“Feud” exposes the dark side of Hollywood

Susan Sarandon (Bette Davis) and Jessica Lang (Joan Crawford) in Feud

Since Hollywood’s birth a century ago, feuds between its stars has generated news headlines and ignited the mass’s interest, more than their own movies. Some of these feuds were real and some were manufactured by the tabloid press in order to increase their sales at magazine stands and elevate their websites’ traffic. In some cases, Hollywood studios themselves instigated and publicised them in order to draw people’s attention to the feuding stars movies. Recently, thanks to the internet and social media, which offers 24/7 access to instant news, the discords among celebrities unfolds before the eyes of their fans like a soap opera, sometimes beating the highest rated TV shows. Last year, for instance, the collapse of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s marriage generated news headlines around the world as if it were a Third World War. Humanity was glued to news sources, following every development in the case.

While feuds are harder to obscure behind closed doors nowadays thanks to the prevalence of recording devices and ease of access to gossip via the internet, in the olden days, Hollywood studios had full control over the flow of information, dictating what to reveal to and what to conceal from the media, which, at the time, collaborated obediently. In fact, until the 1950s, the studios effectively owned their stars, through multi-year contracts, and controlled all aspects of their personal and professional lives. The stars were their valuable assets,  kept in a bubble away from the hazards of the outside world, but were also exploited and pitted against each other for financial gains, particularly the women.

One of Hollywood’s most infamous feuds was between two of its biggest stars of the 1930s and 1940s, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, which is being depicted in a new TV series, Feud, created by Ryan Murphy (Glee, Normal Heart, American Horror Story) and starring Susan Sarandon as Davis) and Jessica Lang as Crawford. The enmity between the two former queens of Hollywood was legendary because it spilled out of the bubble and played out in the press before the public’s eager eyes.

To understand the hatred between Davis and Crawford, one ought to delve into the inner working of the Hollywood machine that led to it, and that’s exactly what “Feud” does. It shows that behind the glitz and glamour, these women face difficult challenges and endure hardships and humiliations as they carve a career in a patriarchal system.

Instead of telling the life stories of two stars, the show focuses on a time period when the feud between them reached its pinnacle in 1961, the year they collaborated on the horror hit “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” in which they constantly fight, on and off the screen, and even cause physical injuries to each other.

In their early careers, Crawford was known for her alluring beauty, which drew Hollywood’s most prominent male stars to work with her, while Davis was mocked for her lack of sexual appeal. Davis, however, was endowed with an extraordinary talent, and hence she decided to focus on her craft, playing risky, unglamorous roles that other actresses didn’t dare doing lest their career would be damaged. After all, actresses were measured by their beauty and sexual appeal rather than their talent.

And when I visited the show’s set at Fox studios in West LA, Sarandon told me that many had warned Davis against playing a villainous waitress in “Of Human Bondage” in 1934, because it was negative and made her look ugly, which could’ve ruined her career, but she didn’t care. “I understand this risk-taking because I did a similar role in “Dead Man Walking” and didn’t use make-up, and I was terrified of watching the rushes during the filming because it’s scary seeing yourself looking ugly on the screen,” explained Sarandon, who won an Oscar for that role.

Davis’ bravery paid off, crowning her the most talented actress in Hollywood and garnering her two Oscars for her performances in “Dangerous” in 1935 and in “Jazabel” in 1938, which she followed with 8 other nominations over the ensuing years.

Nonetheless, Davis’ outstanding talent was no match for Crawford’s stunning beauty in old Hollywood. In spite of winning an Oscar for her performance in “Dangerous,” her male co-star, Franchot Tone, whom she fell in love with during the shooting, chose Crawford over her. She later complained that he chose superficial beauty over rich substance.

Indeed, her beauty was the key that opened Hollywood’s doors for Crawford, who came from a poor background and lacked formal education, when she arrived in the mid-1920s from Texas. Initially, her performance was limited to dancing, but when the silent era ended in 1929, she underwent rigorous training in proper speech and good manners in order to be able to act and deliver lines convincingly. Davis, on the other hand, had been performing professionally in theatre in New York, when she was invited to work in Hollywood, which was seeking professional speaking actors in the early 1930s during its transition to sound.

