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This Week's Cover: Inside Ryan Murphy's Feud: Bette and Joan

Ryan Murphy’s upcoming small screen project stars two of today’s greatest actresses as two of Hollywood’s most enduring stars.

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Ryan Murphy’s next small screen project stars two of today’s greatest actresses as two of Hollywood’s most enduring stars. In the new issue of EW, the creator gives us an exclusive first look at his fascinating, addictive new series, Feud: Bette and Joan, starring Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford.

Feud (March 5 on FX) chronicles the intense rivalry between Davis and Crawford that began during their heydays in the ’30s and ’40s. Davis (the greater actress) once said of Crawford, “She slept with every male costar at MGM except Lassie.” And Crawford (the more glamorous star) once said Davis appeared to have “never had a happy day — or night — in her life.”

GALLERY: Exclusive First Look at FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan

Also in the star-studded anthology series: Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland, Alfred Molina as director Robert Aldrich, Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper, Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell and Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page. It starts when Davis and Crawford (both in their mid-50s but considered washed-up in Hollywood) agree to costar in the low-budget 1962 horror flick Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? While filming, Davis allegedly kicked Crawford in the head; and when Davis was nominated for an Oscar (the movie was a surprise hit) Crawford campaigned against her.

While researching the role, Sarandon discovered she and Davis had a lot in common; like Davis, says Sarandon, “I never saw myself as being one of the beautiful girls… So I kind of understood and related to that.” Lange, however, calls Crawford her “polar opposite.” Crawford — raised in squalor and abused by her mother — obsessed over her movie-queen image but was haunted by her past. “She lived with that always,” says Lange. “That great fear of poverty. She used sexuality as comfort, as a bargaining tool, as punishment.”

For more on this week’s cover story, watch EW The Show, available now here, on the new PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.

Lange was also shocked to learn that Crawford soaked her face in ice and witch hazel daily — a painful beauty regimen that was depicted, memorably, in Mommie Dearest, the outrageous 1981 film starring Faye Dunaway as Crawford. It’s also featured in Feud. “The witch hazel was my shout-out to Mommie Dearest,” says Murphy. “Jessica Lange has never seen Mommie Dearest. She’s like, ‘What the f— am I doing?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m telling you, Joan Crawford did this!”

Though the series is sometimes as outrageous as the dueling divas, it’s also an astute and occasionally shattering study of two women victimized by men, by the media, by the studio system; a cautionary, compassionate feminist tale. “I wasn’t interested in just doing this broad, campy [show],” says Murphy. “I was interested in the idea of sexism, ageism, misogyny. Turning 40, 45, 50 and feeling like you’re at the height of your powers and people saying, ‘Well, you’re done.’”

To read more on Feud: Bette and Joan, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, or buy it here now – and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. 

Robert Trachtenberg for EW