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How ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ Turned Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon into Dueling Hollywood Divas
Old Hollywood retro glam makes FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan” the perfect Emmy contender for costume, makeup, and hair. The bitter personal rivalry between Emmy-nominated Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), which heated up during their co-starring in the 1962 horror movie, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” was fueled by the fear and insecurity of two fading stars.
Showrunner Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”) recreates the era when the studio system was in decline and the two once-bright stars were struggling to stay in the game. For Murphy’s Emmy-winning team of costume designer Lou Eyrich, makeup designer Eryn Krueger Mekash, and hair department head Chris Clark, it was an opportunity to embrace the twilight of Hollywood’s Golden Age in grand style.
Crawford vs. Davis
The two divas are a study in contrast: Crawford carried her glam with her at all times, trying to hang on to her glory days as a movie star. She never went out of her house without full makeup, and looked youthful for her age. Eyrich kept her in cool tones, icy blues, greens, and pinks.
Davis was far more casual and comfortable in her own skin, a confident actress yet worried about losing her Hollywood stature and relevance. Davis dressed informally in warm, autumnal colors. Making “Baby Jane” intensified the divide between the two fading stars, and Davis knew how to get under Crawford’s skin.
Recreating their Iconic Looks
Eyrich first mimicked their signature silhouettes. Crawford accentuated her waist, was often sleeveless, and wore lots of jewelry. She was also a control freak and that influenced her wardrobe. Davis was pragmatic and more East Coast-influenced. Incorporating Lange and Sarandon, of course, required some tweaking to fit their looks and personalities.
In terms of makeup and hair, it was a matter of conveying the constant glam of Crawford versus the less extravagant Davis. Lange wanted to avoid the “Mommy Dearest” cliche and Mekash went for an identifiable look from the ’30s and ’40s, with extreme eyebrows and highlighted lips. But, with Lange’s tan skin, it looked very natural.
For Davis, the look was completely natural. There was no digital makeup for aging or reverse aging, and the period flashbacks were done with lifts, pulls, and highlight-and-shadow makeup, with select CG smoothing.
Hairstylist Clark, who used 63 lace-front wigs (25 custom-built), divided the work into three looks: Everyday, glam, and “Baby Jane.” And since Crawford and Davis often changed hair color, he had to maintain a sense of realism for the actresses. Davis’ was red in the ’60s and Sarandon’s own red was made to highlight that. The blond Lange was fitted with Crawford’s chocolate brown. And Crawford’s hair was authentically dressed the way it would have been in the early ’60s with wet-setting and rollers.
Crawford’s Oscar Revenge
Crawford’s ultimate humiliation, despite all her best efforts, was witnessing rival Davis land the Oscar nomination for “Baby Jane.” She got her revenge through a smear campaign and conniving her way into accepting the Oscar on behalf of Anne Bancroft (“The Miracle Worker”). The work is a standout for all three nominees. Fortunately, there was plenty of research available about Crawford’s all silver look.
The toughest costume challenge: good vintage fabrics are hard to find. For the silver beaded dress that Edith Head designed, Eyrich only had four days and a fraction of the actual cost ($10,000 to $20,000) to put it together. Fortunately, a colleague sourced the fabric in New York and they over-dyed it and added silver backing. The tailor then replicated the look and hand-beaded more beads as the finishing touch.
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Did Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange Actually Fight on the Set of Feud?
Jessica herself was surprised at how smoothly it went, too. “We’d never worked together,” she tells E! News, “and we’ve known each other over the years. It was wonderful because there was a real ease to working with Susan. Sometimes when you start working with an actor and they’re working in a very different way, you have to make adjustments and there’s a tension. There was none of that with Susan. We just kind of stepped in and got to work, it was wonderful.”
Jessica and Susan had known each other since the 80s, and had always wanted to work together—one of the main reasons they both signed onto this series, which was first brought to their attention in 2009 (before Lange had ever heard the words American Horror Story).
“They get along great,” says Murphy, “and I think in their own way, and we talked about it at the end, that maybe they were trying to rectify and give a happy ending to Bette and Joan, because they remain friends at the end of our show. It was very sweet. It was very moving. And it was very fun to have those two women and to be in a position of leadership on the set. Because make no mistake, when you’re doing a show with those two, they have a lot of opinions, and they’re always right because they’ve been around the block.”
Jessica and Susan, who serve as producers on Feud, also know how to rise above, as they have dealt with their own share of rumored rifts in the past.
“Susan and I were talking about this when we were shooting,” Murphy recalls. “When she and Geena Davis, who could not be closer, were doing Thelma and Louise, that’s all the press was writing about. They’re at each other’s throats, and it could not have been further from the truth. People wrote about Jessica Lange and Gwyneth Paltrow when they shot a movie called Hush and I know both parties and I know they both really like each other. Just like with Bette and Joan, the public is wildly fascinated by women going at each other. But in this case, it could not have been farther from the truth.”
Fans of Hollywood greats Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange will be excited to hear the pair will become regulars on BBC Two later in the year, when the channel airs new period series Feud: Bette and Joan.
The programme, which has already been broadcast in America (and received positive reviews) depicts the famous rivalry between silver screen legends Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and June Crawford (Jessica Lange) on set of their joint project What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Feud will tell the story of Davis and Crawford’s rivalry not only through their eyes, but also from the perspective of their fellow screen icons Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) and Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones.)
The stellar cast of leading ladies is joined by Stanley Tucci as Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner.
MORE: NICOLE KIDMAN SAYS THERE ARE ‘NO PROSPECTS’ FOR BIG LITTLE LIES SERIES 2
BBC Two has teased that the series – created by Ryan Murphy – will explore ‘with great style and wit how the two stars endured ageism, sexism and misogyny while struggling to hang on to success and fame in the twilight of their careers.’
