'Feud': Jessica Lange Discusses Joan Crawford's Familial Struggles, Sexism in Hollywood

Joan Crawford "wanted desperately to be a mother," the actress says.
Kurt Iswarienko/FX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the third episode of Feud, "Mommie Dearest."]

When it came to public image, there was none so conscious as Joan Crawford. The actress was renowned for the way she cherished her fans and wanted to present herself to them over the course of her career, which is why so many who knew her could only imagine how she would have felt were she still alive when her daughter Christina released one of the very first celebrity tell-all books, Mommie Dearest.

Feud: Bette and Joan touched on that theme of motherhood on Sunday night with its “Mommie Dearest” episode. The episode traced Crawford’s (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis’s (Susan Sarandon) respective relationships with their children, as Crawford lamented hers growing up and Davis tried to figure out a way to rein in her daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka). (Her conclusion was to put her in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, with disastrous results.)

By the end of the episode, filming had wrapped on Baby Jane, but both women were left wondering where their next roles would lie. While Davis consoled herself with the mothering advice she had left to dole out, Crawford decided to seek out another baby at an adoption agency — something she was denied because of her advanced age.

To delve deeper into the episode’s themes of motherhood and aging, as well as learn about the process of becoming Joan Crawford, THR spoke with Lange. Here, she shares her recollections of the old MGM lot, a chance encounter with Bette Davis and thoughts on balancing work and motherhood.

What’s your earliest memory or experience with Joan Crawford’s work?

It must have been one of the early movies, but I couldn’t tell you definitively which one it was. As a child, I used to watch all those old black and white movies on TV, that was a real source of entertainment. I’m sure it must have been during that time that I first saw her. I wasn’t that aware of her all those years except for certain films that I really liked, like Grand Hotel or Mildred Pierce. But I have to admit I wasn’t a huge Joan Crawford fan. Not that I didn’t like her work, but it wasn’t something that I really spent a lot of time looking at.

Had anyone ever commented on your resemblance to her or does that come from hair and makeup alone?

I think that came out of hair and makeup. I don’t think physically I resemble her, really. She was a very small woman, she was just like 5-foot-3? When I first went to MGM, we shot King Kong there. That was before they really dissembled the studios and they still had their wardrobe department. I would go in there for fittings and they would still have the dress dummies that were based on these women’s bodies. I was always amazed at how tiny they were. I remember Crawford’s was in there because she was of course for years the great MGM star. And they had waists about 15 inches big — it was unbelievable. And in the face, except for the cheekbones and forehead I don’t think we really look that much alike. But hair and makeup makes a big difference.

Do you remember your first experience with Baby Jane?

I don’t remember where or when, but of course I saw it. But I do remember I was struck by the way it was shot, that stark black and white. And the performances were wonderful.

Physically what kind of a process was it for you to play Joan doing this movie, with the wheelchair and such?

That was easy enough, it was just getting used to it and learning how to do it and watching how she did it. She was unique in that way; she had very minimal movement always. Even in interviews in real life she was very still. So when I first started learning how to work that wheelchair I did it in the way that felt natural to me and then when I looked at it I realized that she was very contained, always, when she was wheeling that back and forth. Her arms were tight to her body… I just had to watch how she did it and then adjust my natural way of doing it. 

Now that you’ve played her, do you find yourself inadvertently taking her side in this feud?

Well, obviously there are two sides to everything, but just because I played Joan I’m more sympathetic to her. That obviously happens when you play somebody, you delve into the way they feel and think. So I have a greater understanding of what made her do things and therefore a much greater sympathy.

The show has made the point of how media is responsible for these feuds — especially between women. Have things gotten better over the years?

It’s funny, this morning I was looking at magazines at the dentist’s office and I was flipping through one of those weekly magazines and there was a page titled, “This Week’s Feuds.” And then they had four or five pictures of people who were supposedly involved in a feud. So no, I don’t think it’s changed that much; I think observers have a natural fascination with what they think is people feuding. Why that is I don’t know. It’s not ever been something that has interested me. But obviously if you have a whole page devoted to it in a weekly magazine it must be of interest to somebody.

