The first season of FX and Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan ended not with a catfight but with regrets from the women involved in the battle. Both Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) found their well-documented rivalry followed them till the end of their lives, but each also seemed remorseful that they couldn’t find common ground.
Creator Ryan Murphy, currently at work on the second installment, about the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, talked about crafting the finale and the personal significance the series holds for him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It seemed like you were saying with the finale that these two women were haunted by this feud for the rest of their careers. Is that what you all found?
RYAN MURPHY: Well, I do think that it became a large part of their iconography for both women. There’s a moment where Joan Crawford says to the guy at the book signing, “I’ve made a lot of movies before that. Why didn’t you bring me a picture of Mildred Pierce?” I think Joan was haunted and ultimately felt humiliated with what happened with Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and felt that Bette had won.
Bette, in my experience with her, she resented it and yet it was part of her brand. Even when I met her, she would admit that you could get booked on Johnny Carson if you promised to talk about Joan Crawford and how much you hated her. So she benefitted a lot in a weird economic way even though she admitted to me that she had regrets it did not work out better. I think they had huge lives before and huge lives after, but their feud was an indelible part of their legend.
Tell me about the dream sequence with Joan imagining meeting up again with Bette and Jack Warner and Hedda Hopper. Do you really think they regretted this and would have been friends?
I know they regretted it because Bette Davis felt she had handled it perhaps unkindly and too abruptly and without any compassion. Only after working with Faye Dunaway did she find out what a saint Joan Crawford was. It made her realize Joan Crawford was a professional and actually did care. But it was really based on the fact that in our research, at the end of her life in the last month, we found evidence of people who knew her that Joan Crawford, who was very ill and dying of cancer, was having hallucinations where she was having imaginary conversations with people. So when we found that out, we were like, “Well wouldn’t it be great if she hallucinated…” Most old people, my grandmother for example, at the end of their lives talk about the good old days. So we thought we know that Joan was talking to people in her mind, and what if one of those people was Bette. I wanted to give the audience something that Joan and Bette actually did not have: a sense of closure. They talked about it individually, like “Oh I wish I would have handled it better.” But I thought what if they said that to each other’s face? Obviously that conversation never happened, but it could have happened in Crawford’s imagination. Also, it was inspired in part by the fact that Bette Davis said she had regrets. So I felt like I wasn’t putting words in her mouth. So that’s how that very long, great scene happened. It was based on the Crawford death research and what Bette Davis told me.
What I love about this finale episode is it’s written, directed, edited, and starring all women. It has that feminine touch about what regrets do women have and how do they really talk to each other and what would they say. It came out of a lot conversations with all of the women on set based on other women they had known as well. It was a very powerful conclusion to not only the stories but also all the work I had done on the Half Foundation. I was really rewarded by it. It was a really cool thing.
I kept thinking that these women were so pushed aside by Hollywood, and if Ryan Murphy were around, you probably would have given them great roles.
Yeah. I mean, I love actors, but I really love actresses, and I really love actresses whose work touched and informed my coming-up years. I felt that way about Jessica and Susan. I probably would have. I probably would have tried to.
I looked at what happened to them at the end of their careers as a tragedy—it’s a tragedy that Joan Crawford would have to do Trog. And it’s a tragedy that Bette Davis would have to do eight failed pilots, and none of them would ever get picked up to series.
But to me, the triumph of it is that they never gave up, and they kept working, and they were always thinking, “Okay this next one is going to be the one!” And isn’t that what show business really is, anyways? So I thought it was great that they kept working and writing till the end of their days. You can say what you want about both of them—particularly Joan Crawford gets slagged a lot. But you can never question her work ethic or how hard she tried, and that is the triumph of the human spirit, and I wanted to show that about both of them.
The flashback to the first day on the set of Baby Jane where Joan and Bette both admit they hope this is the start of a great friendship—is that true to life?
Well, Bette has intimated as much in interviews, like Crawford was sending her little gifts and came to her dressing room and said, “I really hope we can put our differences behind us.” But Bette thought everything out of Joan’s mouth was pure bulls—. I do feel like a conversation or a variation of it happened, and that’s the sadness of it.
What do you want people to take away from Feud?
When I started it, for me, I was really interested in telling a story of women working against the system in Hollywood and shining a spotlight on sexism and misogyny and gender wage differences. But I think at the end of the day, the thing that I was so moved by was a personal one. I got into Bette Davis because of my grandmother. Bette Davis reminded me of my grandmother. That’s how I discovered her and started to write to her. At the end, Allison Wright’s character says, “Is your grandmother still alive?” and the interviewer says, “Yes.” And she says, “Call her.” I feel like for me, the whole show was a tribute to my grandmother and the difficulty of her aging as it is for any older person. So I feel like it was some weird tribute to my grandmother I didn’t know I was making until I was watching it. It was about my feelings about her, about how hard it is to grow old in our society and how hard it is particularly to be a woman growing old. You kind of become invisible, not just to society but sometimes your family So I think that’s what it became.
What can you say about season 2? Are you casting now?
Season 2 is casting. Jon Robin Baitz and Ned Martel are writing it with me. It’s going to be super juicy. It’s a very different kind of feud than the feud we told with Bette and Joan. It’s a love affair feud.
Do you imagine it will be a star playing Diana or a newcomer?
I don’t know. It’s become sort of a Scarlett O’Hara part. A lot of people want to be Diana, and we’re doing a very sympathetic portrayal of her. I don’t know. I’m open to both. I don’t know where we’re going to land.