‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ Will ‘Lean Into the Pain’ of Aging Actresses in Hollywood

TCA: Ryan Murphy has also hired Helen Hunt and two other women to direct half of the episodes.
Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon
Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon
Frank Micelotta/FX/PictureGroup

Feud: Bette and Joan” may focus on two of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars, but it also highlights the struggle that actresses have trying to find work as they age into an industry that favors the young.

At the Television Critics Association panel for the series on Thursday, creator Ryan Murphy acknowledged that despite the campier aspects of the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and their collaboration on “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,”  the series would also focus on the more emotional aspects of the women’s lives.

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He wanted to “lean into the pain and talk about the tragedy of their lives” and how they were “mistreated in the end.” After “Baby Jane,” both acclaimed actresses struggled to find compelling work. Crawford ended her career with the science fiction-horror film “Trog,” about a living troglodyte, and Davis had landed eight different television pilots that never got picked up.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Movie still of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Movie still of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”SNAP/REX/Shutterstock

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, who play Davis and Crawford on the show (respectively), believe that the aging actresses are still facing the same problem, although there have been some improvements.

Aging women are deemed “invisible, unattractive, undesirable,” according to Lange. “I think this film we’ve touched on it in a very profound way,” she said. “Joan was 10 years younger in this time than I am now, and her career was finished.”

Lange also cited the “Inside Amy Schumer” sketch about an actress’ “Last Fuckable Day.” “Especially with Joan, who was known as a tremendous beauty. What happened when the beauty is no longer viable?” she said. “What we’ve tried to do is not see just the overall milieu of Hollywood, but what happens to women when they become less than important.”

“When I started, it was over by 40, so the line has pushed,” Sarandon said. Having children was also a no-no when it came to being seen as desirable and not a mother. “Those things have changed. The line is being moved a little bit further.”

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Lange noted that although age and looks aren’t necessarily the kiss of death for actresses today, good projects depend on producers who are willing to tell stories with women who are older.  “There are more women producers,” said Sarandon. “Actresses are developing projects. And then there’s Ryan Murphy.”

Indeed, Murphy claims that “Feud” has 15 roles for women over 40, and he also also makes a point to hire women behind the camera as well. In 2016, he began Half, a foundation within his 20th-Century Fox TV production company that aims to fill 50 percent of the director slots on his show with women, people of color and members of the LGBT community. This holds true on “Feud,” which has women directing four out of the eight episodes.

Ryan Murphy, Tim Minear, Dede Gardner, Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Alison Wright, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kiernan Shipka
Ryan Murphy, Tim Minear, Dede Gardner, Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Alison Wright, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kiernan ShipkaFrank Micelotta/FX/PictureGroup

Executive producer Tim Minear told IndieWire that the three women who will be directing are Helen Hunt, Gwyneth Horder-Payton and Liza Johnson. Oscar-winning actress Hunt has directed episodes of “Mad About You,” “Californication,” “House of Lies,” “Life in Pieces” and “This Is Us.” Horner-Payton, who will helm two episodes of “Feud,” is part of the FX family already, best known for directing episodes of “The Shield.”

As for Johnson, she recently directed the historical comedy “Elvis & Nixon.” Minear said, “That was a period thing that had some comedy, but it had some pathos. And she’s a filmmaker who has worked on lower-budget productions. She did work on the Amazon thing that got canceled, ‘Good Girls Revolt.’ She directed the pilot for that. She hadn’t done a lot of TV but we felt like her low-budget sensibility  — working on a schedule for a certain amount of money — was tailor-made for our show. She completely came in and proved herself.”

“Feud: Bette and Joan,” which also stars Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci, Kiernan Shipka. and Catherine Zeta-Jones, will premiere on Sunday, March 5 at 10 p.m. on FX.

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