Classic Hollywood: Two giants feuded elegantly


Once you sink into it, you'll find "Feud" immensely entertaining. This is from the "People v. O.J. Simpson" producer, with the same idea -- a high-stakes battle involving high-stakes people. But now, it's Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, in the last days of old Hollywood.

The series opens Sunday (March 5) on FX, (A second "Feud" has already been ordered, this time with Charles and Diana.) Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The movie was small,
but the stars were big.

Back in 1962, there
was a collision of giants in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Between them, Bette
Davis and Joan Crawford already had three Academy Awards, 13
nominations and a cascade of Hollywood headlines. They “were both
larger-than-life figures,” Ryan Murphy said.

So now Murphy's new
series (“Feud”) uses that movie in the same way his previous one
(“The People v. O.J. Simpson”) used a court case – as the
backdrop for spectacular personalities.

And these women were
much like members of the Simpson legal team – high-profile and
high-strung, but total opposites. Set designer Judy Becker found that
while re-creating their homes:

-- Davis was
non-Hollywood. She “was from a town outside of Boston and she went
to boarding school on the East Coast,” Becker said. “She really
was like a Yankee .... She considered herself a very serious actress,
so that was reflected in the way she lived ... She had this kind of
dowdy furniture.”

-- Crawford was
anti-dowdy. You could sense that in her living room – with a large
painting of herself – or st the vanity table, with a refrigerator
to “keep her witch hazel and her lemons and her ice cubes and her
vodka – all of which were used to help preserve her appaearance,
except the vodka. That was for her mental health.”

It's easy to mock
Crawford, until you remember the odds she faced, especially the bias
against older women. “When I started, (actresses were) over by 40,”
said Susan Sarandon, who plays Davis.

Now Davis was 54;
various sources put Crawford at between 54 and 58. They were clinging
to fame.

For Crawford, it had
been a long fight. There was “the physical abuse, sexual abuse, the
povery,” said Jessica Lange, who plays her. “All of these things
.... She had a 5th-grade education. As she said,
'Everything I learned, I was taught by MGM.'”

Jeanine Basinger, a
professor and author, sees her as the classic archetype.

“Quite possibly
the perfect and most enduring example of Hollywood female stardom is
Joan Crawford,” she wrote in “American Cinema” (1994, Rizzoli).
“She was born poor in Texas and had to fight for everything she
had. With a minimum of education and a maximum of good looks, she
forged her way forward, dancing in the chous and ending up in
California with a ($75-a-week) contract.”

Even her name –
originally Lucille Le Seueur – was flexible. The new one was
decided after a Movie Weekly contest asked readers to choose a name
for this new actress.

Davis was also,
perhaps, willing to play the game a little. “She felt that she was
never going to be anybody unless somebody could impersonate her,”
Murphy said.

In public, he said,
“she rarely turned that off; she felt that was important for her
survival.”

But Murphy also knew
the private Davis a little. “I got to one day spend four hours
talking with her. She was not that person at all. She was not camp,
she was not broad.”

So “Feud” isn't
out to mock Davis or Crawford. (“I do still think ... their
interactions are hilarious,” Murphy granted.) Instead, it captures
women out to conquer the world.

Sarandon, 70,
captured the precision of Davis' voice. “Her speech pattern is the
antithesis of mine.”

Lange, 67, found
Crawford's persona. “She was never not on .... There is that famous
quote of hers: 'I never go out without looking like Joan Crawford. If
you want to see the girl next door, go next door.'”

And the sets
captured the feel of the time. There is the mansion that Crawford
kept transforming ... complete with a plastic cover on the sofa. And
there's the re-created Perino's night spot.

It was “a circular
restaurant,” Becker said, “and I think that was partly so people
could kind of see each other .... They're celebrities; they like to
be seen.”

-- “Feud: Bette
and Joan,” 10 p.m. Sundays, FX

-- Opener (March 5)
reruns at 11:12 p.m. and 1:42 a.m.; also, 2 a.m. Tuesday (latenight
Monday), 2:30 a.m. Thursday, 2:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. Saturday, March
11