“Look, we don’t have to be best pals — just allies,” Bette Davis tells Joan Crawford early in FX’s latest Ryan Murphy anthological opus, Feud: Bette and Joan.
It’s a noble sentiment that Davis (played here by Susan Sarandon) suggests to Crawford (Murphy repertory favorite Jessica Lange) on the set of their classic movie collaboration What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? And depending on which historical accounts you believe — say, the excellent “Six Degrees of Joan Crawford” series from the You Must Remember This podcast — the two aging Oscar winners understood that Baby Jane was their last shot at recapturing their former Hollywood glory, and largely played nice through production.
But if Baby Jane — a psychological horror film about two sisters, each a former movie star fallen on very hard times, tormenting each other in their dotage — was the only film Davis and Crawford made together, they had a long and messy shared history for much of their careers before they officially teamed up, so that everyone assumed they would get along almost as badly as the film’s Baby Jane and Blanche.
And at certain points after it was all over, they came awfully close.
Feud (it debuts Sunday night at 10; I’ve seen five of the eight episodes) is Murphy’s third FX anthology, after American Horror Story and American Crime Story. The series don’t always have much in common in tone or style (AHS is Murphy at his most manic, where The People v. O.J. Simpson season of ACS was incredibly powerful in its restraint), but all three are fascinated by the boxes society on every level tries to place women in, and what happens to the ones who try to push their way out.
Davis and Crawford were in their mid-50s when Baby Jane came out in 1962. It had been years since either was a top draw at the box office, as opposed to male contemporaries of theirs like Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy. The actors were treated as distinguished and admirable with age; the women as sad and decrepit. Crawford was a one-time sex symbol now cast largely as an aging cautionary tale for the young heroine; Davis was the great thespian who had never gotten by on her looks, but even she had been reduced to guest spots on Wagon Train when Crawford approached her with the Baby Jane script.
It was a last chance for them, and to a degree for writer/director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), a journeyman desperate to be viewed as something more, and who had to wrangle a pair of stars who had spent much of their career competing for the same roles and here were competing for a bigger share in the spotlight. The good news is that the tension led to a great film — “She infuriates me!” Davis vents to Aldrich at one point. “I just want to smother her with my performance!” — but it came at some emotional cost.