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Television John Doyle: In Feud, two screen sirens battle each other and Hollywood ageism

JOHN DOYLE

In Feud, two screen sirens battle each other and Hollywood ageism

Susan Sarandon is seen as Bette Davis in FX’s Feud, which also stars Jessica Lange as Davis’s old enemy, Joan Crawford.

Feud is, like much of Ryan Murphy's work, superficially camp and acid-toned, but under that surface it has hard, unsettling truths, writes John Doyle

It was what you'd call an impressive lineup, by any standard. A new series on the FX channel was up for discussion at January's TV critic's press tour and along came Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Also there was Kiernan Shipka, who played Sally Draper on Mad Men, and Alison Wright, who played Martha on The Americans. Judy Davis was supposed to be there, but sent apologies.

What would warrant the attendance of this squad of distinguished women? Well, that's Feud (Sunday, FX Canada, 10 p.m.), the latest drama from Ryan Murphy. His creative touch on Glee, American Horror Story and The People v. O.J. Simpson hasn't always been sure and sealed, but on the occasion when he's hit the mark, he's made gloriously good, ground-breaking television.

Feud is one that nails it. An eight-part series, it is, like much of Murphy's work, superficially camp and acid-toned, but under that surface it has hard, unsettling truths.

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Really, it's basically about Joan Crawford (Lange) being desperate for work in the Hollywood of 1961, and deciding that a way back to popularity, acclaim and financial stability was to make a movie with her old enemy, Bette Davis (Sarandon). The series depicts the making of the movie and pauses with intricate precision to go back, way back, into the history of the feud between them. It's about a long, tangled quarrel between two famous, talented divas, and yet, it is slyly so much more.

Lange approached the core of the drama's theme directly. "I think that a big part of this drama is about what Hollywood does to women as they age, which is just a microcosm of what happens to women generally as they age.

Whether you want to say they become invisible, or they become unattractive or they become undesirable, or whatever it is. I think with this film, we've touched on that in a very profound way. I mean, Joan was 10 years younger when this takes place than I am now, and yet her career was finished because of her age."

There's piquant truth in that. What we see in Feud is Crawford, famous yet desperate for work, furiously constructing a comeback. She finds the material in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a thriller about an aging actress who is holding her paraplegic sister imprisoned in an old Hollywood mansion. She works anxiously to get it funded and made. (Studio boss Jack Warner, played by Stanley Tucci, is seen sneering, "I wouldn't give you a dime for those two washed-up old broads.")

And, shrewdly but at great personal cost, she decides to ask old enemy Bette Davis to be her co-star.

The making of the movie is fraught, a circle of hell atop another circle of hell in the pair's decades-long, simmering loathing of each other.

The roots of that are teased out by the figure of Hedda Hopper, the legendary Hollywood gossip columnist played with a kind of stewing malice by Judy Davis.

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Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in Feud.

Zeta-Jones is arch as a very mannered Olivia de Havilland, set up here as the aging "nice girl" observing the swirling, cutthroat rivalry that surrounded Crawford and Davis. And Kathy Bates is a thrillingly carefree, sharp-tongued Joan Blondell giving her own take on the feud.

Scenery is chewed and outrageous insults are thrown. Yet the central emotional heft is always there – the quandary of women famous and skilled and talented who are perceived as useless past a certain age. Crawford loathed being seen as unattractive, and Davis, an actress of sublime gift, raged against the industry's reluctance to acknowledge her skill.

It was real, that rage. Murphy, who knew Davis toward the end of her life, points out that it was near impossible for Davis to land work. That's why she agreed to Crawford's plan for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

"Bette Davis, in that period, did eight television pilots that never were picked up," Murphy said. "So the pain of that, the desperation of that, that idea that you, as a human being, have so much more to offer, and you still love what you can do so much, but you're not being given that opportunity, that was what I really was moved by."

Sarandon, who is 70 now, says the age limitation put upon women in Hollywood has changed a bit. "When I started, it was over by age 40. So definitely, the line has been pushed. And also, you weren't supposed to have children. I was told on many occasions not to bring up the idea that you had children, because in some way, that would cut into this idea that you weren't sexy or sensual, or whatever. So I think those things have changed, and you see the line being moved a little bit further."

At this point in the conversation about Feud, Lange interrupted – "I don't think it's changed that much, really, to tell you the truth. I really don't. And I think what we've tried to do is really investigate what that does to a woman when she's no longer considered attractive."

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There are stretches of the series that are anchored in the possibility that these two women might kill each other, such is their loathing. And the viewer is given plenty of information about each side in the feud. At first, Crawford seems the conciliatory one. Then we get inside Davis and grow to understand why she hated Crawford's endless manipulations. Both are, in the end, tragic figures, motivated less by dislike of each other and more by the system and the ageism and misogyny that ruined them.

Kiernan Shipka plays Davis's daughter and Alison Wright plays Pauline, the assistant to the beleaguered director of Baby Jane, Robert Aldrich, who is played by Alfred Molina. Both are sympathetic, sometimes shocked, observers of the battle of wits between Davis and Crawford. In fact, the series has women in countless roles both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes.

"There are 15 roles for women over 40," Murphy said. "That was very important to me." And Murphy said that the origin of Feud is in his own decision to ensure that women were employed at every level in his production company and on his projects.

"Bette and Joan were both larger-than-life figures, but where the show came from, for me, was last year I formed a foundation called the Half Foundation which was about changing how I was doing business and making sure that 50 per cent of all the directorial slots in my company were women. From that came a lot of discussions with women in the entertainment business. And from that, I decided to jump off into Feud."

There's all that and there are truths about what Hollywood did to Crawford and Davis. And then there is the sheer, dazzling entertainment and sizzle of Feud, anchored in the sometimes horrifying truths about why these women undermine each other.

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