'Feud': Ryan Murphy on Aging in Hollywood, Sexuality and the Sadness of "Lost Potential"

The showrunner talks with THR about his conversations with Bette Davis, aging in Hollywood and female sexuality.
Suzanne Tenner/FX

[This story contains spoilers from episode two of FX's Feud.]

There is no shortage of incredible stories when it comes to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s infamous Hollywood feud, be it prior to, during or after the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. But the male influences and the flawed system that allowed such a feud to go the lengths that it did had not yet been tapped  until Sunday’s episode of FX anthology Feud: Bette and Joan, that is.   

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“The Other Woman” pulled back the curtain on studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) and director Robert Aldrich’s (Alfred Molina) involvement in the ongoing war between Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) when Aldrich fed catty remarks to Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) to fuel public interest in the film. Meanwhile, Aldrich’s clear attraction to Davis grew during their private rehearsals, and Crawford became a woman desperate to use her body in order to get back into her director’s good graces. To make matters worse, it all boiled over just when it looked as though these leading ladies might actually become friends.

To dig into the larger issues of the episode and break apart what is fact vs. fiction, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with series creator Ryan Murphy, who also wrote and directed “The Other Woman.”

Based on your research, was there a point when these two women might have started becoming friends?

A lot of this is based on research and a lot of it is based on what Bette Davis told me during my time with her, where I got to ask her these questions — I did reporting many years ago and it was never published, so it was a mixture of both. In terms of that, do we actually know word-for-word what went on between those women? No. But it was intimated in several pieces at the beginning of the film that it went very smoothly. There’s a scene at the end of episode one where they both go to Hedda Hopper’s house, for example. That is a documented fact. Hedda was digging for dirt and they were both very kind and polite to each other and at that point there wasn’t a lot of acrimony. Joan had hand-picked Bette to be in the film, so there was a sense of largess at the Hedda dinner where all the ladies wore black and Hedda was trying to get them to spark something up and it didn’t happen.

Then something happened halfway through the shooting of the movie when gossip columnists reported there was a catfight and they were at each other’s throats. That’s where a lot of the movie and their relationship went awry. Joan Crawford thought the director was kind of throwing to Bette Davis because she was making insane, grand, very brave choices and Joan was stuck in a wheelchair and was almost like the straight guy. I think she started to resent that. So that’s when it turned and when the calm began to turn sour. And based on research that’s because Jack Warner knew that two women pitted in the media against each other would probably sell more tickets. So a lot of that was created by the system, by the columnists. What they did still happens today with women. Susan and Jessica and I talked a lot about that; this sort of woman-against-woman reporting is really a device used many times by the media as click bait or back then to sell papers.

I personally believe that at the beginning, because it was Crawford who reached out to Davis and they both knew that it had to work, there was a feeling of, “OK, let’s just get through this. We don’t like each other but we’re tolerant.”

Were you able to find any actual evidence that Jack and Robert did plot to leak gossip?

We know that Hedda was always getting a lot of stuff from Jack Warner. Actual documented research? It’s not like the Zapruder film, you can’t go back and look at a document, but based on our research that’s what we thought and intimated.

How do you perceive Robert Aldrich — was he a nice guy who hated to find himself in the middle of this?

There’s not a lot known about Robert Aldrich. Since his death, he’s sort of been reinvented as a great director and auteur of the time. I personally was very fond of him, I deeply understood his dilemma … he had done several things that had not worked and still felt that he was very relevant and had things to say and to prove. And so he did this movie because there was nothing else really going on or being offered to him after a couple of bombs in a row.

He was really talented and he did get caught up in the middle of these two women that he had great affection for. He had directed Joan Crawford in Autumn Leaves, there was documented research that they had a very brief affair. And I think he was also very fond of Bette Davis. Joan Crawford has said that Davis and Aldrich had an affair because he was going through a divorce at the time and Crawford would call his hotel room — particularly when they were making Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and Bette Davis would be in bed next to him, screaming at him to get off the phone. He is an unsung hero of that time. He was an auteur filmmaker stuck between a rock and a hard place because he was coming at the very end of the studio system and locked in that world.

What does Alfred Molina bring to that role?

We wanted to be respectful of Aldrich. Many of his children are still alive and grew up in the business so I looked at Robert Aldrich as sort of the unsung hero in the piece. Alfred Molina is so good at playing him as a dignified person. He just wants to stay in the game, he doesn’t want to be put out to pasture. He doesn’t feel like his time is over, he still feels there is greatness inside of him like Davis and Crawford felt. So he was a victim of that and we tried to dramatize that. Davis herself told me how fond she was of him, how much she really loved working with him and how he really did sort of have his hands full directing the two of them. In her opinion and everybody else’s, he handled himself with a great deal of patience and dignity.

Did your relationship with Davis make it a challenge to be objective? Did you ever find yourself siding with Davis over Crawford?

