It was one of old Hollywood’s greatest legends: that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who teamed up just once, for What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, held such animosity for one another that they spent their lives locked in a bitter dispute of mud-slinging, sabotage and disruption. With Feud, Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series, the prolific creator and showrunner has focused his first season on uncovering the real story behind the legend, and the damage it did to the two women at its center. And in his inimitable fashion, he’s reassessing its relevance for today.
How long has the idea of detailing the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford feud been brewing for you?
Well, it started back in 2009. I’ve been working with Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt of Plan B for a long time. We read this Black List script called Best Actress that we bought, and a month later I met with Susan Sarandon to play Bette and Jessica Lange to play Joan. It was actually the first time I had ever talked to Jessica Lange, which predated American Horror Story. They were both really interested, and they loved my take on it. Then for six years, we just struggled with it, because I really wanted to do an in-depth look at these two women’s interior world, and their journeys. Doing it as a movie, it became clear there just wouldn’t be enough time. We’d do a draft that would be 120 pages just about the shooting of Baby Jane.
Finally, I woke up one day and I realized this had to be a series. I had been musing about this idea of wanting to do an anthology series called Feud because I loved the idea of every season doing a two-hander that had a really emotional chord to it. Two great actors and two great characters. I called Susan and Jessica, and they said they would be interested and willing to do it. I thought it was going to be a really hard sell, because TV shows about two women over 50…We’re sort of indoctrinated in this industry to be told that’d be difficult. But I have had great success with, and love for, John Landgraf [at FX], so I called him and said, “Hey, I have this idea.” He greenlit it within 30 seconds, without even reading a page of the script. I was very lucky and blessed.
Is it luck? As you say, you’ve had so much success with FX now—surely you’re golden?
I just have a great relationship with them. I think John Landgraf sees things in the same way I do. We see eye to eye on a lot. This one was a personal story for me because it’s sort of about my feelings about my grandmother. And I knew Bette Davis a little bit because I’d interviewed her and written to her for years. I think you can tell from the work that I have really great affection for that woman.
The show started off being a very specific story about how women are treated in Hollywood. The deeper I got into it, the more I realized it’s a story about how society treats everybody when they age, but especially women. The fact that Joan Crawford’s last film was [horror B-movie] Trog is just unbelievable, and really sad. I approached it all, I hope, with a great deal of compassion. I think that it was particularly hard for Jessica and I, doing the Crawford stuff, because Crawford had become so indelibly linked to Mommie Dearest. I think trying to show her as more than that, and deeper than that, and more of a human being, was so essential.
For all the fighting, there was no victor here—Bette and Joan both suffered.
Yeah. If they had become allies, and looked to how much they had in common, I think about how much stronger they could have been together. Not only would their lives have been easier, but their bank accounts would have been fuller. They had more in common at a certain point in time, when they made Baby Jane, than any other people on Earth. The fortunes conspired to keep them apart, and that was the tragedy.
I don’t think there’s ever a winner in a feud. It’s about emotional pain, and an inability to conquer the pain.
What lessons do you think we can learn from Bette and Joan?
I feel like nothing has really changed in the business. There’s that feeling the show deals with, with women turning against each other because they feel there’s only one space atop the pedestal. They’re vying for that space. I feel like the way to get around this is to have women and minorities in positions of economic power in the industry. Greenlighting power, development power, running companies. And I do think it’s getting better on the business side. But for actresses, the biggest tragedy of their lives is that, when they turn 40, the phone stops ringing. Whereas for men, they’re just getting started.
You mentioned how early Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange were attached to the project. These actors did not just show up on day one and read from a script, and you can feel that.
It’s very powerful. Not only did they star in it, but they are producers on it. They own a piece of the show. Right off the bat, I think that changed the paradigm. I basically said to them, “Look, I wanted you to have as much power and freedom and say here as you can.” Because I knew the roles were going to be difficult, and I know they have a vested interest in it. What they brought to it is 30 to 35 years of experience. They’ve both been stars for 50 years, and from when they were 35 on, they talked about how they noticed that finding the roles was difficult, and how much harder they had to fight. I actually think Susan and Jessica brought a really strong sense of anger to the table in this series because they know what it’s like to be discriminated against. They’ve grown up in an environment where the Pacinos, the De Niros work constantly, and they struggle to find good parts. They came with an inherent understanding of what Joan and Bette went through.
The difference is that Jessica and Susan were friends and are friends, and approached it from a place of being collaborative rather than combative. So you had this way into the material that was very specific, but also very thoughtful and loving.
Did you always intend to track such a significant period of time in these women’s lives?
I always knew the structure of the show. I always knew that the first three episodes would be the filming of Baby Jane, and also the flashbacks to explain how they became so angry with one another. Then I knew episode four was going to be the release of the movie, and its success, and how that wasn’t enough for Bette and Joan to repair anything. Then, I really wanted a whole episode, episode five, about the Oscars, because I thought that moment was so insane and powerful. Then we got into the making of Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and the last episode would be about the ’70s. That was the period that marked the death of the studio system, and it was also about the end of Crawford and Davis, because they were so much a part of that system.
My grandmother was around Joan Crawford’s age when she died, and I also wanted to be dealing with what the last two years of my grandmother’s life was like. What’s it like to be a woman who’s very, very active and busy, and then the children were leaving, the empty nest? When the phone doesn’t ring anymore, and you get ill, and how difficult of a struggle that is. Not just for women, but for anyone. I always knew that would be the structure.
What did the reception for the show mean to you?
I think the fact that is has become a success, and moved so many people, and launched so many conversations, has been the icing on the cake. The greatest thing for all of is us the fact that an entire new generation has been turned onto the work of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Susan, Jessica and I talked a lot about that. Just being able to educate a new generation about the work and craftsmanship that we all grew up with, and loved so much, that meant so much to us… It’s a great experience to be a cheerleader for that.
You humanized these icons in this show. The next season will track the divorce of Prince Charles and Diana, and if any story demands humanizing, it’s that. The tabloids in Britain printed all kinds of fictions.
It’s a different kind of feud because it’s about marriage, but it’s also about regret and misunderstanding, and two people who should have made it work but just couldn’t. That, to me, is the basis for every season of Feud. Charles And Diana will be very emotional, but in a different way. A respectful way, but a gut-wrenching way.
As you say, the thing about this story is that in some ways these were ordinary people, with ordinary needs, wants and hearts, that were thrust into this extraordinary circumstance. At the end of the day, a divorce is a divorce, and a break-up is a break-up. They are essentially small matters of the heart. They are human stories. Theirs just happened to be on a big stage, where everything is fabricated and blown out of proportion. It’s very important in the Charles and Diana story, even though they were royalty, to not lose the beating heart of the story. Particularly the idea that Diana was a somewhat ordinary girl thrust into the worldwide stage. She was not prepared for it. That’s very moving, right off the bat.