In the Golden Era of classic Hollywood cinema in the 1930s and ‘40s, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford starred in dozens of movies and earned legendary status—and Academy Awards (Davis for Dangerous and Jezebel, Crawford for Mildred Pierce)—for their performances. But by the 1960s, the offers dwindled and the aging divas were replaced with ingénues decades their junior. In an effort to revive their careers, the bitter rivals joined forces in 1962 to make the horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? a huge hit that went on to garner five Oscar nominations and became a cult classic.
The making of that movie is the backdrop for Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-part limited series that chronicles the epic clash between two forces of nature, with Oscar winners Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) and Jessica Lange (Tootsie, Blue Sky) in the title roles. It’s the first installment in a planned anthology about famous feuds, and was conceived by the prolific Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story), who wrote, executive produced and directed several episodes of the show. His motivation went beyond showing a catfight between two larger-than-life figures, as juicy as it is.
“We were interested in doing a show about two women in the entertainment business and their lives and the problems that they had,” says Murphy. “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. Nothing has really changed, and we really wanted to lean into that aspect. I think ultimately what happened to both women is very painful. I thought we had an obligation to talk about the tragedy of their lives, and how they were mistreated at the end,” he says, noting that Crawford’s last film was a creature flick called Trog and Davis made eight TV pilots that were never picked up. “They had so much more to offer. So yes, their interactions are hilarious and we didn’t want to avoid that, but I was interested in [going] deeper and a little bit more emotional.”
Both Lange and Sarandon delved deeply into researching their characters before taking on the roles. “I read every biography on Joan Crawford, her autobiography, looked at all her interviews,” says Lange, who learned that the star “never went out not looking like Joan Crawford. She loved being a movie star. She was never not ‘on.’ Her childhood determined what she was: the physical abuse, sexual abuse, the poverty, the fifth grade education--all these things, she was constantly fighting against for the rest of her life. Everything she knew she was taught by MGM, so there’s great artifice, but you draw on whatever you can--there are moments when she was drunk while giving an interview or caught off guard—and make up the rest.”
Sarandon was grateful for the plethora of film, audio and written material available, but was nevertheless “just terrified” at the prospect of playing Davis until Murphy reassured her and got her a dialect coach so she could nail Davis’ Yankee accent. “I think it was an exercise in surrender and trust, and just jumping in and hoping for the best and channeling Bette in some way, but I’m hoping that she's pleased,” she says. (Davis died in 1989, 12 years after Crawford.)
Feud’s stellar cast also includes Alfred Molina as Baby Jane’s director, Stanley Tucci as studio chief Jack Warner, Judy Davis as ruthless gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka as Bette’s daughter B.D. and several actresses playing movie legends of the day who are seen giving interviews about Davis and Crawford: Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page, Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland.
Zeta-Jones didn’t get to meet de Havilland, who’s 99 and lives in Paris, but her father-in-law Kirk Douglas knew her, and revealed “she was a tough, ball-breaking woman of her time. She went up against the studio, which is rare today, let alone then. I play her stronger than what people would imagine.”
Murphy points out that there are 15 roles for women over 40 in Feud and that half the directors are women, which “was very important to me,” he says, in light of the inequality and ageism that persists in Hollywood, as his stars are all too well aware.
“Aging actresses still have the same problem. It’s hard to find those good stories, even for people who are trying to do parts that aren't youthful glamour parts past a certain point,” muses Sarandon, though she thinks that “with so many women producers, some things have changed. Also actresses are developing projects.”
Lange disagrees. “I don't think it's changed that much, really, to tell you the truth. If the powers that be don't find that there is anything viable or interesting in a story about a woman of a certain age, those films aren't going to be made,” she says. “A big part of this show, is what Hollywood does to women as they age, which is just a microcosm of what happens to women generally as they age, and we've touched on that in a very profound way. Joan was ten years younger when this takes place than I am now, and yet her career was finished because of her age. Joan was known for her beauty. What happens when that beauty is no longer viable because it’s equated with youth? What we've tried to do is investigate what that does to a woman.”
The creators also aimed for accuracy in the script and dialog. “A lot of the gossip items are actually verbatim quotes taken from an interview or an off the record conversation that one of the women may have had with another writer,” says co-creator and executive producer Tim Minear. “A lot of that stuff is directly from the fabulous horse’s mouth.”
Equal attention was paid to recreating Hollywood of 1962, visible in the details of the glamorous sets. While some liberties were taken for space limitation reasons or to accommodate specifics of script or character, production designer Judy Becker endeavored to create accurate and evocative environments, from the actresses’ homes to the restaurant Perino’s, a favorite hangout.
The circular restaurant “changed very much over the decades that it was in existence, so I hired a professional researcher who could really pinpoint the era that we were looking for,” says Becker. “It’s actually smaller than the real restaurant, because we couldn’t fit the real one on the stage.”
Conversely, Crawford’s home was made bigger by ten percent, “to make it look a little more grand on camera. It's based on her real house that she lived in from when she first became a star, around 1930 until the 1950s. She kept redesigning and renovating and changing this one house so that it started out as a very traditional Spanish-style mansion, and it turned into this kind of federalist Hollywood regency style thing by the end,” Becker says.
It features horse-head lamps and tufted furniture, replicated from designer William Haines’ designs. “Joan lived in this very grand way, which was very fashionable in terms of design. She was really keeping up with the times,” notes Becker. “She also had plastic slipcovers on everything. She was very obsessive about cleanliness and order, and we did that in a lot of ways throughout her sets. She always had a portrait of herself over the mantel, so we had one made of Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford. She had a refrigerator in her bathroom so that she could keep her witch hazel and her lemons and her ice cubes and her vodka.”
Davis’ digs were far less ostentatious. “Bette lived in a much more East Coast kind of way, with colonial-style furniture and a much more drab palette. So we stressed those differences when we were designing their houses and their looks,” says Becker. “There was a colonial braided rug in the living room, and she had this kind of dowdy furniture with these little prints on it in browns and greens. She considered herself a very serious actress and that was reflected in the way she lived.”
Becker had many items custom made “so that we could get exactly the right piece of furniture or the right color palette or the right fabric,” but she also borrowed from the studio archives and the many prop houses in Los Angeles. When it came to recreating the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? set, she preserved the shoddiness of the house, and found some of the actual items from the 1962 movie.
“When you look at the details, they were very, very sloppy, and we reproduced that because it was fun to do and film the way it was really filmed. My set decorator, Florencia Martin, found the piano and the sofa and the birdcage and some of the really key elements and we put them in the set.”
As a young journalist, Ryan Murphy interviewed Bette Davis, “and she told me that she felt that she was never going to be anybody unless somebody could impersonate her,” he recalls. Judging from Sarandon’s excellent embodiment—and Lange’s as Crawford--mission accomplished.
Feud: Bette and Joan premieres Mar. 5 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.