Celebrity feuds are as much a fixture on the show business landscape as air kisses and red carpets. They’ve sparked talk show wars (David Letterman versus Jay Leno), inspired hit songs (Taylor Swift and a lot of ex-beaus, plus rumored “Bad Blood” target Katy Perry), ended partnerships (Simon & Garfunkel) and even fueled a running gag (Jimmy Kimmel’s comic battle royal with Matt Damon).
But those are playground squabbles compared to the clash of the titans: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
Few Hollywood conflicts have possessed the enduring lure of the duel between Davis and Crawford, beloved leading ladies of the silver screen who were sworn enemies in the 1950s and ‘60s during the waning days of their stardom.
The stormy rivalry played out in glorious black and white in 1962’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” The low-budget shocker featured Davis in the title role of has-been child star “Baby Jane” Hudson and Crawford as her disabled sister, Blanche, the focus of Jane’s torment. The actresses’ off-screen animosity toward each other spilled over into their portrayals of aging siblings at war.
The surprise runaway success of the film, combined with the widespread acclaim for both actresses, not only failed to repair their rift but also deepened the bitterness when Davis received an Oscar nomination for the movie and Crawford did not. The wounds never healed. When Crawford died in 1977, Davis was quoted as saying, “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good … Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
It was a poisonous relationship, one that producer-writer-director Ryan Murphy is taking personally.
“Feuds are not about hate, they’re about pain,” Murphy, the key force behind numerous Emmy-winning projects, including FX’s “The People v. O.J Simpson: American Crime Story” and anthology series “American Horror Story” and Fox’s musical comedy “Glee,” said recently. “These women should have been best friends.”
His latest endeavor, “Feud: Bette and Joan,” a close-up on the Davis-Crawford tete-a-tete, follows that theory. The eight-part drama, which premieres Sunday on FX, stars Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford — Oscar winners who are good friends in real life.
The project also features Alfred Molina as “Baby Jane” director Robert Aldrich, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland — who famously had a falling out with her own sister, actress Joan Fontaine — and Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell. It is the first entry of Murphy’s new franchise about famous feuds (Next season: Britain’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana.)
The series opens in 1961 with the efforts to get “Baby Jane” made and flashes back to the 1930s and ‘40s, when the actresses were at the top of their game. “Feud” is a long-standing passion project for Murphy, who befriended Davis during her final, ailing years. The behind-the scenes turmoil of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” is depicted, as well as its aftermath. Even though the picture recharged their careers, Davis and Crawford were mostly relegated to “B” movies and horror films.
Given scenes of black comedy and Davis’ scenery-chewing and garish makeup, “Baby Jane” has gained a reputation as a camp classic. Faye Dunaway’s performance in the Crawford biopic “Mommie Dearest” certainly paints a dramatic picture. As such, some may expect “Feud” to be spiced with high-decibel melodrama and cries of “No wire hangers!”
But Murphy has a deeper agenda: exposing how the women were victimized and manipulated by the Hollywood studio system. “This show is not funny or campy,” Murphy maintained as he sat in an empty office of the historic United Building in the Jewelry District, one location for the series. “It’s much more painful and heartfelt than people will think.
“They had so much in common — two legends who turned 40 in the 1950s and couldn’t get work. Everything around them — the studio system, their own egos — conspired to keep them apart.”
A few doors down, the “Feud” crew prepared for a scene in which Lange as Crawford, dressed in a fiery orange outfit and hat, storms into the offices of the film academy and, in a move to upstage her nemesis at the Oscars, offers to be a presenter and hand out the award for best picture or director. She adds that she wants the academy to pay for her hair and makeup and provide a car and chauffeur.
When academy President Wendell Corey (Anthony Tyler Quinn) explains, “We only do that for nominees,” Crawford, armed with her ever-present cigarette, icily replies, “You will for me.”
With arched eyebrows and makeup accenting her cheekbones, Lange looked eerily like Crawford as she did take after take.
“I really love playing her, particularly the way she is written here,” Lange said. “What we are doing is showing what it was like for a woman to be aging in Hollywood during that time.”
Though “Feud” is a period piece, Lange and Sarandon, who are also producers on the series, maintain that today’s actresses still face the same issues, which gives the show a pointed relevancy.
“All the political themes we’re dealing with — sexism, ageism, misogyny — are still here, making this very personal and profound,” Lange said.
One of the key challenges for the series was depicting two iconic, larger-than-life personalities.
