Sunday night marked the second installment of FX’s Hollywood saga Feud: Bette and Joan, and it’s safe to say the moisturizing gloves are off. Hour two of Feud found Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) each spreading rumors about each other in the press after being set up by studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) and their director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina).
EW talked to series creator Ryan Murphy about the episode and how much of this feud really happened (sadly, a lot of it) and the vicious cycle of Hollywood.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How much of this is real and how much is fictionalized for TV?
RYAN MURPHY: The weird thing about this show is how much of it you can’t believe is accurate. My stance on the show is we’re not making a documentary — we’re making a piece of drama based on fact. So right there, that’s our rule. We did a lot of research. We looked at around 25 books. In some cases, we spoke to people still alive who knew them. And then, of course, I spent four hours with Bette Davis and so a lot of that stuff is her perception of how a lot of that happened.
In this episode, we have a very brief affair between Bette Davis and Robert Aldrich. Now, that is based on several things: That is based on the fact that Davis, by her own admission to me, loved sleeping with her directors. She slept with at least four of them. It’s based on the fact that Robert Aldrich and Joan Crawford did have an affair when they were shooting Autumn Leaves. It’s based on the fact that Robert Aldrich was going through a very difficult divorce at the time and he did leave his wife. And also most interesting to me is that Joan Crawford herself said they had an affair. She says 100 percent they had an affair because she saw intimations of it and she was worried Aldrich was throwing the picture to Davis. When they were doing the sequel, she would call his room to give him voluminous notes, and Davis was in bed next to him saying, “Shut up! The champagne is getting flat.”
The other thing we have in the episode that I think is really interesting is that when the picture started, the women were getting along. The Hedda Hopper dinner at the end of episode 1 is an absolute truth that happened during the beginning of production. She had these people to her house and they were very careful and respectful of each other in the interview. So we know they were getting along at the beginning and Hedda was frustrated with how boring it was. Then, mysteriously, a couple weeks after that, items started popping up all over gossip columns about the two women having difficulties and that the crew was thinking Joan’s performance was better. Then halfway through the picture, they actually started to physically and emotionally fight.
So our question as writers was, what turned south? And what turned south was the press started to write about all this stuff that wasn’t true. Also based on our research was Jack Warner loved the catfight approach to the marketing of this picture. He thought that two women going head-to-head not only in the picture but in real life would send, as it always has, audiences to the theaters. So the catfight approach became part of the marketing.
Many times we’d come to a conclusion based on all this stuff and, of course, we’d fill in the blanks because we’re not making Bette and Joan: The Documentary. We would take sometimes a little bit of dramatic license with scenes. We didn’t know what the dialogue was so we had to piece all that together.
What I gleaned from it was two things: how sad it was and how it still happens today. I went online today and read two articles that Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon were fighting on Big Little Lies. Now, I know that is an absolute lie because I’m friends with both of them. I also read articles that say how Jessica and Susan were fighting — absolutely not true. They could not have loved each other more. Susan and I would talk on set. The stuff that happened to Davis and Crawford has always happened in our culture. When Susan was doing Thelma & Louise, people were writing articles about how she and Geena Davis were at each other’s throats — nothing could be further from the truth.
So I was interested in examining that: Why in our culture are fights among women stars so attractive and why don’t they ever write it about men? I think the core bottom line is economic. It’s a cultural phenomenon that’s disturbing but true.
The sets and costumes are incredible and some of the stuff is really from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, right?
I think we have over 20 scenes of movie recreations. We would decide what are we showing and what’s the clip. We’d freeze-frame the clip and give it to all the department heads. We’d have costumes, wigs, sometimes eyelashes — they all had to be custom-made. That took like six months of research and time and a lot of money, so I’m thankful FX let us do it.
In the case of the Baby Jane set, we watched the film and recreated the sets down to the nail heads. When we were dressing them, I got a very excited phone call from Judy Becker, who’s our production designer. She said, “We found the Baby Jane furniture in storage. It had not been touched since the movie but it’s covered in sheets and dust.” It was amazing when you’re shooting those Baby Jane scenes to have the furniture that Davis and Crawford used, so it meant a lot, I think, to Susan and Jessica.
