In­side the ‘Feud,’ pain — and camp

The Washington Post Sunday - - TELE­VI­SION - BY JANE BOR­DEN style@wash­post.com

“Feud: Bette and Joan” chron­i­cles the cruel ri­valry be­tween two women dur­ing the mak­ing of 1962’s “What Ever Hap­pened to Baby Jane?” — a hor­ror film about a cruel ri­valry be­tween two women. You may be re­lieved to hear, then, that Su­san Saran­don and Jes­sica Lange, who play Bette Davis and Joan Craw­ford, re­spec­tively, got along.

“Yes, we did,” Saran­don says with a laugh. “I said to Jess, at the clos­ing of the whole thing, I said, ‘Thank God we got along,’ be­cause [the project] was hard. It was re­ally chal­leng­ing.”

Se­ries cre­ator Ryan Mur­phy (“Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story,” “Amer­i­can Crime Story”) echoes the sen­ti­ment. “We had a ner­vous first week, be­cause we didn’t want to do im­per­son­ations. The first two days, I wanted to quit.”

“I was fight­ing against a fe­male-im­per­son­ator ver­sion of [Davis], the cliche you see of her all the time,” Saran­don ex­plains. “And she is over-the-top, so what do you do about that?”

Lange faced a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge. “I re­mem­ber say­ing to Ryan, ‘I don’t know how to play this char­ac­ter. I don’t know who she is.’ ” Lange gained in­sight af­ter re­search­ing Craw­ford’s child­hood and, she says, “ac­knowl­edg­ing the in­cred­i­ble ar­ti­fice, the cre­ation of Joan Craw­ford,” and then play­ing to what was “al­ways just barely be­neath the sur­face.”

Get­ting be­hind such fa­cades is pre­cisely what the se­ries, which pre­mieres March 5 on FX, en­deav­ors to do. Fans and foes have long bathed in the gos­sip of Bette and Joan’s en­mity: While film­ing a fight scene, Davis ac­tu­ally kicked Craw­ford in the head. Craw­ford wore weights dur­ing a scene when Davis car­ried her to ex­ac­er­bate Davis’s back pain. Such de­tails typ­i­cally call to mind sound ef­fects of screech­ing cats. “Feud” is dif­fer­ent.

“Get­ting eight hours, you have a chance to delve into the com­plex­ity,” Saran­don says. “It was a big­ger ques­tion than just their b----iness.” (Like much of Mur­phy’s work, “Feud” is an an­thol­ogy. The sec­ond sea­son is sub­ti­tled “Charles and Diana.”)

In the first episode, Olivia de Hav­il­land (Cather­ine Zeta Jones) clar­i­fies to an in­ter­viewer, “Feuds are never about hate. Feuds are about pain.” And th­ese de­pic­tions of Davis and Craw­ford are heart­break­ing. We meet them in their 50s as al­co­holics whose ca­reers have dried up be­cause, as Jack Warner (Stan­ley Tucci) rhetor­i­cally asks, “Would you give ei­ther of th­ese broads a toss in the hay?”

The no­to­ri­ously shrewd Warner Bros. boss en­cour­ages “Baby Jane” di­rec­tor Robert Aldrich (Al­fred Molina) to ma­nip­u­late Davis and Craw­ford, keep­ing them at each other’s throats be­cause ru­mors of the on-set an­tics would sell more tick­ets later.

“Feud” also as­serts that Warner and his ilk are the rea­son Bette and Joan bat­tled to be­gin with. “They were fight­ing a cul­ture that has ‘It Girls’ that says there is only one girl at a time,” Mur­phy opines. “It cre­ates a com­pet­i­tive cul­ture, and men use that to their ad­van­tage by pit­ting women against each other.”

“It min­i­mizes the power they have col­lec­tively,” Saran­don adds. “And that still is go­ing on. Ev­ery ‘Real Housewives’ of wher­ever — the least imag­i­na­tive story line is al­ways the women pit­ted against each other.”

The sur­prise suc­cess of “Baby Jane” launched an en­tire genre of hor­ror, un­flat­ter­ingly la­beled Psy­cho-Biddy. Th­ese films typ­i­cally fea­ture an older, crazy, mur­der­ous and — most damn­ingly — jeal­ous woman. Davis and Craw­ford would go on to star in sev­eral. “It’s like Joan says [in the first episode],” Lange re­calls, “there are three roles for women in Hol­ly­wood: the in­génue, the mother or the Gor­gon. They had got­ten to the last pe­riod.”

