Jessica Lange has much in common with Joan Crawford, the icon she resurrects on Ryan Murphy’s Feud. The two high-cheekboned actresses launched their careers as models and dancers before studying the art of silence; Lange as a mime, and Crawford as one of the last pre-talkies glamour girls to transition into sound. At first, Hollywood typecast them both as “The Babe”, a dismissal they fought by diving into extra homework. Crawford, who quit school after 5th grade, read scripts with a dictionary.
“She’d have to look up every couple words,” says Lange over the phone from a well-earned vacation in the woods. “She was an absolutely dedicated, diligent student—she wanted so badly to be a movie star.”
Crawford became one. And then, thanks to a toxic cocktail of misogyny, ageism, ego and vodka, her star faded, a dimming that Lange embodies with what can only be called merciless sympathy. Her Feud portrayal kicks off with Crawford embracing—and conquering—gothic camp in the 1962 hit Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? “Her scenes in Baby Jane showed she was still vital as an actor,” says Lange, “and from then on it was all downhill.” When Crawford’s gamble didn’t pay off with her agent’s telephone ringing off the hook, and her Oscar hopes were handed instead to her co-star and rival Bette Davis, the legend shuttered her glow from the industry that had once beamed her name in lights.
Here’s where Crawford and Lange’s stories differ. Baby Jane was Crawford’s turning point for the worse. But dredging up Crawford at her worst has earned Lange an Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy nomination, alongside co-star Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis—an irony that would have their characters howling (and grabbing their phones to backstab each other to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, here played by Judy Davis).
Arguably, Feud has already helped Lange win two Emmys. Murphy first pitched Lange on the project in 2009, three years before they paired up for American Horror Story, where the pedigreed Lange startled fans and seduced awards voters with a terrifically fun volte-face as, in different seasons, a vain witch, a wild nun, a wicked mother, and a stage diva who chainsawed her own legs off for fame. Clearly, Baby Jane was on both of their minds. “It was always kind of lurking out there,” admits Lange. Pity her own gonzo resurrection hadn’t worked as well for Crawford.
Still, Lange, too, works double-time to prove her worth. After her bimbo debut in the 1976 re-do of King Kong, Lange became a scholar of doomed actress Frances Farmer for the biopic Frances, where she met Sam Shepard, her partner for 27 years. (The pair split in 2009; Shepard passed away shortly after my interview with Lange.) Farmer was another screen beauty forced to fight the system. She lost, and ultimately wound up lobotomized. Lange watched everything she did, even home movies from when Farmer was an unknown frolicking in summer stock. Lange lost weight and gained dark circles under her eyes. On set, she teetered on the edge of a nervous breakdown. But when it was over, she’d earned her first Best Actress Oscar nomination, plus a second Best Supporting Actress nomination for Tootsie. And, like Crawford and Davis before her, she’d also been landed with the industry’s booby prize: a rival named Meryl Streep.
Hollywood loves a cat-fight. The two talented blondes, born two months apart, had already competed head-to-head for roles. Now, they were up against each other for Best Actress. Ultimately, Streep won for Sophie’s Choice. Lange was content to take home Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie, and 12 years later finally claimed Best Actress for Blue Sky. In Feud, Bette Davis sleeps with her Oscars. “Well, I don’t,” laughs Lange, though she swears “they’re not used as doorstops.”
Unlike their forebears, new superstars Lange and Streep knew not to take the gossips’ bait. Streep admitted that she wished she’d scored the part of Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, but that “Jessica Lange did it and she was fantastic.” As for Lange, she insists that she “never paid much attention to that.” Instead, she focused on recovering from Farmer, an experience that exhausted her so much she once vowed, “I’ll never do a role like that again.”
How could she not? Lange came of age during disco, but has classic Hollywood in her soul. She has the controlled spine and calculated voice of an old-fashioned star, qualities that are innate. Lange became famous channeling Fay Wray, and went on to put her stamp on all of the great roles, from Blanche DuBois and Maggie the Cat to remakes of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Sybil, where she tackled parts first played by Lana Turner and Joanne Woodward.
Lange didn’t watch their versions, or check up on Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor. “It’s not going to help my interpretation of that character,” says Lange. Which means, no, she didn’t watch Faye Dunaway’s looney-bin spin on Crawford in Mommie Dearest, either. She didn’t even read the memoir, furiously penned by Crawford’s angry eldest daughter. As Lange explains, it didn’t make sense to trust the viewpoint of “somebody who had a lifetime of emotional investment in telling her story.” Instead, Lange channeled Joan by studying Joan. Everything Joan. Lange had barely slipped out of the Edwardian dressing gowns of her Tony-winning turn in Long Day’s Journey into Night before her life became a cram session of Crawford’s biographies, interviews, and of course, films—effort Joan would approve.
