Though FX’s new Ryan Murphy drama, which delves into the larger-than-life feud between legendary actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, could border on campy, the prolific executive producer stresses that they’ve striven to ground Feud: Bette and Joan in themes that are still timely today.
The first installment of a new limited series, Feud explores the legendary rivalry between Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Davis (Susan Sarandon) while they costarred in the Oscar-nominated film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The Feud all-star line-up also includes Alfred Molina as the film’s director, Robert Aldrich, Stanley Tucci as studio titan Jack Warner, Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Catherine Zeta-Jones as film star Olivia De Havilland, Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page, Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell, and Kiernan Shipka as B.D., Bette Davis’ daughter.
“We were interested in doing a show about two women and their lives and the problems that they had,” Murphy said at the Television Critics Association’s press tour on Thursday. “I wasn’t really interested in doing anything that was ‘campy.’ I was interested in something a little deeper and a little bit more emotional and painful.”
Part of that idea is born out of a conversation Murphy had with Davis before she died in 1989. “I think ultimately what happened to both women is very painful,” Murphy said. “I got to know Bette Davis. I had a very minor relationship with her and got to spend time with her, and the thing about her is you go into something like that expecting a very larger-than-life camp figure, which she helped propagate. As she told me when I talked to her, she felt that she was never going to be anybody unless somebody could impersonate her, so in the public view she really turned that on, she felt that was important for her survival. When I [spent four hours with her], she was not that person at all. She was not camp, she was not a broad, she was very emotional and real and all of those things.”
Feud, therefore, explores topics of ageism and sexism as the powerhouse actresses hit the sunset of their careers. “What I love about the show is the themes and issues in the show are so modern and women are still going through that sort of stuff,” Murphy said. “And nothing has really changed. We really wanted to lean into that aspect of the show. Although I do still think they’re hilarious and their interactions are hilarious, so we didn’t want to avoid that, but we wanted to hopefully take it away from what people would expect and make it a little bit more emotional.”
“Aging actresses still have the same problem, I can guarantee that,” Sarandon added.
Lange concurred, noting the conversation now isn’t necessarily about age or looks, but rather who is interested in these stories. “That’s a big part of this show, is what Hollywood does to women as they age, which is just a microcosm of what happens to women generally as they age,” Lange says. “Whether you want to say they become invisible or they become unattractive or they become undesirable or whatever it is, and I think with this film we’ve touched on that in a very profound way. I mean, Joan was 10 years younger when this takes place than I am now, and yet her career was finished because of her age. I think what we’ve tried to do is really somehow investigate what that does to a woman when she’s no longer considered — I mean, you’ve’ got these great lines that Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner says, ‘Would you f— these two broads?’”
“There’s a great Amy Schumer thing, your last f—able day in Hollywood,” Lange continued with a laugh. “What we’re talking about — especially with Joan, who was known for her tremendous beauty — is what happens when that beauty is no longer considered viable because it’s equated with youth, because a woman at a certain age can no longer be considered beautiful, and I think what we’ve tried to do is see not just in the overall milieu of Hollywood, but what happens to women as they age and become considered less than important.”
Added executive producer Dede Gardner: “I think the show is deeply modern, actually. I think it’s delicious in its celebration of a town that was less crowded, but I don’t think it romanticizes it. I think it calls it out for its truisms and it was brutal. These women were treated brutally and made to treat one another brutally. And I don’t think much has changed in that regard.”
In preparation for their roles, Lange and Sarandon scoured old recordings and interviews for inspiration in portraying the bitter rivalry between these women — in fact, many of the insults thrown around on screen are based on quotes Crawford and Davis had said in the press.
“The good news and the bad news of playing someone so well known are that there is so many pieces of film and TV appearances and films and interviews and recordings and everything, so we all just hunkered down for the first six weeks,” Sarandon said. “We were just getting as much as we could, but when Ryan first talked to me about it, I said, ‘I’m just so terrified.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m scared too.’ And that really helped me a lot.”
Feud: Bette and Joan will debut Sunday, March 5 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.
—Marc Snetiker contributed to this report