Crawford played only safe romantic roles in order to ensure she looked glamorous on the screen, but when Davis derided her as untalented and superficial, she embarked on a campaign to obtain a serious role until she snatched the eponymous Mildred Pierce in 1945. Not only did the role revive her career, it also garnered her an Oscar, which she followed with two nominations for her roles in “Possessed” in 1947 and “Sudden Fear” in 1952. Nonetheless, she was still trailing behind Davis, who in 1950 played the lead in “All About Eve,” which garnered 9 Oscar nominations, including one for her performance.

In the late 1950s, however, the two ladies were facing a common enemy: old age. Both were in their 50s, an age that, at the time, heralded the end of a female career in Hollywood. Lack of acting offers from the studios, forced the famed stars to seek jobs in second-rate films, in order to pay their expenses. And this is where “Feud” begins its story: when the two iconic stars were languishing in a professional abyss and were desperately broke.

70-year-old Sarandon, a political and social activist,  concedes that actresses are doing better these days, but Hollywood’s attitude hasn’t changed much. “You vanish when you get old,” laments Sarandon, who started acting when she was 20. “They still give the role of the wife of 60-year-old man to a 30-year-old actress.”

Aware that the studio wouldn’t hire her to play romantic roles anymore, Crawford saw an opportunity to resurrect her career, when the horror screenplay of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” fell into her lap. Horror movies were cheap to make and relied on fear rather than sex. Furthermore, these movies were in vogue in those days thanks to the phenomenal success of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” And in order to secure support from a studio and pique audience and media interest, Crawford offered Davis the lead role.

The studios, nonetheless, were still wary of making a film with two aging actresses in the lead roles. Warner studio boss, Jack Warner, snorted sarcastically when the film’s director, Robert Aldredge, came seeking support, asking “Would you sleep with these old broads?”

Warner’s question is not uncommon in Hollywood, where sex appeal still a determining factor in casting women in studios’ movies. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, ShowGirls, Elle) told me earlier this year that studios had always compelled him to cast beautiful women in his movies, regardless of their acting merit.

Davis also admitted in press interviews that her first audition in Hollywood entailed lying in her underwear on a sofa, while 20 executives and producers took turns in mounting her and kissing her passionately. Women, of course, were aware of the power of their sexuality, which they parlayed in attaining jobs, and no one did that better than Crawford, whom we see in the show trying to seduce Warner, who rejects her, reminding her that she was not the attractive woman anymore. She fails again when she makes another attempt with the director, in the hope that he gives her more lines than her nemesis in the movie.

Eventually, Warner greenlit the “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” counting on the two stars’ acrimony to draw audiences to seeing it. And that was exactly what happened. A famous gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, kept pouring oil on the simmering fire between the two stars during the shooting of the film, and they reacted by venting their untamed hatred for each other to her, which she published in her magazine. And when Warner felt that the movie was too bad to pull a profit at the box office, he coerced the director to meet with Hopper and feed her with false behind-the-scenes gossip about Davis and Crawford in order to ignite the public interest in the film. “Pitting stars, particularly women, against each other was a common practice by the studios in order to save their movies,” Sarandon remarks.

Indeed, Warner’s tactic bore fruits. The film was a massive success at the box office and got nominated for five Academy Awards, including one in the Best Actress category for Davis, which enraged Crawford, who was snubbed.

In spite of knowing that a win for Davis would add at least one million dollars to the film’s receipts at the box office, Crawford embarked on a smear campaign against Davis, with Hopper’s help, to preempt that. It worked. Notwithstanding being the favourite to win the Oscar for Best Actress, Davis went home empty-handed.

Ironically, the feud between Davis and Crawford saved them from professional perdition. Following the extraordinary success of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” job offers flooded their way, though not in romantic movies, but rather in horror ones. Fortunately for them, acting qualifying standards in the sixties didn’t rely strictly on physical perfection and beauty anymore, but rather on the actor’s ability to transform and melt in the role beyond recognition.

The hostility between the two iconic figures continued until Crawford’s death in 1978, when Davis said “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”