“Baby Jane” is pure camp. And Mur­phy does layer in echoes of the film — for ex­am­ple, when Craw­ford spies a larger num­ber on Davis’s con­tract, a sting of hor­ror mu­sic plays. But th­ese mo­ments are more than just homage. “Treat­ing in­equal­ity and sex­ism as a hor­ror movie — that’s what I tried to do,” Mur­phy says. (The idea calls to mind what Jor­dan Peele’s film “Get Out” does, more overtly, with the topic of racism.)

Not that “Feud” doesn’t have a light touch. It brims with juicy de­tails (Craw­ford washed her face with witch hazel and ice cubes ev­ery morn­ing) and his­tor­i­cal fig­ures (gos­sip colum­nist Hedda Hop­per, played by Judy Davis, and her many fab­u­lous hats). Mur­phy says, with en­dear­ment, “Some of the stuff th­ese women did was bats--- crazy and hi­lar­i­ous.”

Sev­eral fac­toids, such as the tid­bit that Davis’s wig in “Baby Jane” had been worn by Craw­ford in a pre­vi­ous pic­ture, came to Mur­phy di­rectly from Davis’s mouth. He wrote to her as a child, and she wrote back. They kept up a pen-pal re­la­tion­ship, and when he be­came a jour­nal­ist, more than a decade later, she granted him an in­ter­view. “I had never been to L.A. be­fore,” he says, re­call­ing his ar­rival at Davis’s door, with flow­ers, a cou­ple of months be­fore her death. “She dressed up for me. She was wear­ing a Patrick Kelly suit and a wig.”

The 20-minute in­ter­view turned into four hours. “We just chainsmoked in her liv­ing room,” he says. “I ran out of ques­tions and started ask­ing her very per­sonal things.”

Mur­phy as­serts that he made the project from “a real place of love and re­spect. Both women were mis­un­der­stood and were vic­tims of their time. They died alone, un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated and un­happy.” Have times changed?

“Ageism is huge in our cul­ture, the idea that beauty is equated with youth,” Lange says. “I am not in a ro­man­tic film with a man who is 20 years younger. But no one would think twice about cast­ing a man in his 60s with a lead­ing lady in her 30s. That has a lot to do with the fact that men are at the helm — and maybe they have some kind of in­flated idea about them­selves.”

But both ac­tors cited a strong sense of ca­ma­raderie among women in the busi­ness to­day. Saran­don is hope­ful about the rash of fe­male co­me­di­ans who’ve had suc­cess “mak­ing great films that star a bunch of women — Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey.”

And Lange ar­gues “that tele­vi­sion has stepped into the void that movies left for ac­tresses. Some of the best work by women, in the last 5 or 6 years, has been on tele­vi­sion.” (Lange has won two Emmy awards work­ing with Mur­phy in “Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story.”)

“That is a mod­ern idea — that women are bet­ter and stronger to­gether, uni­fied as a force,” Mur­phy says. “It was a tragedy that [Davis and Craw­ford] could have been al­lies and friends. They had more in com­mon than any­one at the time. They were both mar­ried four times, Academy Award win­ners, sin­gle moth­ers. I wish they had uni­fied. I think that they would have been hap­pier.”

Saran­don and Lange have much in com­mon with Davis and Craw­ford as well, as Academy Award­win­ning ac­tors in the third act of their ca­reers. In fact, they are each more than a decade older than their on-screen coun­ter­parts were in 1962. “It shows how far we’ve come in terms of tak­ing care of your­self and liv­ing health­ier,” Mur­phy says.

Fur­ther, Saran­don and Lange, as pro­duc­ers on “Feud,” have a fi­nan­cial stake in the prop­erty, as Davis and Craw­ford did in “Baby Jane.”

“Su­san and Jes­sica gave Bette and Joan the happy end­ing that they should have had,” Mur­phy says. “They re­al­ized that the way to win was to win to­gether.”

SUZANNE TEN­NER/FX

Su­san Saran­don, left, as Bette Davis and Jes­sica Lange as Joan Craw­ford in “Feud: Bette and Joan.” Saran­don and Lange tried to delve be­neath the cliches and into the com­plex­ity of the stars they por­tray. “Feud” pre­mieres March 5 on FX.

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