Feud chronicles the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and the bitter rivalry of two Hollywood Titans — Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But, what was the real reason Joan Crawford (played by Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (played by Susan Sarandon) hated each other during the making of the cult classic?
Hollywood is full of legends and legacies, and before there were Twitter feuds, there was Bette Davis and Joan Crawford — two of the most revered actresses of their time, forever remembered for not just their onscreen gifts, but their heated off-screen tiffs.
Crawford moved to Warner Bros. in 1943—also known as Davis’ territory (she had been signed to the studio since 1932 and would remain there until 1949). With both leading ladies in Warner Bros.’ pocket, they began picking from the same roles.
Though the feud came to a head whilst on the set of the five-time Academy Award-nominated horror film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), it was no secret to the rumor mill that Crawford and Davis were far from fond of each other.
The contention is said to have started when Davis hit a career milestone in 1933. Her film, Ex-Lady, was going to be the first of Davis’ films on which her name would rest atop the title. Crawford, already a star when the younger Davis came onto the scene, managed to eclipse the promotional campaign for Davis in Warner Bros.’ pipeline with the announcement of her impending divorce from Douglas Fairbanks Jr., her first husband. Crawford and Franchot Tone, Davis’ Dangerous (1935) costar and unrequited love, then married a mere two years later. Davis admitted she had “never forgiven her for that, and never will,” in 1987. Couple these incidents with Crawford’s mocking of the dress Davis wore to the 1936 Academy Awards, and the olive branches she sent in the form of flowers and gifts — which Davis made sure to return — and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a cinematic Feud like no other.
First dubbed “Queen of the Movies” by Life magazine, in part because she held the title of top box-office star for three consecutive years, Crawford was no stranger to a lavish lifestyle. When Motion Picture magazine sent photographers and reporters to the set of Love on the Run, she showered them with “the full-glamour treatment.” In fact, there was a time Crawford boasted a 27-room mansion, leading her to also hold the nickname, “the empress.”
Crawford took advantage of her appearance when in the world of glitz and glamor. The actress’ “large blue eyes, wide mouth, broad shoulders and slim [figure]” were so noteworthy, that even her obituary honored them. Though Crawford was at the height of her success in the 1930s, it wasn’t until her role in Mildred Pierce (1945) that she garnered her first Academy Award for Best Actress — for the very role Davis had previously turned down. Though Crawford never won another Oscar, she would score two more nominations, for her roles in the films Possessed (1947) — another role initially meant for Davis — and the 1952 thriller Sudden Fear, on which she also served as producer.
Despite this, Crawford’s career, which now included a slew of television would-have-beens, was floundering by the latter half of the 1950s. When she sought out Davis to play opposite her in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? — a fictional thriller propelled by non-fiction hatred — she succeeded, and set in motion what would be regarded as not just their mutual comeback, but, as Harper’s Bazaar puts it, “a public document of their real-life rivalry.”
Crawford died after suffering a heart attack in 1977. As of 2014, she was reported by Celebrity Net Worth to have a net worth of $8 million. According to The Richest, Crawford’s first child, Christina, has a net worth of $5 million. Christina penned Mommie Dearest, a highly contested memoir-turned-film which portrays supposed accounts of abuse inflicted by Crawford.
Following the success of the 1938 film Jezebel, Davis rose in the ranks of Hollywood, becoming a regular on the “Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars.” Now regarded as a Hollywood Titan, Davis was the first woman to serve as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, although her tenure only lasted for two months. Davis was more concerned with expressing herself than she was with pleasing everyone, having made less-than-flattering admissions in her autobiographies about past costars. Of course, Crawford took a brunt of this, inspiring now-famous remarks, such as, “The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in [What Ever] Happened to Baby Jane?”
Davis was famous for her wide eyes (even having inspired a Kim Carnes song, entitled, “Bette Davis Eyes” — for which Davis thanked her), so much so that it’s been said she was intentionally filmed with close-ups in order to make her eyes more pronounced. Davis is also said to have been able to dilate her eyes for dramatic effect.
Her role in the aforementioned Dangerous earned Davis her first Oscar win, with her turn in Jezebel resulting in her second and final win. Not including her victories, Davis earned a total of nine Academy Award nominations over the course of her career. Despite her legendary role in 1950’s All About Eve, the ’50s were not particularly kind to Davis. She and Crawford were similar in this way, though Davis waited out this dry spell on Broadway.
Davis died in 1989, the same year her last film was released. As of that year, it was reported that Davis’ estate was about $1 million, with nearly half going to her son, Michael Woodman Merrill, while secretary and friend, Kathryn Sermack, was also bequeathed nearly half.
