In the finale of Feud: Bette and Joan, infamous rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis sweetly apologized to each other–a scene that apparently never happened in real life. The latest of Ryan Murphy’s anthologies, Feud in this first season follows the two Hollywood legends as they ‘age out’ of their acting careers and battle each other for supremacy, set against the backdrop of making their only film together–Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
However, the finale wasn’t a case of rewriting history with wishful thinking, but actually exploring what might have happened in Crawford’s mind. During her final days suffering from cancer, she was reportedly wracked by hallucinations, and the finale episode, You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends? has her enjoying drinks and a conciliatory chat with Davis. Tragically, she’s actually alone, confused, and in her nightgown at the time. Heartbreaking stuff.
“When Ryan said he wanted to do Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, I knew that they would be expecting some petty bitchfest or something,” exec producer Tim Minear said at an FX Emmy event in Los Angeles. But the larger aim of the show, he said was, that “we would be able to feel for them as real people.”
Starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, Bette and Joan goes beyond the story of their rivalry, to look at how two talented, strong, older women were cast aside–a tale that unfortunately remains relevant today, Murphy said.
“We shot the first four episodes thinking that Hillary Clinton was going to win, so those first four episodes were, ‘Haven’t we come so far!’ Then half-way through the shooting, the other scenario happened. It was a bracing slap of, ‘You know what? Nothing has really changed.’ It’s so hard to bring about that change that we all feel is necessary with how women are treated in our society. We worked harder at those things because it’s such a large story even today.”
As Davis herself reportedly once said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” This, of course, is especially true for women in Hollywood, and was something exec producer Dede Gardner had in mind from the beginning.
“We knew there was something sticky in how people’s ambition can blind them from being used, and placed on a bigger chessboard that has to do with commerce and commerciality. We wanted to do something about women and the industry.”
Of casting Lange and Sarandon, Murphy said, “Jessica and Susan are people who lean into their fear. Jessica was very interested really in deciphering how Crawford pulled herself up from nothing.” While Sarandon, he said, had a surprising reaction. “Susan said I was like the fifth f***ing person to talk to her about playing Bette Davis. She said, ‘Why do you keep coming to me with this?’ I said, ‘well, you do have the Bette Davis eyes.’”
Embodying a real-life icon is a notoriously tough task, involving much research. But in the case of Crawford, less was known about her true self.
“She was a great mystery,” Lange said. “I think part of is that she created Joan Crawford, and this was a character that she played, that was created as a collaboration between her and MGM, and she embraced it. She played it for the next 50 years. But what fascinated me about her wasn’t playing the role of Joan Crawford, as much as what was underneath. What was always just underneath the skin and behind the eyes, and that was Lucille LeSueur, who was this poor, abandoned, unloved, abused, poverty-stricken kid from San Antonio.”
Sarandon also had her challenges in playing Davis.
“So many drag queens had already done it so much better, so I was up against that,” she said. “Of course I really admire her as an actor and she had been kind of chasing me for years in one form or another to do her, and I never found the right thing. This seemed to be the scariest right thing.”
For Murphy, the topic of Crawford and Davis has always been close to his heart. “I was such a weird kid,” he said. “I would literally ask my grandmother as a bedtime story, ‘Will you tell me about Joan Crawford?’ And she loved talking about it.” The story became personal for him too. “I actually met Bette Davis,” he said. “I was so young and I bought a big armful of her favorite flowers. She opened up the door and the first thing she said to me was not, ‘Hello,’ not ‘Thank you for coming,’ but ‘Do you want to see my Oscars?’ and I said ‘Okay.’ She would hold them at night and watch TV with them. She said that.”
Accuracy was of course vital. Case in point: the team worked tirelessly to perfectly depict the 1963 Oscars in Episode 5, written and directed by Murphy. “We spent months and months and months looking at videotape and looking at photographs,” he said. “It was truly a labor of love.” They also made 45 Oscar statuettes. “We switched them up a little bit so we wouldn’t be sued.”
Recreating the Oscars is definitely not for sissies, but Murphy powered on. “Dede has two Oscars and Susan and Jessica are Oscar winners, so I think they (the Academy) would trust us,” he said. “We did it incredibly respectfully and with so much love, you could feel it. It was my favorite thing I think I’ve ever directed.”
With a second and third season already in the offing, Sarandon and Lange will remain as producers as Murphy moves onto the story of Charles and Diana for Season 2. “We are shooting I think in the late fall and I’m casting Charles and Diana,” Murphy said. “Charles and Diana’s story literally begins with filing the divorce papers. It’s about that pain of the dissolving of a fairy tale, particularly for Diana. It starts with the filing of divorce papers and takes you up until her death.”
Deadline’s Pete Hammond moderated the event which also included actress Kiernan Shipka who played Davis’ daughter BD, actor Alfred Molina who played director Robert Aldrich, exec producer Alexis Martin-Woodall and co-producer and writer Gina Welch.