Once upon a time, in a fantasy land called Hollywood, great stars dominated the screen with outrageous personalities and oversized egos. Of the legendary divas, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis dominated the movies from the 1930s to the 1950s with their over-the-top performances. In the early 1960s, when both ladies were past their prime, they reinvented their careers with the horror classic, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? And they created a new film genre, the middle-aged woman thriller.
For Crawford and Davis, this low-budget, black-and-white film was the last gasp to revive their sagging careers. In their 50s, the actresses arrived at the set with fears and bitterness, worried the other might sabotage, believing the other could upstage. No matter their individual concerns, the divas knew they needed each other.
This fascinating backstory to an iconic film of the early 1960s comes to life in the devilishly entertaining mini-series from FX called, appropriately, Feud. Its eight episodes highlight the highs and lows of this professional and personal relationship as two strong women confront their weaknesses and comfort their egos. For anyone who loves movies, the series offers a front-row seat to the way Hollywood may or may not have been. And if you know Baby Jane, you are in for a special treat.
Produced with meticulous detail, Feud begins with a struggling Crawford, unhappy at home, unwelcome at a film studio, searching for a script to launch a comeback. When she finds the story of two middle-aged sisters who spend their lives trying to torture each other, the actress immediately sees the dramatic and commercial prospects. She’s in from the start. But Davis isn’t sure. She cherishes her reputation as a great actress more than she indulges her trials as a movie star. But she knows that parts like Baby Jane rarely come when film careers are considered over at age 40. The series takes us through the highs and lows of making, releasing and promoting the film, climaxing at the 1962 Academy Awards when Davis is a nominee and Crawford is snubbed, and how they deal with the aftermath.
For Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, Feud is a field day. While Sarandon mimics the mannerisms we remember of Bette Davis, with the staccato rhythm in her voice and the cigarette in her hand, Lange delves beneath the surface of Joan Crawford to deliver an indelible exploration of the fear that can grip as years pass.
Unlike Faye Dunaway’s exaggerated take of Crawford in Mommie Dearest, Lange portrays the actress with respect and sympathy, helping us see inside a woman who can’t cope being out of the limelight. She creates a strong sense of the lady’s desperation when the only thing she knows and loves – her work – becomes something she can’t have. Lange makes us care for a woman we have heard so much about and causes us to wonder what else could have been inside Joan Crawford’s soul.
So, even though I rarely write about television, the movie memories that Feud stirs make it something to see. And it may inspire you to watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, too!
Nutritional Value: Feud
Content: High. This fascinating look at how diva movie stars cope with age delivers an entertaining look at a Hollywood long gone by.
Entertainment: High. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon have great fun reliving a dramatic chapter in the lives of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
Message: Medium. There’s not a moral to this story but it’s still a lot of entertainment.
Relevance: Medium. Anyone who loves movies, especially old ones, will find the backstory to the classic film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane to be a fun watch.
Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. For movie lovers, there will be a lot to discuss. But this is not something for the entire family to watch. There is strong language.
(Feud plays on television on FX. Four Popcorn Buckets. Two episodes remain in the series, April 16 and April 23. The entire series is available on FX On Demand and the FX App.)
Feud brings back Crawford and Davis
by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
Feud reminds us what magic great stars could create. And, after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Crawford and Davis continued to work. The range of their projects – and the quality – illuminate the struggle of aging stars in the unforgiving Hollywood of the 1960s. Here’s where that hit film took them.
Time was less than kind to this grand star after she watched Bette Davis snag an Oscar nomination for Baby Jane. Crawford went from one horror film to the next, each time offering less of her star quality than before. Never again did she get a role, or deliver a performance, on the level of her Blanche Hudson. That was the high point of her final chapter.
Strait Jacket (1964)
After Baby Jane, this became the only star vehicle Crawford could land. And it’s a doozy. The actress plays a lady who spends 20 years in an institution after killing her husband and his mistress with an axe. But all is not calm in her family when her daughter plans to get married. And mother and daughter find planning for the wedding isn’t much fun.
I Saw What You Did (1965)
A year later, Crawford plays what is essentially a supporting role in this would-be thriller about young girls who play mean games on the telephone. When they call a man who has just murdered his wife, their words, “I saw what you did and I know who you are” begins a cat-and-mouse game that ends up in tragedy.
In her last movie appearance, Crawford is saddled with the impossible task of playing a scientist who searches the countryside for a living troglodyte. The plot is crazy, the role is ridiculous, and Crawford looks decidedly uncomfortable. What a sad ending to what had been a brilliant career. But time passes.
Unlike Joan Crawford, Bette Davis seemed to flourish in the 1960s. Yes, she made her share of horror movies
influenced by Baby Jane but, because she was such a consummate actress, she made even the exaggerated moments feel somewhat possible. And she delivered a string of interesting performances.
Dead Ringer (1964)
This one is so much fun. Davis plays two roles, identical twins who happen to hate each other. Their disdain is so intense that one decides to kill the other and assume her life. But she doesn’t realize all the strings attached to the shoes she steps into. And that Dobermans can be mean dogs.
Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
In what was supposed to be a reunion with Crawford, Davis soars as a very different kind of horror creature, a woman trapped by her own illusions of her past, a victim who begins to discover, perhaps too late, that those she trust can be the least trustworthy. She should have been Oscar nominated but was snubbed. Costar Agnes Moorehead did grab a supporting nomination.
Where Love Has Gone (1964)
Davis chews a lot of scenery in this exaggerated movie version of Harold Robbins’ novel inspired by the Lana Turner scandal of the 1950s. Davis plays the over bearing mother of Susan Hayward (a bit of a stretch) who tries to manipulate the situation when Hayward’s daughter is accused of murder. Davis has a field day overacting all over the place!
Bunny O’Hare (1970)
After making a couple of more thrillers – The Nanny and The Anniversary – Davis turns in a delightful performance in this comic yarn about two older people who decide to become criminals. While riding a motorcycle. The whole thing is silly, and the production values are slim, but Davis and costar Ernest Borgnine have a lot of fun.
The Whales of August (1987)
Davis and the great Lillian Gish are splendid as elderly sisters spending what may be there last summer together at a family cottage. Although Gish walked off with the reviews, and Ann Sothern snagged an Oscar nomination, Davis is deeply moving as a woman trying to hold on to the memories of a rich life. A fitting finale to a grand career.