MORE: MISS HONEY FROM MATILDA WAS IN BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY AND WE ONLY JUST REALISED
David Smyth, Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution describes the programme as ‘a whip-smart series with fantastic performances by two of today’s greatest performers, which we’re sure will captivate and delight audiences.’
Well, we can’t wait to watch.
Feud: Bette and Joan will air on BBC Two later in 2017.
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Last week, Ryan Murphy gave Feud audiences a crash course on Joan Crawford (as played in the FX series by Jessica Lange)—showcasing her various eccentricities, vodka-fueled verve, and over-the-top glamour. But on this week’s episode, “The Other Woman,” Murphy turns toward Bette Davis (played by Susan Sarandon)—who, like Crawford, was a brash, studio-era rulebreaker, but with her own cocktail of peculiar characteristics. Ahead, a closer look at the traits teased in Sunday’s episode.
Her Number One Companion
Cigarettes were such a Davis signature that her Jezebel co-star Henry Fonda once joked, “I’ve been close to Bette Davis for 38 years—and I have the cigarette burns to prove it.”
They were not just accessories, either, but an extension of her already over-the-top self. Per biographer Ed Sikov, in his 2007 book Dark Victory: the Life of Bette Davis: “Cigarettes were to Bette Davis what a bottle of Southern Comfort was to Janis Joplin or a half-unbuttoned black shirt is to Tom Ford: a mundane prop elevated by sheer force of personality to the level of a stylized autograph.“ The book also quotes Dr. Ivin Prince: “She used smoking in a way I’d never seen before. It was a signature.“
She was so dependent on her signature Vanguards—of which she smoked up to four packs a day—that she could not abstain from them, even during a ten-minute television appearance. “If I did not smoke a cigarette,” she explained to TV talk show hosts, “they would not know who I was.” No one told Davis to put out her cigarettes, though, not even her dentist—who told Sikov that the actress smoked in both his waiting room and in the actual dentist’s chair. “She pretty much did what she wanted,” Prince said.
Davis’s accessory was so omnipresent and iconic that when the U.S. Post Office noticeably photoshopped out the actress’s cigarette, for a postage stamp in 2008, some Davis fans jokingly suggested a revolt.
She Had a Dirty Mouth and Wasn’t Afraid to Use It
In Sunday’s Feud episode, Davis storms into Crawford’s dressing room on a profanity-laced tear after she discovers that Crawford phoned in a gossip report about her. Although the New England-raised Davis was a self-described prude early in her life—remaining a virgin until she was married—she was fervently foul-mouthed (as this blooper reel attests). And her sharp remarks weren’t only ear-marked for annoying co-stars. (Though while we’re on the subject, one of her most well-known digs about Crawford was this: “She has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie.”) Ed Sikov recounts, in Dark Victory, how she used profanity with loved ones as well—such as on the occasion of a surprise birthday party for her fourth husband Gary Merrill, during which she presented him “with an iced cardboard-prop cake that said, instead of ‘Happy Birthday,’ ‘Fuck You!’
Susan Sarandon on Why She Hasn’t Watched ‘Feud,’ Bette and Joan’s Relationship
The role of Bette Davis was one Susan Sarandon had avoided playing until she was presented with Ryan Murphy’s scripts for “Feud.” Her performance as the legendary movie star has won raves — though she admits she’s hasn’t watched it herself.
Congratulations on “Feud.”
I haven’t seen it. It’s always heartbreaking when things are cut or you look at yourself and you think, “Well, I could have done that better or more courageously.” So I’ve decided just to dine out on everybody else saying they’re having a good time.
What made you sign on?
When Ryan came to me with this as a film, I just felt that it was a one-joke; they’re bitchy and so what? When he revisited it with me as a series years later, he seemed to have a handle on it. I love the fact that you could give it a context that was more interesting ask bigger questions about Hollywood now.
What did you see about what he was going to explore with Bette?
We have much more in common than I thought in terms of our being outside of the Hollywood community and not being really comfortable with the idea of being a movie star. I felt that he was going to expose a lot of things that we really didn’t know about her. At the basis of the feud was this pain. I also thought it was really interesting that, just in my career, which now has been 50 years, I’ve seen a change in women’s attitude — kind of the generation before me, because most of the power structure was male-dominated. I think a lot of those women saw other women as their foes; you had to align yourself with power, which at that time was pretty male. Now, there are so many women producing and directing, and actors that are women who are able to get projects .
Would you explore more opportunities to make another TV series?
Sure. I have a book that I think makes a better TV series than a film because it’s complicated. A limited TV series I think would be a much better place for it than trying to make a two-hour movie where things tend to be more simplistic, especially if it’s talking about race or inequity of some sort.
What do you think Bette and Joan Crawford’s relationship was at the end of their lives?
It was pretty hard to get over that Academy Award thing. Even at the end when Joan in “Feud” says, “I’m sorry I wasn’t nicer to you,” I was thinking, “Nicer to me? How about you apologize for completely sabotaging my career at that point.” I choose to believe that maybe they could have worked it out if everybody hadn’t benefited so much. They were like the early “Real Housewives” of wherever.
Things you didn’t know about Susan Sarandon
AGE: 70 BORN: New York City, as Susan Tomalin OLYMPIC MOMENT: Carried Olympic flag in 2006 opening ceremonies of Winter Games in Turin, Italy TURNING TABLES: Co-owner of SPiN Ping-Pong social clubs FIRST FAMILY MEMBER: Played Tricia Nixon in 1972 Gore Vidal play “An Evening With Richard Nixon and …” on Broadway