“Jessica and Susan and I all felt the same way right off the bat — we didn’t want to do broad impersonations,” Murphy said. “We wanted to get a true, beating, emotional heart of these women. They both worked with vocal coaches, and I wanted them to make their performances their own thing.”
Still, the actresses, who have both portrayed real-life figures on-screen, were initially intimidated.
Said Lange: “Going into this, I knew nothing about Joan Crawford, and even when I looked at her interviews, I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ I don’t know how you get inside this woman, because there’s such a persona that has been created. It was difficult at first. As time went by and I read more and more, it was like peeling the skin off an onion. I was thrilled and surprised by her depth of character.”
Sarandon, on the other hand, was more nervous.
“I was immobilized with fear for six weeks,” she said a few weeks later as she prepared for a scene in another of the drama’s locations — the old Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, decorated to resemble backstage at the 1978 Oscars ceremony, the year after Crawford’s death.
“The fun-fear ratio was not in my favor that whole time,” the actress said. “Trying to make someone this large and this imitated real and grounded was daunting. When I said to Ryan, ‘I’m so terrified,’ he said, ‘I am too.’ Which was exactly the right thing to say.”
It was not Sarandon’s first encounter with the Davis legend. With her distinctive round eyes and features, Sarandon bears an uncanny resemblance to Davis, and she has been approached several times through the years about portraying the actress. She even narrated a Davis biography.
“Susan was the only choice for Bette,” Murphy said. “She really does have Bette Davis eyes. And she has a similar spirit.”
As she did more research, Sarandon gradually grew more comfortable: “I began to enjoy it more and more.” Recognizing the distinct differences between Davis and Crawford helped.
“Their lives were so crazy,” Sarandon said. “Each of them was jealous of what the other had. Bette was very insecure about the way she looked at the beginning of her career. Heads of studios would say, ‘Who would want to wind up with her at the end of the picture?’ That was devastating to her. But then she made herself into this great character actor. She played horrible people. No one could do what she did — she was very powerful.
“Joan, on the other hand, was the most beautiful girl in the world. Even though she started in silent films, she was a good actress. But she was never taken as seriously because of how beautiful she was. She wanted validation, and Bette looked down on her. They slept with a lot of the same men, and directors. The studios really played them against each other in order to control them, to make sure they weren’t that powerful.”
Murphy, along with Sarandon and Lange, first started thinking about developing a Davis-Crawford project around 2010 when he, along with Plan B Entertainment’s Dede Gardner, owned a feature film script called “Best Actress” about the making of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
“We never could get it right, because it was such a huge span of time that they knew each other, and it was too rushed for a film,” Murphy said. After some starts and stops, he concluded it would make a better long-form TV project. “Then you can really spend time with these women.”
Producers were dedicated to reproducing the look and feel of the era. Special attention was paid to sets and costumes. Much of the furniture from the original “Baby Jane” shoot was discovered in a storage unit and used in the re-creation of scenes from the movie.
Murphy was also pleased that “Feud” would reflect the issues being dealt with by his Half Foundation, which he established last year to increase diversity in Hollywood.
“I really want to fight misogyny, gender inequality in the workplace, sexism and ageism,” he said. “Once a woman turns 40, it’s hard to get roles. But for men, they’re just getting warmed up.”
But primarily, it’s the friendship he shared with Davis that imbues the series.
“I had been writing to her as a fan since I was 15,” he said. “And she would answer me. I told her I wanted to come out and meet her and interview her, and she always said no. Finally, when I was around 20 and had a syndicated column with Knight-Ridder, she said yes, because she was being honored by Lincoln Center.”
He flew to L.A. — his first time in the city — and went to Davis’ house, where he was greeted by personal assistant Kathryn Sermak. “Bette had just had chemotherapy. Kathryn, who was lovely, said, ‘You have 20 minutes.’ I ended up spending four hours in a room with Bette Davis, chain-smoking with her, and I really got to ask her about her life. She was very lonely — at that point, she was pretty much estranged from her whole family — and looked upon me as a grandchild or something. She was very kind and sweet.”
He would write of their visit: “But even if she never works again, Davis will leave an indelible image. She is quality and she is strength. She is fire and she is fury.”
Near the end of “Feud,” Davis appears to come to the conclusion that she should have bonded with Crawford rather than battle her.
“She realizes the pain — ‘Maybe I blew it,’” said Murphy. “There’s the tragedy. And there’s the truth.”