'Feud: Bette and Joan' Reveals One Chapter of a Long, Bitter Hollywood Rivalry

The legendary venom between Hollywood icons Joan Crawford and Bette Davis gets a second life in FX's 'Feud,' which airs on March 5th.
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'Feud: Bette and Joan' FX Photo

Jessica Lange stars as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in 'Feud.'

There are a lot of interesting themes to glean from in FX's limited series Feud: Bette and Joan, a retelling of the caustic relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during their only film together, 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Casting Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford, the eight-episode series takes viewers on a ride full of jealousy, manipulation, contempt, and unapologetic hatred.

"They were larger-than-life people," says creator Ryan Murphy. "Their fury was a result of how they were treated by men."

Murphy also admits that he wanted to depict what it was like for two middle-aged women trying to stay relevant in an unforgiving, youth-obsessed industry.

"The core of their conflict was each of them had a piece the other wanted or didn't ever have," Sarandon says. "From Joan's point of view it was respect as an actor, and from Bette's it was to be beautiful."

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's animosity had a long, sordid history, decades before working together on the set of Baby Jane in 1962. Davis had always begrudged Crawford for sleeping her way to the top. The two would countlessly compete for the same film roles, publicity, and awards, but what sealed their hatred for each other was vying for the affections of the same man, Franchot Tone, who was Davis' Dangerous co-star in 1935. Davis was apparently in love with him, but Tone ended up being wooed by Crawford's beauty and eventually married her.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Photo

A publicity still for 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?'

“[Crawford] took him from me. She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness,” Davis admitted during an interview in 1987. But to Davis' satisfaction, she won an Academy Award for her role in Dangerous, further establishing herself as the more serious actress, a perception that fed into Crawford's insecurities.

In 1943 Crawford left MGM for Warner Bros., which was Davis' studio home. Despite Crawford's attempts at reconciliation (she sent numerous bouquets of flowers and gifts to Davis), the latter would reject her overtures, even implying she was acting like a lesbian. For decades the two actresses would continue to insult each other; no subject was left unscathed — not even their opinions of each other's children.

In 1946, after Crawford won her only Oscar for Mildred Pierce (a role that Davis was initially asked to play but passed on), Davis later appeared in The Star, a project written by one of Crawford's former friends that told the story about a has-been actress trying to jump-start her career. “Oh, yes, that was [about] Crawford,” Davis revealed in Playboy in 1983. Davis would be nominated for her role in The Star, one of 11 Oscar nominations in her career.

But by the early 1960s Davis and Crawford, both middle-aged, were in desperate need to reinvent themselves. When Crawford signed on to star as the crippled sister in the horror film What Happened to Baby Jane?, she did the unthinkable: she asked Davis to star as her mentally disturbed sister who holds her captive. And another unthinkable thing happened: Davis accepted.

'Feud: Bette and Joan' Photo

Sarandon and Lange in a publicity still for 'Feud: Bette and Joan.' 

Despite their mutual agreement to work together, their bitter rivalry would commence where it left off, and the back and forth were like so:

-The two would rant about each other to the director on a daily basis.

-Crawford was devastated to learn that Davis negotiated a more lucrative contract.

-With Crawford nearby, Davis would loudly refer to her as that "phony c*nt."

-Davis installed a Coca-Cola machine in her dressing room. (Crawford had been married to a Pepsi CEO.)

-During a fight scene in Baby Jane, Davis randomly kicked Crawford in the head (some claimed she needed stitches.)

-Knowing Davis had back problems, Crawford wore a heavy weightlifter's belt underneath her clothes during a scene that required Davis to drag her across the room.

-Despite Baby Jane becoming a box office hit, Crawford was enraged that Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her role. Although Davis was favored to win, it was Anne Bancroft who was ultimately honored that year for her performance in The Miracle Worker. To Davis' shock and embarrassment, Crawford glided past her at the ceremony saying, “Excuse me, I have an Oscar to collect” and accepted the award on behalf of Bancroft's absence. Later it was revealed that Crawford had called nominees Bancroft and Geraldine Page ahead of time to collect their Oscar should they win.

With the success of Baby Jane, Davis and Crawford were signed on to do another film, Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the following year together. But less than two weeks into filming, Crawford pulled out of the project claiming illness. Many agree that she didn't want her rival to steal the limelight again.

Unfortunately, time never ended up healing the bad blood between the actresses. When Crawford died in 1977, Davis had allegedly said: “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good . . . Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”

'Feud: Bette and Joan' premieres on FX on March 5 at 10pm EST.