Making of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
It was Crawford who first happened upon the book version of Baby Jane and subsequently pitched it as a film. Crawford was also responsible for Davis’ eventual casting, as she was the one to suggest Davis’ inclusion in the project. When Crawford approached her to costar in Baby Jane, Davis only accepted after she was assured the role of Jane, and after the director, Robert Aldrich, confirmed that he and Crawford were not sleeping together, as she reportedly “didn’t want him favoring her with more close-ups.”
As disturbing as the relationship between Jane and Blanche (Crawford) is in the film, Crawford and Davis’ real-life relationship was plenty off-putting in its own right, even after they agreed to work together. It’s said that during a scene in which Jane is supposed to hurt Blanche, Davis actually kicked Crawford in the head. Though she claimed to have “barely touched her,” rumor spread that stitches were needed following the incident. One scene includes Jane pulling Blanche from her bed and dragging her body across the room, during the filming of which, Crawford fought fire with fire. Knowing that Davis was prone to back issues, she reportedly attempted to intentionally make herself heavier. There are multiple rumors surrounding how she managed this, with a weightlifter’s belt or rock-filled pockets among the most popular theories.
Feud – FX Series
Ryan Murphy’s (Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story) newest anthology series, Feud, begins with the story of Bette and Joan, just before Baby Jane gets underway. Academy Award winner and Emmy nominee Susan Sarandon plays Bette Davis, alongside Oscar and Emmy winner and Murphy favorite Jessica Lange, who’s taking on Joan Crawford. Warner Bros. president, Jack Warner, is portrayed by Stanley Tucci. Judy Davis is playing actress-turned-gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, with Alfred Molina portraying Aldrich, and Jackie Hoffman playing housekeeper Mamacita. Catherine Zeta-Jones is playing Olivia de Havilland — who would go on to replace Crawford in what would have been the second collaboration for her and Davis, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Both Kathy Bates and Sarah Paulson, also Murphy regulars, feature in the show as Joan Blondell and Geraldine Page, respectively. Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka plays a young B.D. Merrill, and Dominic Burgess portrays Victor Buono, whose role in Baby Jane was the only other to be nominated for an acting Oscar.
Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford
Lange began working with Murphy when she signed onto American Horror Story, during a self-proclaimed “low point.” Lange, whose role in Feud is coming off the heels of Louis C.K.’s web series, Horace and Pete, has called Crawford “nuts,” though she fully acknowledges the incredibly difficult road the actress had to travel to become Hollywood’s finest. Coming from a world in which she was “poor” and “abused,” native Texan Crawford — whose real name was Lucille LeSeur — was a character, “a creation,” her portrayer said. Lange explained that Crawford’s mythos even fooled her when she was young and would watch her acting. “She devoted her life’s energy to creating the character of Joan Crawford,” Lange said. “Always beneath that is Lucille LeSeur, and that became what was so fascinating to play.” Lange added to EW that Crawford “used sexuality as comfort, as a bargaining tool, as punishment,” given her upbringing.
While Sarandon was hesitant to take on the role of Davis, Lange trusted Murphy and the “enthusiasm” he exhibited for the project. Of striking a balance between the identity which Crawford put on display, and that which she tried to tamp down, Lange appreciated the subtle nuances she got to play with. “Whether it was just, you know, under the surface — if it was just in a gesture,” she said, “Or a glance, behind the eyes, that character was always there.”
Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis
Though Sarandon was initially cautious about Feud, her pause was a reaction to the pilot alone. Murphy’s hiring policies and guarantee that women would direct half of the season ultimately swayed Sarandon. As she put it in a cover story interview with EW, “How could you say no to that?’
Although they share some physical similarities — both being on the smaller side, for one — Sarandon revealed to EW that she had been “beyond terrified” when it came to Davis’ genuine voice. Accomplishing this portrayal required a vocal coach, and Sarandon prepared by engrossing herself in interviews of Davis, which she listened to for a consecutive three weeks. She recalled, “All I did was wake up in the morning and start listening. Go to work, come home, and do it again.”
As it turns out, Sarandon identifies with Davis in more than just physical appearance. Similarly to the classic star, Sarandon admitted to EW, “I never saw myself as being one of the beautiful girls. I was always the character girl, not the main pretty girl who got the guy. So I kind of understood that and related to that.” On top of having to learn how to master the character of Davis, both Sarandon and Crawford had to depict their characters’ characters in Baby Jane. Sarandon said that the biggest challenge “was re-creating those scenes gesture to gesture and trying to get exactly the cadence of the voice to match.”