“Mommie Dearest” is a pretty deep dive into motherhood on top of everything else; was there anything in particular that you wanted to showcase in about Joan Crawford as a mother?

The honest truth is I did not read that book and I never saw the film so I can’t speak to it with any great insight or knowledge. Joan’s relationship with her children, from what I know and all of my research, was very ... Here’s a woman who grew up in one of the worst, imagined childhoods. A terrible family life, crushing poverty... Really farmed out, almost like an indentured servant. Physical abuse, sexual abuse. So that’s not the makings of somebody who comes to motherhood with a tremendous amount of personal experience. From what I can tell, she wanted desperately to be a mother. But I think she also felt strongly about certain things like discipline and generosity. She would make the children give away toys or Christmas presents. But they were children of a Hollywood star; they had hundreds. So why not? Why not have them learn that lesson of being generous? She grew up under such hard circumstances and she wanted them to understand sacrifice, discipline and what hard work means. I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with teaching your children those lessons.

But I was not one of her children, nor were a lot of other people who have made judgment on her. I don’t know Christina’s book, I don’t know the movie, so it’s hard for me to speak to it relevantly. I can just speak about how in all the research I did, which included many books and interviews, that it didn’t support that kind of monstrous motherhood that a lot of people think of when they think of Joan Crawford.

Can you speak to the scene where Crawford is rejected at the adoption agency right on the cusp of wrapping Baby Jane? Mothers spend a good chunk of their lives balancing a family and career and then suddenly in this case both are gone.

It’s very hard, believe me. I think anyone who has raised a family or who is raising a family and having a career knows it’s exhausting. I just know for myself that when my children were little, my career really… there’s a certain point where you have to decide what’s more important: family or work. I would always choose family, so my work suffered in a way. I was also extremely distracted by being a mother. In that way it is hard to do both and do both well all the time. With Joan, for instance, when her first two children she adopted were little, that was at the height of her career. When you think of how those studios worked, when you were under contract you worked almost all year long. You went from one film to another, to another, to another. In terms of giving her kids the attention that maybe she imagined she could, I’m sure it didn’t pan out. And I’m sure it didn’t pan out for a lot of those women.

Since you started working with Ryan Murphy, have other doors opened or is Hollywood still as bad at providing good roles for older women?

It’s pretty well the same as it’s always been. There are more opportunities for women of a certain age at different things in television. That just seems to be the way it’s worked out over the last few years, certainly for me. There’s more opportunity and the parts are better and more plentiful than in film at this point at this age. Television has really come in to fill that void that film left when the parts started to kind of disappear.

Ryan recently tweeted a picture of you and Bette Davis together from years ago. What’s the story behind it?

 

 

(Laughs.) Somebody showed that to me not long ago, yeah! I hadn’t seen that before. We were doing some panel from what somebody investigated. I don’t really remember. I remember doing this event with Bette Davis and I think Jimmy Caan was there, if I remember correctly. I think it was a panel for the American Film Institute. By why I, at a young age and with little experience, would be on a panel with somebody as formidable as Bette Davis is beyond me. It had to have been 1977 or 1978, something like that.

Do you remember speaking with her?

Well yes, we were cordial and we spoke, but it wasn’t the kind of situation where there was a lot of time to sit and chat. We arrived, we sat down, we did this panel, we exchanged a few words and that was probably the extent of it.

What has been the most revelatory thing about doing this show or about playing Joan Crawford?

What we’re dealing with isn’t exactly revelatory; we’ve all understood the Hollywood that was. It still remains very ageist; there remains a lot of ageism in Hollywood. I think there’s a lot of sexism in Hollywood. I think there’s a lot of misogyny. It’s not like that was a great revelation but we’ve explored those elements. More than anything, the revelation has been learning about Joan Crawford. It’s how exciting it became to play her. What a complete and fully realized character she was for me as an actress; I didn’t anticipate that going into it.

Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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Twitter: @amber_dowling

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