Long before Katy and Taylor or Mariah and J. Lo., there was friction between screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the source material for FEUD: Bette and Joan, the first installment of the new FX anthology series from Ryan Murphy.
On the show, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) spar, for sure, but they also endure ageism, sexism and misogyny as their careers wane. Feud also stars Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia De Havilland, Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell and Stanley Tucci as studio titan Jack Warner. What else can you expect?
1. It's not going to be a pure camp spectacle
"When you hear about it," Murphy said at the Television Critics Association winter previews Thursday, "it's your natural inclination that it's going to be [camp]. Bette and Joan were both larger-than-life figures." But, he said, after having made a real commitment to diversity in his company — hiring 50 percent women and minorities — he saw an opportunity to do something meaningful. "I wasn't interested in a camp-fest. I was interested in something deeper and more emotional. What happened to them was painful," he said, as the women were unwillingly (and perhaps unconsciously) pitted against one another by a male-run system that had no regard for women once they'd aged.
2. The sets are very realistic
Designers did meticulous re-creations for the show, including a down-to-the-molding re-creation of Joan Crawford's home. They were even able to find actual pieces from the set of Baby Jane, including a dusty piano that had been discarded long ago.
3. Is there a reason that Bette's name appears first in the title?
"It's alphabetical," said Murphy.
4. Jessica Lange did a whole lotta research.
"Like any actor," Lange said, "you start with source material. I read every autobiography, I listened to interviews. For me the thing with Joan is she was never not 'on,' and some actors by nature are just that way. When she was in public, she was performing. [It] was hard to find a moment where you can discern the heart and soul." But, she said, you dig into her life and consider physical and sexual abuse, the fact that she had only a 5th-grade education and that everything she learned she learned from the MGM studio — how to walk, to speak, to present her face. "When that artifice falls away, you can invent what's inside her. She's a fascinating character to play."
5. It's a mediation on women in Hollywood — and women's issues in general
"I thinks that's a big part of this show," Lange said, "What Hollywood does to women as they age, which is a microcosm of what happens to women as they age, whether you want to say invisible, unattractive , undesirable. I think we have touched on that in a very profound way. Joan was 10 years younger than I am now and her career was finished. What we've tried to do is somehow investigate what that does to a woman."
6. Murphy and Lange both spent time with Davis.
Ryan actually wrote Bette Davis for many years and then struck up a real-life friendship with her. They'd spend hours talking, and Murphy got to know the real woman — how much she loved being imitated by female impersonators, and how much she regretted her feud. Lange said she met her once at an event, in her twenties. "I was really at the beginning. I remember her saying, 'You better court the press, honey.' That was her advice to me."
Feud: Bette and Joan premieres Sunday, March 5 at 10/9c on FX.