’s not a particularly hard thing to say yes to.”
Adds Dana Walden, cochairman–CEO (with Gary Newman) of Fox Television Group: “It’s the perfect form of storytelling for Ryan. It enables him to attract actors who wouldn’t have considered doing TV because they weren’t prepared to make the kind of obligation an episodic series requires.”
Hence, Murphy was able to assemble a remarkable supporting cast, including Judy Davis as über-gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Stanley Tucci as studio honcho Jack Warner, Catherine Zeta-Jones as actress Olivia de Havilland (who replaced Crawford after she dropped out of 1964’s Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte), Kathy Bates as actress Joan Blondell and Sarah Paulson as actress Geraldine Page.
Even beyond the A-list casting, Murphy sold the show on the strength of themes as relevant in today’s Hollywood as they were 50 years ago: the sexism, ageism and misogyny that Crawford and Davis endured in their later years. He was also determined to shine a light on the thorny issue of gender inequality in the industry.
“Things are slowly getting better, but there’s still no pay parity and very little equity,” Murphy says. “The difference today is, women won’t tolerate as much. I think they fight back more.”
Feud: Bette and Joan was created by Murphy with Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam. Serving with Murphy as executive producers are Dede Gardner of Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, Tim Minear and Alexis Martin Woodall. The series is produced by Fox 21 Television Studios. Lange and Sarandon are also producers.
Given the outsized nature of Crawford and Davis’s screen personas and the scenery-chewing excesses of Baby Jane (dubbed “Granny Guignol” and “hagsploitation” at the time), Feud could easily have veered into camp. And while the show certainly has its hissy moments, it’s a surprisingly moving, often wrenching look at two proud women of a fading era grappling with an industry that’s trying to marginalize them.
“It has been an awesome experience to do a show about women of a certain age — and the struggles and obstacles that are — shockingly, sadly — still happening today,” Murphy says. “The show is fun and lighthearted; there are wonderful sets and costumes. But it’s about a dark, difficult, American subject matter. That’s why I love it so much.”
Murphy’s connection to the material runs deep. As a young boy, he wrote fan letters to Davis (“She reminded me of my grandmother”). The star responded, beginning a lengthy correspondence that Murphy has referred to as a “bizarre, distant love affair.”
On his first visit to L.A., as a 21-year-old entertainment journalist, he finally got to meet the legend. “It was one of the last interviews she ever did,” he recalls. “She was very shrunken and wizened and near death, but she dressed up for me. We chain-smoked cigarettes for four hours.”
In 2010, Murphy and Plan B bought a feature script about the feuding stars, Best Actress, written by Cohen and Zam. He knew there was far more to the story than a two-hour film could cover, but the structure eluded him — until he created AHS.
“Ryan had the insight that not only would it be a better piece of material developed over multiple episodes, he also had a notion that feuds are fascinating things,” Landgraf says. “Other than the History Channel series about the Hatfields and McCoys, no one has ever based a series on feuds.”
What makes a feud complex enough to sustain eight hours of television? As Olivia de Havilland proclaims in the show’s opening minutes, “Feuds aren’t about anger — they’re about pain.” Adds Murphy: “There has to be an underlying admiration or respect that somehow gets manipulated to become a dagger through the heart. All the great feuds had that…. ‘You hurt me so deeply that the only way I know how to circumvent that pain is to strike back at you.’”
For Davis, the pain started with a man: Franchot Tone, the costar of her 1935 film Dangerous. Davis fell in love with him, but he was already taken — by Crawford, who married him, as she declares in the first episode, “out of spite.” Davis never forgave her for it.
Both actresses were already on the fast track to stardom: Crawford was the glamour queen of MGM, while Davis, a serious actress and two-time Oscar winner, reigned at Warner Bros. But when Crawford came to Warner Bros. in 1943, they suddenly found themselves in direct competition for the same roles. Crawford would win her only Oscar for 1945’s Mildred Pierce, a role Davis had turned down.
