The first installment of Ryan Murphy’s new FX anthology series, Feud: Bette and Joan, dramatizes the rivalry between Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), when they collaborated on the 1962 movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane which received five Academy Award noms and became a cult classic.
More broadly, the franchise’s first installment looks at what Hollywood still does to women, Murphy and and the two lead actresses told TV critics at TCA.
Lange called it a “microcosm of what happens to women generally as they age, whether they become invisible, or unattractive, or undesirable,” noting Crawford was a decade younger than Lange is now, when she shot the movie. The essence of the movie is summed up, she said, in a line delivered by Stanley Tucci, as studio boss Jack Warner: “Would you fuck these two broads?”
Murphy shut down one male TV critic who’d asked him to address the show’s “layers of camp” – Baby Jane being “high camp” and the two famously feuding 30’s-40’s movie stars also being the stuff of camp.
This edition of Feud is “something much more delicate and moving,” Murphy pushed back, insisting the project is “doing something deeper and emotional and painful” and making it clear this is not a campfest.
“What happened to both women was painful,” Murphy said, noting that, in her last movie Crawford starred opposite an actor in an ape mask, while Davis shot eight TV pilots, none of which got picked up. Feud “leans into the pain and talks about the tragedy of their lives,” he said.
Though set in the 60’s, the issues are “so modern and women were going through then, women still are going through today,” Lange chimed in. “Nothing has really changed.”
Sarandon said Davis had been counting on winning an Oscar for her performance, to lead to more interesting roles than she was being offered at her age. Sarandon said the “line” has been moved forward a little these days.
“I don’t’ think it’s changed that much,” Lange countered.
Sarandon worked with a dialect coach to perfect Davis’ iconic speech pattern, while Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played Olivia de Haviland in in Feud, used father-in-law Kirk Douglas who, she noted, is nearly the same age as de Haviland, as a source of information about the actress she said is much tougher than the “Melanie” character from Gone with the Wind with whom she has been so closely identified.
The first installment of Feud also stars Alfred Molina will play the film’s director Robert Aldrich, Stanley Tucci portrays studio chief Jack Warner, Judy Davis is gossip columnist Hedda Hopper ,and Dominic Burgess will be Crawford and Davis’ co-star Victor Buono.
The pilot is based in part on the script Best Actress by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam which Murphy acquired. It hails from Fox 21 TV Studios and Plan B, with Brad Pitt executive producing alongside Murphy.