Updated with video from last night’s panel: On the surface Ryan Murphy’s FX/Fox 21 series Feud: Bette and Joan is about one of the biggest hair-pulling dramas in Hollywood between two legendary divas, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But underneath it’s much more: An examination of how show business stunted the growth of actresses, thus causing a divide between these two fellow and iconic thespians.
“We’re stronger together than when we are apart,” said Susan Sarandon about the strides women have taken in Hollywood since the days of Crawford and Davis, “50 years ago we weren’t having these types of conversations, and the fact that we are now means we’re paying attention.”
Sarandon was in attendance last night at the Awardline screening of Feud at the Directors Guild of America Theater with Murphy moderating a conversation. With Feud, Sarandon counts her fifth Emmy nod, which is part of Feud‘s grand total of 19 nominations, which also include best miniseries and a lead actress nomination for Jessica Lange.
Feud was a personal story for Murphy. As a young reporter he interviewed Davis in her twilight, the pinnacle of a pen-pal correspondence that began between them when he was eight years old. “I wrote to two people when I was eight: Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter and Bette Davis. She wrote me back and reminded me of my grandmother.”
But what stuck with Murphy from his four-hour sit down with Davis was the actress’ comment that her life would be different had she been given the same opportunities as men. It’s a complaint that Murphy has heard often throughout his career from women, minorities and those over 40: That they face great hurdles when trying to land a job in the business.
So Murphy decided to write about this struggle. In addition, he also started the Half Foundation which aims to have 50 percent of all directorships filled by women, people of color and members of the LGBT community along with other outreach efforts. Currently, women only represent 15% of all directing positions in Hollywood. Close to 50% of Feud‘s nominated EPs and producers in the miniseries category are women including Sarandon and Lange who will remain producers on the series’ second season which focuses on Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s divorce.
Joining Murphy and Sarandon last night on stage were two of Feud‘s Emmy-nominated below the line talents: costume designer Lou Eyrich who dressed over 100 extras and duplicated the Oscar ceremony gowns down to their pins and beads in Feud‘s fifth episode “And the Winner Is…(The Oscars of 1963)”, as well as production designer Judy Becker who reawakened the actual site of the awards ceremony, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, with an array of backstage hallways down to the colored toothpicks in Crawford’s green room.
Murphy happened to be sitting on a 2009 Black List screenplay Best Actress which he bought with Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner’s company Plan B about the making of the 1962 movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? He never developed the project because he didn’t think it fit into a feature structure, but an episodic one made the story jump off the page. This was all pre-American Horror Story, before Murphy even knew Lange.
1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a seminal film for Crawford and Davis at a time when great parts for actresses their age were rare. Davis was recognized by the Academy for her work with a best actress nomination, which if won, would have been a third Oscar for her. Crawford meanwhile was overlooked and in the episode that was screened last night, “And the Winner Is…(The Oscars of 1963)” we see how the 1946 Mildred Pierce best actress Oscar winner waged a behind-the-scenes war to put herself in the spotlight that night, and ensure that it faded on Davis. In doing so, Crawford steps on the blossoming egos of burgeoning actresses, literally convincing then-best actress New York-based nominees Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Page that they were better off having Crawford accept the winning trophy on their behalf.
For Sarandon, that jealousy from an older diva generation was familiar. “There were a few famous actresses before me who were trying to sabotage me when I was 20 to 22,” said Sarandon. “I’ve never seen that now and I think the atmosphere is very different.”
Initially, when Murphy approached Sarandon to play Davis, she wasn’t wowed: It was the fifth time she had been pitched to play the actress; the part just haunted her. Davis wanted Sarandon to play her daughter, and sought out the younger actress’ help to get the project off the ground. Sarandon and her agents didn’t have the wherewithal to get the movie off the ground especially without a script. What eventually sparked Sarandon to Murphy’s project was a line in the script: “You mean all this time we could’ve been friends?” The line spoke volumes to Sarandon in regards to its girl power potential: If women banded together more back then, the mightier they would be.
In 2009, thoughts of Davis would run through Sarandon’s head again when she was playing a Queen in Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King. Trying to crack the character, Sarandon remembered Davis’ turns as a Queen in 1955’s The Virgin Queen and 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex . “The way she walked was like a truck driver. She had a strange gait. I put boots on for the part and started sitting the way she did (legs spread) and suddenly I had something to use,” said Sarandon. The actress originally found the thought of playing Davis daunting, but so did Murphy in mounting a production about Davis and Crawford. Sarandon then gave it up to fate, saying “Oh, what the f*ck, she’s been chasing me for so long, there must be a reason why I’m supposed to do this.”
One unforgettable moment for Murphy from “And the Winner Is…(The Oscars of 1963)” was when Sarandon’s Davis hears the announcement backstage that she lost the Oscar and that Crawford is accepting on Bancroft’s behalf. Sarandon grabbed her mid-section as though she’d been punched, and Murphy was so blown over, he used the first take. “I didn’t plan it,” said Sarandon about her reaction, “the whole point of her thing, was not about awards, but at that age, when do you get a shot to have a part big enough? That’s why she was upset.”
Sarandon is well acquainted with the wild ride of Oscars, having been nominated five times in a 14 year-span only to finally win on her last outing in 1996 for Dead Man Walking. As a New York-based actress, it was a big deal for Sarandon to receive a standing ovation from the industry. Getting the chance to replicate the 1963 Oscars was a dream come true for Murphy: As a child in rural Indiana, he would host slumber parties at his house on Oscar night.
“It was the height of their feud,” said Murphy about the episode. “It wasn’t about an award, it was about the pain of no longer being recognized.”
“Susan, let’s talk about this episode, and you can be honest, do you think all my obsession with all this stuff was bat shit crazy?” asked Murphy about his attention to detail.
“It was the most fun I had at the Academy Awards for a while,” quipped Sarandon then commenting on the episode’s opulence, “It was like in the realm of Game of Thrones.”
“Yes, it was my Game of Thrones,” joked Murphy.
Said Sarandon about the impact of Feud this Emmy season, “I want to know if Horschack had answered you, where would we be?”