Feud’s Sacred Monsters

Film critic Farran Smith Nehme talks Joan and Bette, Hollywood, and why Ryan Murphy just can’t believe that any older woman is — gasp! — happy

Ryan Murphy’s Feud (FX) — about the legendary and possibly apocryphal rivalry between Joan Crawford (played by Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) during the making of the 1962 gothic tale What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? — is the 2017 must-see TV event for many a movie, television, and celebrity lover. (The show airs March 5.) That is, unless you’re film critic Farran Smith Nehme, who was apprehensive (to say the least) about how two of the brightest luminaries of her area of specialization, pre-1960 cinema, would be portrayed. An inaccurate reputation of campiness follows both Baby Jane and Crawford, whose deranged depiction in Mommie Dearest has overshadowed her decades-long effort to be taken seriously as an actress.

Casually brandishing her extensive expertise, Nehme spoke to MTV News in a wide-ranging conversation about the history behind Feud: how the rumors about tension between the two Hollywood grandes dames became “history,” how the actresses really did make their foes quake in their boots, why Murphy’s characterization of Crawford and Davis is subtly demeaning, and how the movies now are in many ways worse for women than they were 70 years ago. Truth is often stranger than fiction — a fact Nehme amply proves here.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

MTV News: What do we really know about what happened behind the scenes of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford? I had heard that it was all made-up, that there wasn’t any drama between them. So why has this fake feud become so famous that there’s now a TV show about it?

Farran Smith Nehme: It's always difficult to get a real sense of things like this because anecdotes get told and retold over time, and often the only sources are people who were there, and those people are Hollywood people. Storytelling is their business: They love a good story, and they don't mind embellishing a little bit.

A lot of the story about [Davis and Crawford] goes back to a book by Shaun Considine called Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud. It's written in a very lively manner — and it's very erratically sourced.

The TV series is going with the worst stories about what went down on that set. As far as I know, [director Robert] Aldrich later said that they were really very well-behaved on set. They didn't like one another, but they both needed a hit. They weren't going to endanger that with diva-ish tantrums.

They were professionals.

Nehme: Exactly. But you asked what is the reason that this [narrative] became so popular. There’s a number of reasons. Everybody loves a catfight. And everybody loves stories about Hollywood feuds. People love to hear that Fred and Ginger really hated one another, which is by no means entirely true. And people love to hear about a feud between women, especially two of the greatest stars of the studio system.

It also feeds into the narrative of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? itself. It's really perfect in that regard: Not only are they torturing one another on-camera in that movie, it's an additional thrill to think they were doing it off-camera as well. And I think they — especially Davis, who had a harsh tongue in later years — reinforced certain impressions by what they'd say on talk shows.

What do you think of the casting of Sarandon and Lange as Davis and Crawford?

Nehme: I’m not unhappy with it. Sarandon probably has the closest to the famous Bette Davis eyes of any actress working; they both have that slight goggle-eyed thing going on. Sarandon is not trying to imitate her voice, but she’s done a good job with the way Bette Davis would deliver lines, the way she would snap off one-liners at people.

Lange as Joan Crawford is very effective. She seems to be working overtime to not do the [Faye] Dunaway raging queen that was so memorable in Mommie Dearest. Lange doesn't quite have Crawford's bone structure, but she has good bones all the same. Aside from the age, it seems fine to me. This was probably about as close as you were gonna get. And Lange has worked very hard at getting emotionally close to Crawford, which is why I think she's — at least from the three episodes that I saw — giving the best performance.

It's interesting to me that Sarandon and Lange are significantly older than Davis and Crawford were during the shooting of Baby Jane. That's not something we see very often, to have female actresses be older than the real-life people they play.

Nehme: Yeah, it's true. Sarandon, in particular, looks younger than she is. She’s, what, 70? She looks younger than Davis did at 50-whatever when she made this movie. Lange also does not look her chronological age. In a way, casting two actors who are so much older than Davis and Crawford actually were — it's a sign of the times, isn't it? That everyone is so plastic-surgeried and altered that, in order to get somebody who looks like a comparatively unaltered 56, 57-year-old, you have to go one decade, two decades older.