“Jack Warner hired Joan to come to Warner Bros. to sort of keep Bette in line,” Murphy says. “He wanted to prove to Joan that she wasn’t the only bitch in the kennel. He pitted them against each other to keep them both down. They took lower wages than they should have and were treated badly by the system.
"By 1962, they had built up a lifetime of animosity toward each other. Warner and Aldrich exploited that, and leaked things to gossip columns and riled them up to make their performances more seething.”
The tragic irony is that, for all their sparring, the two legends had much more in common than they cared to admit — they should have been friends and allies, not enemies. Near the end of Davis’s life, “She expressed many regrets about Joan,” Murphy says. “She was like the one who got away.”
The final line of Feud echoes the last line Jane says to the ailing Blanche at the end of Baby Jane: “All this time we could have been friends.”
On a crisp afternoon, at a soundstage on the Fox lot, Murphy is directing a tartly written scene for the fifth episode, “And the Winner Is.”
Baby Jane had been a critical and commercial smash, reviving both actresses’ careers and racking up five Oscar nominations. But Lange as Crawford is deeply stung that only Davis has been nominated for Best Actress. Perched on a plastic-covered couch in her Brentwood mansion, Crawford and a scheming Hedda Hopper hatch a plot to ensure that Davis won’t go home with a gold statue.
Hopper’s stratagem: to sway enough Academy members to tip the vote. The plot succeeds brilliantly: rising star Anne Bancroft wins the 1963 Oscar (for The Miracle Worker) but can’t attend the ceremony. Crawford accepts the award for her on stage as Davis fumes.
According to Judy Davis, it’s no accident that Hopper — a frustrated actress manqué — aligned herself with Crawford.
“I think Hedda was frightened of Bette,” Davis observes. “Bette was smart, brilliantly talented — everything Hedda would have loved to have been. Hedda believed that Joan was not as smart and could be more easily manipulated. Hedda needed to be the powerful one. That was her consolation for not being an actress.”
Between camera setups, Jessica Lange adjourns to a peach-colored banquette in a vivid recreation of Perino’s, a swanky Wilshire Boulevard restaurant that was once the height of post–WWII Hollywood sophistication.
A two-time Emmy winner for AHS, Lange was Murphy’s only choice to play Crawford. But capturing the star’s essence, even after reading biographies and studying films, initially proved elusive. “Partly because she created Joan Crawford,” Lange explains. “So much of it is artifice.
“She had a torturous childhood — it reads like a Dickens story,” Lange continues. “An unloving mother [who was] physically abusive to her… I had to proceed from this idea of incredible poverty. As she said herself, she never had more than a fifth-grade education, because she worked. If you proceed from that tragic beginning, you can understand the tremendous ambition she had to escape her poverty.”
Murphy adds: “Joan Crawford became who everyone wanted Joan Crawford to be. Jessica discovered that the source of her pain was that of being adrift at sea constantly, having to be a shape-shifter. Jessica let you in on how much work it took getting up in the morning to become Joan, and when she took off that mask, how lonely it was, because Joan had never cultivated the person underneath the armor.”
For years, Susan Sarandon had been told she should play Bette Davis, based on physical resemblance. The legend herself approached Sarandon to play her after her daughter’s memoir was published, but, as Sarandon recalls, “We couldn’t figure out how to do it.”
When she agreed to take on Feud, she admits, “I was terrified. Bette’s so big and so broad, so over-the-top…. How do you reel her in? How do you find a way to make it live in the moment and not have everyone going, ‘Oh, that’s just a good imitation’?”
Like Lange — who had to learn to speak in the faux-cultured, mid-Atlantic accent that Crawford had been taught at MGM — Sarandon had to immerse herself in Davis’s unusual staccato New England tones.
