In January the HFPA visited the set of Feud, the new limited series premiering on FX on Sunday March 5. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon play Joan Crawford and Bette Davis at the time of their, ehm, collaboration on the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? At the time Crawford was 56, Davis 54, and Hollywood was swarming with young talent - Marilyn, Jayne, Liz, Audrey, and newcomers like Ursula Andress, Brigitte Bardot and Natalie Wood. They were the ones getting the plum roles. Crawford and Davis were considered way past their prime, too old for leading parts, too expensive for smaller ones. So Crawford, by then widowed from the CEO of PepsiCo who left her two million dollars in debt, found her own project in the form of a horror novel, which she optioned. She talked studio mogul Jack Warner into producing and placed it in the hands of Robert Aldrich who had directed her six years earlier in Autumn Leaves. And despite a lifelong hatred between them, she not only chose Bette Davis for the second lead, but also handed her the flashier role.
That story fascinated Ryan Murphy who as a young journalist, had a chance to meet and interview Davis. The Golden Globe-winning director and showrunner with a history of empowering leading ladies was a natural to take on the tale of the outsized divas and Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon jumped at the chance to play the two old broads, as they called themselves. The series focuses on the infamous feud between the actresses – a battle that plays on the backdrop of the ageism and sexism that Davis and Crawford – both female trailblazers – fought against the studio system.
As for catfights between female stars, Susan Sarandon told us, luckily they are mainly a thing of the past. "I've witnessed people creating this idea of women: when you do a film, the rumors are that you fucked your leading man and you fought with your leading woman. And you don't often get a chance to work one on one. I've only done a few movies with women. One with Goldie (Hawn), one with Geena (Davis), one with Melissa McCarthy, and now this one. They just don't pair up women very often, but I have never seen that kind of feud. I think my generation broke the trend of turning against other women.“
A far cry from the story told in Feud. The bitter rivalry between the two stars spanned decades and must be put in the context of a bygone era, when studios controlled their actors and muzzled them with ironclad contracts. This provided job security, but it also ruined many a career when old white men decided what movie an actress could or couldn’t do. The studios’ publicity departments were told to create tension, even when there was none, as long as it served the marketing. Gossip mavens like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were fed information, often by the actors themselves. In Feud it is Hopper, played by Judy Davis, who is an all-too-willing participant and perpetrator in this cruel game.
The series opens with scenes from the 1961 Golden Globe Awards. Our own Judy Solomon remembers the night well: "We had a Swedish journalist as president, and she had too much to drink and when she gave her speech, instead of talking into the microphone, she was talking into the lamp." And the HFPA president was not the only one boozing it up that night. Joan Crawford, snickering at an also rather tipsy Marilyn Monroe, was more than a few sheets to the wind, Solomon says: "Oh, she was so drunk, she couldn’t even speak. Or walk."
At 20th Century Fox, where we visited three sets - including Crawford’s Bel Air mansion and famed restaurant and star haunt Perino’s - we discovered another gem from our own association’s history. The replica of Crawford’s 1970s New York apartment itself contained a replica: that of the Cecil B. deMille Award that she was awawrded in 1970. The certificate is signed by the late Yani Begakis who was secretary and Judy Solomon, who was president at the time. (Bette Davis incidentally was also a recipient of that same prize – along with two Golden Globe nominations, one of them for...Whatever Happened to Baby Jane!). But the HFPA did not just hand out awards to the legends of Hollywood’s golden era, they also interviewed many of them, including Crawford and Bette Davis. Davis, unsurprisingly, was very outspoken: "She talked bad about everyone, she was bitching about every single star in Hollywood, it was unbelievable. She didn’t care, she was wonderful" remembers Solomon.
But it was not all tongue lashing. Here is what Davis, Ms. Jezebel herself, confided to the HFPA about one of her first Hollywood crushes: "As a very young woman, I was madly in love with Henry Fonda. And he was at the Cape Playhouse, and I was an usher and he was in the cast. And he just never looked at me at all. I just got nowhere with him at all. Well, Ms. Davis but you did it with us and with movie fans the world over."