When we had to recreate the Baby Jane scenes, it was hell. There’s the scene in episode 2 where Susan has to go “Blanch Hudson — miss big fat movie star!” Susan and I and the DP would all watch it and we had copies and we’d line her up and frame her exactly as it had been shot. Then, Susan and I and the vocal coach, we would watch it over and over and she’d do it and we’d say, like, your left pinky needs to be a centimeter higher to the left. She was like, “Oh my god, this is going to kill me!”
It was a lot of fun, but we spent a lot of time getting that right. We found bats— crazy stuff we’d use, not just onscreen but off. We’d have the real hat molds Joan Crawford would use. It was a labor of love. I think everybody on the show was thrilled to do it because we loved old movies and we loved those women so I think it comes through, our affection for it.
This tackles themes of faded fame and women feeling undesirable as they age, something you touched on with both Constance in American Horror Story: Murder House and Elsa in AHS: Freak Show. Do you see those connections?
I am always drawn to strong women. Jessica loves to play tragic, emotional scenes, and she also loves a big monologue. Because I’m so close to her and worked with her so much, before every project, we sit down and go, okay, what have you always wanted to do? In this case, she was a true collaborator, because she read all about Joan Crawford. After we had some of the scripts done, before we started to shoot — and Susan did this too — she would say, “Okay, this is my favorite thing about Joan Crawford that I read about her and I’d love to play this in a scene.” So I would try and figure out a way in our narrative to put those things in.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the cruelty of how women have an expiration date on their lives and their dreams and men don’t and I think I just always write that.
Will Bette’s daughter (Kiernan Shipka) come back?
Oh yeah. She runs through the whole run of the show.
Will Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) and Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) interact with Betty and Joan?
Oh yes, of course. In episode 5 of our show, Olivia goes from being a talking head character to having actual scenes. She was really close with Bette. She went to the Oscars with Bette and was Bette’s confidante. After Joan Crawford pulled out of Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, Bette and the director called Olivia as a favor to please come do this. So starting in 5, Catherine becomes very heavy.
What can you say about the third episode?
It’s called “Mommie Dearest.” I was interested in the reinvention of the image of Joan Crawford — and that’s not to say the stuff Christina Crawford wrote isn’t true. Joan herself admitted that she was an alcoholic and she says that her alcoholism started to get really bad during Baby Jane because that’s when she felt pushed to the brink by Bette Davis. I don’t think she was a one-note, wire hanger creature that people think of her as now. Look, I loved Faye Dunaway’s performance in Mommie Dearest. It’s truly a work of genius. I was interested in showing her to be someone who was a little softer, a little kinder, someone who was a little lost, a victim of her time. She actually had a wonderful relationship with two of her daughters. That side of that woman has never been explored.
Have you heard from any family members from Davis or Crawford’s families?
No. The same thing happened when we were doing O.J. The only person we ever heard from was Faye Resnick. That was the only one. Everybody else sort of waited to have an opinion on it. I don’t know what their families will think. I think our portrayal is real and we worked hard on the research of it and we worked hard on documenting it. But I think it’s a very kind portrayal of them. I think the audience will feel like these women were national treasures and legends and should not have been treated this way. If they were men, that would have never happened to them. I hope the families feel we loved these women.
Have you begun working on season 2?
Charles and Diana? You know we have! I’m casting it now.
That must be challenging to find someone to play a figure as iconic as Diana.
It’s the same thing that I was attracted to with this show — our public perceptions of all these people are so interesting to me. The thing I was struck about was how real she was and how great she was with those kids. She was an ordinary person put in an extraordinary circumstance. I admire her a great deal. I also think Charles is interesting too. Whoever plays those parts, it’s a big role, but we’re approaching those people with love and understanding and kindness. A lot of people want to do it.