“She had this very idiosyncratic way of stressing very odd words,” Sarandon says. “She comes in very strong at the top of every sentence no matter what the word is. I didn’t try to rein her in. I more or less tried to fill her in, as she would say.”
Murphy adds: “It’s a daunting experience to tackle icons, especially when you have famous people playing famous people. We had to get so many things right — looks, emotions, accents, movements — and we had to recreate literal scenes from Baby Jane and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte … a hand gesture could not be an eighth of an inch higher, or it wouldn’t match. We were fanatical about it.”
The leading men of Feud faced their own challenges. Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich is caught in the middle of the warring factions; he must alternately play referee, psychologist, cheerleader and — on one late-night visit to Davis’s home — seducer. The macho Aldrich was like the “Hemingway of directors,” Molina says.
“He had a deep desire to be fair to both Bette and Joan. At the same time, he had a real need to get the movie finished. He wasn’t above exploiting the rivalry they had. He reluctantly went along with the PR machine. He was beholden to Jack Warner.”
Everybody in Feud is ultimately beholden to the mercurial Warner, symbol of the dying studio system’s unwieldy power and greed. Ironically, Stanley Tucci knew nothing about Bette and Joan’s feud when he accepted the role.
“By all accounts, Jack Warner was a good businessman, a horrible person and a bit of a bore,” says the actor, who studied footage of Warner on YouTube to learn his mannerisms and speech patterns.
“Warner did his job, but he did it incredibly unethically,” Tucci continues. “The most challenging thing about playing him was to keep it real, not turn it into caricature. You can be big and bold, but then you have those moments of, I hope, real subtlety — you see the complexity of the person.”
One of the pleasures of watching Feud is its almost fetishistic devotion to period detail, from the mini-fridge in Crawford’s bathroom (where she kept her witch hazel and vodka) to the plastic slipcovers on her Billy Haines furniture.
And of course, there are the retro outfits. Emmy-nominated costume designer Lou Eyrich says they’re meant to convey a nostalgic time of “old Hollywood glamour, when women dressed with hats, gloves, furs — when they really took the time to get dressed.”
Few archival color photos existed of the actresses on the Baby Jane set, Eyrich discovered. So she and her team “studied the palettes of the ’60s and worked off that.” For Crawford, that meant icy blue, pink, mint green and pale yellow; Davis took softer hues of olive green, ochre, gold, brown and dark blue.
Production designer Judy Becker created a study in lifestyle contrasts between Joan’s over-the-top grandeur and Bette’s more subdued earthiness.
“Joan’s world is very artificial, because she was a very artificial person,” Becker says. “We tried to emphasize how OCD she was, how she covered everything with plastic…. Bette tried to give the impression of being very unpretentious, very New England, so we went with 20th-century American Colonial furniture, Americana prints, deep into history — as opposed to Joan, where everything was new, all the time. She redecorated her house every time she got married.”
In the end, for all its snarky dishing, Feud plays as a parable about the ways Hollywood suppresses women and their ambitions.
Murphy took matters into his own hands last year when he formed Half, a foundation within his production company. It mandates that 50 percent of the directors on his shows must be women or minorities. “The industry standard in episodic [television] is only 15 percent,” he points out.
"Women directed four of Feud’s eight episodes; Oscar-and Emmy-winning actress Helen Hunt helmed one. Murphy adds with pride: “We wrote 15 roles for actresses over 40.”
FX has also stepped up. In 2016, an article in The Hollywood Reporter chastised the network for its lack of diversity.
“We got called out — unfortunately, accurately — for having poor representation of women among the ranks of our episodic directors,” Landgraf says. After a public apology, he initiated a series of changes. Now, he says, “The percent of female and non–white male directors has risen from 14 percent to 51 percent.”
How might the real-life Crawford and Davis have reacted to Feud? Murphy believes they would have been proud. “They would see it was created by people who really loved them,” he says. “I think they would have said thank-you for illuminating their pain and showing them as true heroines who overcame so much and were such survivors.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017
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