Can you describe Joan Crawford and Bette Davis's screen personas during their heyday?

Nehme: It's a big subject, because both of them had careers of astonishing longevity. It’s very hard to find somebody these days — except for, of course, Meryl Streep — who's had the length and breadth of careers that they did. Davis and Crawford evolved with their audiences over the course of careers that lasted 35, 40, 45 years — much longer than that for Davis. So the relationship with [a star’s] image is different when you've been watching them for that long.

Crawford and Davis were not far apart in age, but Crawford started earlier. They both started in the theater, but Crawford started as a showgirl and a dancer, whereas Davis made her Broadway debut in a dramatic role. Crawford started out at MGM in a decorative vein. She was always stunningly beautiful, but she started out more natural in the ’30s, and then moved into full-out glamour. Early on, she played a lot of women of the people. Later she played more women who were already established, but she was nearly always rich and glamorous by the end of the film.

Davis was a whole different kettle of fish. Davis landed in Hollywood and was acutely aware from the beginning that she was not going to be their glamour-puss. She was very pretty, but she was not beautiful like Crawford was beautiful. So, from the beginning, she said, “OK, I'm not going to compete on that front. I am an actress, and that is what I'm going to do.”

What do you think of way Crawford and Davis are depicted on the show?

Nehme: I hope that the real Crawford and Davis were not this mopey. Maybe it's just my personal image of them, but I don't see them being this sad. [The show] seems to be taking it in the direction of Joan and Bette as victims of the sexist Hollywood system. Which is, I don't know if I want to say a “trendy” way to look at it — and certainly that's part of their story — but they were also strong characters.

Back when Bette Davis ruled the roost at Warner Bros., it was said that [Jack] Warner would actually start shaking when he heard that she wanted to walk in and see him. She was that fearsome. Jules Dassin, who directed Joan in a movie called Reunion in France, said “cut” to her on the first day on set, and she turned on her heels and walked off the set. John Wayne had to take Dassin aside and say, “You never say ‘cut’ to Miss Crawford.”

Those days were past them by the time they made What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But once you've been that kind of star, the consciousness of it never leaves you. I like the series best when it's showing their self-awareness as artists and as “sacred monsters.” I like it least when they're sitting around moaning about their lost looks. I'm sure they did that. But I'm not sure that was as prominent a part of their life as it appears in this series.

I feel like that's a Ryan Murphy thing. He’s unable to imagine that any older woman is happy.

Nehme: Yeah. I can't claim a lot of familiarity with his other stuff, but I absolutely get that from here. He even has Bette quote a speech at one point from All About Eve, where she's like, "The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster, you forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman." This is pretty much everyone's least favorite speech from All About Eve. It's so much drippier than anything else [Davis’s character] Margo Channing ever says or thinks or does. But it's the one that Ryan Murphy chooses to have Sarandon echo wistfully and in all seriousness. I was kind of appalled, because I just don't think Davis thought like that.

I didn't see a whole lot of Nip/Tuck, but [Murphy] has a very evident obsession with self-hatred, especially self-hatred of people as they get older. [According to Feud,] if you're old and you're losing or lost your looks, life is gonna be so much worse for you. And all Ryan Murphy really seems capable of adding to that is, "Gee, isn't that sexist and terrible!" Not “maybe it's really not that bad,” but “it is every bit that bad, and on behalf of men, I'm so sorry.” It kind of sticks in my craw.

You mentioned “sacred monsters.” Can you explain that concept?

Nehme: It's a star who is permitted to behave in ways that are certifiable or simply unacceptable in an ordinary person. You see that with Davis and Crawford in this series. They're constantly violating norms of civilized behavior, Bette much more so than Joan. Joan had much more of a sense of propriety; manners and form meant something to her. Bette, on the other hand, didn't give a damn — and delighted in showing it.