“It really was like jamming for a final,” says Lange. She would earmark Crawford’s quotes, and convince Murphy why they needed to be in the show. Nine times out of 10, he’d agree. “Maybe the frantic quality of learning about her helped in some odd way,” adds Lange. “I think there was a bit of desperation on my part, and that carried over into playing her.”
There’s desperation, sure, in how Lange captures Crawford’s self-consciousness, the vain thrust of her chin, the thick eyebrows she calculated to be “just about the same size and weight and darkness,” though they don’t seem to dominate Lange’s face as much. In Lange’s cautious diction, you hear Crawford’s fear of backsliding into the Texas urchin she’d been back when she was streetwise Lucille LeSueur. (“Joan Crawford” was a stage name.) You even see that anxiety in her apartment, where Crawford has nervously wrapped her expensive furniture in plastic that had Lange skidding every time she sat down. “Sets like that served us very well,” says Lange, “but I found them all so terribly sad.” As for Crawford’s rigorous beauty rituals, like the sink filled with cold witch hazel and ice cubes, Lange laughs, “It can’t do any harm, but I’m not sure it’s the magic elixir, either.”
Yet, even after all that preparation, Lange blinked when she first walked into Crawford’s mock apartment and saw a portrait of her—or rather, of herself as Joan Crawford—prominently displayed over the fireplace. “I couldn’t figure out who it was for a moment,” admits Lange. “It was my face but with all the accouterments. It was very disorienting.”
What earned Lange her eighth Emmy nomination isn’t her mimicry. It’s her empathy. At times, Feud can seem almost too cruel to Crawford, like an early scene where Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) recoils from her kiss. The show plays that moment for a cringing laugh at the over-confident biddy who still believes she’s a sex goddess. But in a blink, Lange makes you feel Crawford’s pain. When the script strips Crawford of dignity, Lange reveals her vulnerability and pride. Rejection hurts. But Crawford’s been through worse.
“I became obsessed with her childhood,” says Lange. Lucille LeSueur was sexually abused by her stepfather at 11, then thrown into a boarding school where she was forced to earn her keep by cooking and cleaning for her classmates. Hollywood was LeSueur’s ticket out, and she seized it with a grip she wouldn’t release for 50 years. “If you look at her early films, [Our] Dancing Daughters and the early footage of her, there’s an abandon, almost a kind of vulgarity to her,” says Lange. “I don’t think it was a mistake that [F. Scott] Fitzgerald referred to her as one of the original Jazz Babies. I would have loved to ask her about the extreme of going from that girl who danced to ‘Black Bottom’ or the Charleston to ‘Joan Crawford,’” says Lange, pronouncing LeSueur’s new name like stiff velvet.
As Lange’s Crawford sighs in the season finale, “I felt like I always had to be on, that if someone caught a glimpse of the girl beneath the movie star then—poof!—I’d go back to that sad little wretch I’d been.” Back then, the average civilian couldn’t comprehend the pressure of creating, and maintaining, a public image. Today, thanks to Instagram, we do. And while there’s no single journalist as powerful as Hedda Hopper, a woman who took pride in creating, and wrecking, careers, Lange notes that, “the internet, as a kind of anonymous entity, is successful at that from time to time.
“When you think about being under contract to MGM or Warner Bros., and what you had to do to hold on to that position, it’s hard for people to even understand what was at stake with that stardom,” says Lange. No wonder Crawford was armored—literally. On that infamous 1963 evening when Crawford sabotaged Davis’s Oscar win and stole the spotlight by accepting Anne Bancroft’s award, she steeled herself in a silver beaded dress that weighed over 40 pounds. Murphy recreated the entire backstage of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and sent Lange stalking through it in a tricky single shot where she passes through green rooms and kitchens, nods at wannabes, and even pats a man on the back while he’s at the urinal, before pausing to crush a cigarette right before she goes onstage to officially win Hollywood’s Cattiest Queen. “Between takes, we’d have to slip the dress off because it was just making my back and shoulders and everything ache,” says Lange. But Crawford forced herself to carry its weight all night.
At this year’s Emmys, Lange could have an opportunity to lay Crawford’s ghost to rest. What if no matter who wins—her or Sarandon, or their other worthy contenders Carrie Coon, Felicity Huffman, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon—the actresses march out arm-in-arm in solidarity, defying an industry that pits talented women against each other? Lange chuckles at the image. “I hadn’t thought of that!”