Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange Mix Up a Volatile Hollywood Cocktail in FX's New FEUD: Bette and Joan

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01 March 2017

FX, series premiere March 5, 10:00 PM ET

By Ryan A. Berenz

Combine two past-their-prime screen goddesses together in one motion picture. Add several ounces of wilted beauty, faded glory and Hollywood sexism. Fill halfway with ice and shake well. Run for cover.

Executive producer Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) is behind FX’s new limited drama series FEUD: Bette and Joan (premiering Sunday), a darkly funny account of the legendary rivalry between silver-screen stars Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) while they worked together — and often didn’t — on the 1962 thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Stirring things up are Hollywood luminaries like director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), and screen stars Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Geraldine Page (Sarah Paulson), Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) and Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess).

Davis and Crawford’s icy stares, passive aggressiveness and dirt-slinging in the gossip columns might sell tickets, but Murphy wants FEUD to tell the emotional story of two women desperately clinging to the fading light of stardom.

“I think ultimately what happened to both women is very painful,” Murphy says. “I do still think they are hilarious, and their interactions are hilarious. So we didn’t want to avoid that, but we just wanted to, sort of, take it away from what people would expect and make it a little bit more emotional.”

While Davis and Crawford’s rancor ran deep, they’re both portrayed as products — if not victims — of the old Hollywood studio system that made them and tore them down. “[The studios] built up these people in a way that was quite huge, and they handled them for better or worse,” Sarandon says. “Their press, their lives, everything was handed over to the studio, to cover up the bad things, to push them in ways that might not have been accurate or true.” “You owed them deeply,” Lange says. “You owed them your lives, your livelihood, your careers, your personal life. It was certainly a trade-off, and when they were done with you, they were done with you.”

Sarandon and Lange are examples of how the career lifespan for mature actresses has been extended in the decades since the events depicted in FEUD, yet the sexism mocked in the series still exists in Hollywood. “Even though it’s set in 1962, the themes and issues in the show are so modern,” Murphy says. “Women are still going through this sort of stuff today that they went through 50 years ago, and nothing has really changed.”

But Murphy is working to improve the opportunities for women in TV and film production, and Lange cites her recent collaborations with Murphy for helping her avoid Crawford’s career fate. “I thank my dear friend [Murphy] for giving me these parts over the last five years,” Lange says. “The characters I played in American Horror Story, now this and the fact that I won a Tony on Broadway for playing one of the greatest parts ever written, and that’s because he optioned the play for me for Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

If it hadn’t been for that, I think there would be very lean times. I do. I’m not offered the kind of roles that I was 20 years ago. I actually don’t think they’re out there, really. I look back and I think, ‘In the last 10 years, what parts done by women my age would I have died to do?’ I can’t come up with one.”
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