Ryan Murphy’s successful anthological series American Horror Story and American Crime Story changed the face of TV. They are now joined by his anthology Feud, which premieres on FX on March 5th 2017.
The first in the series, Feud: Bette and Joan, spotlights the infamous battle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford while they were making the 1962 horror thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange respectively take on the roles of Davis and Crawford. They came to the TV Critics tour to discuss embodying just legendary actresses.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are so iconic. Were there certain movies that you went back to, or biographies? How did you prepare for those roles?
Jessica: I read every biography on Joan Crawford, (including) her autobiography, and looked at all her interviews.
For me, the thing with Joan is she was (always) on. When she was in public, she was performing. It was very hard to find a moment where you could really discern what the heart and soul of that character was.
There is that famous quote of hers, ‘I never go out without looking like Joan Crawford. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.’
So (I went) back to her childhood. This is what determined who she was: The physical abuse, sexual abuse, the poverty, all these things, she was constantly fighting against for the rest of her life.
As she says, ‘Everything I learned, I was taught by MGM: How to walk, how to speak.’ So there is this great artifice. But then what becomes interesting as an actor is when that artifice falls away and you actually can invent what you would imagine was inside her.
Joan was (an) alcoholic. So there are moments where everything falls away, and there is this kind of ugliness and brutality to her. She is a fascinating character to play.
Susan: The good news and bad news with playing someone well-known is that there are so many films, TV appearances, interviews and recordings.
When Ryan first talked to me about it, I said, ‘I’m just terrified. I am so scared.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m scared too. It will be okay.’ And that really helped me a lot.
I said, ‘I have to have a dialect coach,’ because her speech pattern is the antithesis of mine. I’m so sloppy and slow, and she has got that thing that’s been imitated so many times.
There is a great guy named Tim Monich who I’ve worked with before, and so they generously got him. He was there making recordings of every scene that I could listen to at night when I got home, or on the set. Ryan also does a very good Bette Davis. Sometimes he would correct me, and say, ‘But you have to hit that harder.’
I think it was an exercise in surrender and trust, and just jumping in and channeling Bette in some way, hoping that she’s pleased.
What are your experiences with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, the first time you saw it, the first reaction to it?
Susan: I remember it being fun. I don’t think I saw it in the theater. I saw it on TV, but I re-watched it with my son who’d never seen it before. And his reaction was, ‘Oh, my god, mom. I had no idea. This is really weird.’ And when I saw it again, it did seem pretty weird, actually.
Jessica: I don’t remember seeing it, to tell you the truth. I’m sure at some point I watched it, late night television or something like that. It didn’t have a profound, obviously, effect on me, so I don’t know. But, that’s such a smart part of this story, in a way. It kind of kicks it off. But we’re not dealing with that the whole time.
The miniseries reflects how difficult it was for Bette and Joan to find work as older actresses. Do you think things have changed in Hollywood?
Susan: Well, aging actresses still have the same problem. I can guarantee that, right?
Jessica: I think that’s a big part of this show, 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.
I think with this film, we’ve touched on that in a very profound way. Joan was ten years younger when this takes place than I am now, and yet her career was finished because of her age.
What we’re talking about, especially with Joan who was known for her tremendous beauty, is what happens when that beauty is no longer considered viable, because it’s equated with youth. I think what we tried to do is see what happens to women as they age and become considered less than important.
Susan: Part of the interesting dynamic is that Joan was the beautiful one. Bette went towards the character actor. So in a way, her base was broader, and she could continue. But how was she going to get any more big parts, because they just didn’t exist. So she was counting on that Academy Award (for Baby Jane) to revive things.
When she doesn’t get it she sees it, and probably rightly so, as her last chance to get good parts.
When I started, it was over by 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.
So I think those things have changed, and you see the line being moved a little bit further.
Jessica: I don’t think it’s changed that much, really, to tell you the truth. I really don’t.
Susan: Well, we’re working!