Was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? intended to be a serious movie? It seems to be largely regarded as a camp classic now.

Nehme: It was meant to be a commercial hit, but I do think it was meant to be taken seriously. Both of those women were taking it intensely seriously. They're playing it at a very high pitch of emotion and drama, but that does not mean that they're camping it up. Quite the opposite. I've never regarded this movie as camp.

[When] I first saw it in high school, the day before Halloween, it scared the bejesus out of me and almost everyone in that audience. It is a genuinely frightening movie if you see it in the right frame of mind. The rat, the pet birds, the sudden cut to Joan strung up like she's in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the incredible tension of her many attempts to escape. I don't think it's a 100 percent masterpiece. There are a few places where the excess becomes too much. But, overall, it's still a very strong piece of filmmaking.

One of the things that makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? worthwhile is that, boy, does that movie not [buy into the romance of show business]. It would be hard for me to come up with a Hollywood tale that's quite as harsh as Baby Jane. That is a movie about Hollywood that tells you that it's going to use you up, it's going to spit you out, it's going to turn you into not a sacred monster, but a complete monster — one who's capable of running over their sister, the other who's capable of starving her to death and serving her dead rats. And you'll have nothing to show for it. It's one of the least sentimental Hollywood movies ever made, because it looks at the cost of having a brush with stardom and just how horribly some people will act when stardom is taken away.

Do you feel like we're currently getting better at casting older women?

Nehme: It’s something that comes up again and again, where the [male] actor is 50, sometimes even 60, and his [female] costar is in her twenties, maybe in her thirties if they’re going for extra realism. It has not always been like that. Davis, Crawford, [Barbara] Stanwyck, [Jane] Wyman, all of those women starred in movies opposite men that were younger than they were. If you did that nowadays it would probably be part of the point of the movie, whereas in these [older] movies it's sometimes a plot point, sometimes really not. It's more about the romance itself.

So, in some regards, it's actually gotten worse. Now the presumption in Hollywood is different about whether female stars draw people to theaters.

Do you mean that women were considered a larger box-office draw in the ’40s and the ’50s compared to now, when female protagonists are few and far between?

Nehme: Yes, absolutely. Women drove the box office for many, many years. Women and women's taste. That's why you have so many of these melodramas.

Female stars often had more power than was noted at the time, or even now. Certain actresses, like Carole Lombard and Bette Davis to a lesser extent, would [negotiate] contracts with the studios where they would have a great deal of control over the directors they worked with, over scripts, costumes, costars. That meant that they were not just being passively manipulated by people like [studio head] Jack Warner. They were actively participating in the creation of their own image.

That was another problem that I had with Feud. It has these pseudo Vertigo, pseudo Saul Bass opening credits. And one of the images is this fat man with a cigar, holding Bette- and Joan-like marionettes. It took me a good five or ten minutes to get over my hostility to those credits. They go to the thesis of the show, which seems to be that men hold all the cards and they're throwing us [women] away on the trash heap. There's a lot of dialogue that even says that more or less explicitly. There's no doubt in my mind that Crawford and Davis knew that. But I wish the show gave them more credit for resilience, for getting the fuck over it.

Do you think that, in old Hollywood, there was any value placed on female friendship or women helping out other women in the way that there is at least talk of today?

Nehme: Oh, yeah, I think so. On a fundamental level, Hollywood is out for itself. On the other hand, for all that Davis was known for being prickly on set, there were also a number of actresses like Geraldine Fitzgerald, who starred in Dark Victory with her, who said that [Davis] went out of her way to be nice and to help her out. When Debbie Reynolds was making The Catered Affair with a director named Richard Brooks, she was doing one of her first completely straight dramatic parts. Brooks was being horrible to her, yelling at her on set and telling her she couldn't act. Davis marched over to him and said, "Lay off!" and gave her instructions off to the side. Reynolds talked about it in interviews and remained grateful for it. I don't think it was always a shark-tank atmosphere by any means.