I never did, I went into it knowing a lot about Davis and not about Joan Crawford but I left it knowing a lot about both of them and finding them both to be fascinating and sympathetic. Look, we weren’t making a documentary, that’s clear. And sometimes we were left to imagine things we thought had happened or that research had led us to believe even though there was no past answer. Did we know for a fact that Aldrich and Jack Warner were absolutely in collusion? No, there’s no way to know that for sure because all that happened behind closed doors. But what I found was I was always equally drawn and moved by the women in different parts of the story and also by Aldrich and Warner.

Like episode six. Warner, vis-à-vis Stanley Tucci, has an amazing monologue where he talks about how he used to make culture and now he’s lost in it. And I feel like that’s a part of the aging process of Hollywood, where there is an expiration date stamped on your keister and you’re fighting to stay relevant and then suddenly you wake up and people have deemed you expired. All of our leads from Bette and Joan to Aldrich and Warner and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland and Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell, they were all feeling the exact same thing and that’s very moving to me.

I’ve grown up with many women in my career now, all of whom come into my office and sometimes break down in tears, saying suddenly the phone has stopped ringing. "Suddenly people aren’t interested in me anymore just because I got older." And I’m very moved by that. Persevering and fighting to stay in the game instead of giving up and still fighting to demonstrate your self worth is tremendously moving. For me, the saddest thing in the world is always lost potential. That is always the most heartbreaking thing when there’s something left to be mined from a situation or a person that goes unexplored; that’s a tragedy to me. I looked at the piece as a sad tragedy about this group of people who oddly had so much in common even though they didn’t know it at the time.

Was it important in crafting B.D.’s (Kiernan Shipka) monologue about the carousel that those statements about giving up your turn gracefully came from another woman? 

Yes. I think that view is very prevalent in society, not just in Hollywood. I feel like part of the problem that a lot of people have in Hollywood specifically is maybe along with having their turn at the carousel, sort of lifting other people up and being mentors and showing other people the way. That’s at the core of B.D.’s speech, her resentment about her mother. Bette Davis was a lot of great things but she was also a narcissist, as was Joan Crawford. That monologue meant a lot to me when we were working on it; I feel like Crawford and Davis, like many women today, feel this way and act this way because Hollywood and the system makes them feel like there’s only room for one woman. There’s no “It Boy” in our culture but there is an “It Girl” and that phrase and that idea makes women sort of feel like, “OK. There’s only one position, there’s only one slot, there’s only one area of opportunity for me to move in, so that means I can’t share any of it with anybody else.” It’s another tragedy of the Hollywood system. That still happens and that was at the core of that B.D.-Bette relationship in some way. Susan really loved working on that scene and that monologue because it was sort of moving and sad. You can’t dispute anything B.D. says to her; Bette Davis, who always got the last word in, really had no refute to that monologue because she knew it was true.

You also directed this episode. Can you break down the decision to shoot Aldrich and Davis’ private song rehearsal using that mirror?

It was an interesting parallel; I related to that scene because Aldrich and Bette were both nervous about Baby Jane; it was a big leap and that was a big role. Susan and I were very worried about Feud because there was a lot on the line; she was playing a real person and I wanted to get it right, and I deeply related to that scene. So I staged it in a way that actually sort of summed up my affection and love for Susan, which was a director saying, “Don’t be afraid, you’ve done this before, you can knock it out of the park.” As you watch it, it's very loving and he’s helping her with the gestures. Bob Aldrich is very good about that stuff in the movie. He gave Bette Davis a lot of room to create the visual of Baby Jane, but I feel like he emotionally understood it. I love when he says in the scene, “Baby Jane is from vaudeville; everything is big. You’re playing to a big house.”

When I was staging it and directing it, I came from a place of, “Well I really love Susan and I really am protective of Susan and I feel like we’re in it together.” And I feel like Aldrich really loved Bette and he was protective, so I asked myself how he would approach an actor or how would I do it. I will say that was a very confused day of shooting because it felt very personal to me, that scene. I know what it’s like for an actor to say, “Oh God. I don’t want to make an embarrassment of myself, I want to go for it, I feel over my head, can you help me.” I’ve related to that, and I know Susan related to that, so it was a rough day but it was a fun day to do.

Were you also trying to showcase how small Susan is compared to Alfred?

[Laughs.] Everyone is small compared to Fred and that’s the interesting thing that I also wanted to convey. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis are larger than life. They just are. They sucked all the oxygen out of a room; they’re icons, they loom large in our imaginations. But the truth of the matter is both women were diminutive. They were “average women” who were trying to make their way into the world and I wanted to convey that in that scene. When you do see the grand, scrappy Bette Davis next to big, tall Robert, I think you do get a sense of how she must have felt, constantly going through the world having to fight things that were larger than her, bigger than her. It was a very complicated thing but sometimes you just luck into a visual and I certainly lucked into it with Alfred and Susan. It sort of gave Bette Davis a normalcy.

Why go there with Davis and Aldrich sexually in this episode?

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were in their 50s when they made Baby Jane and in our culture, after the age of 40 women are no longer sexualized — they no longer have desires, they no longer have needs. It was important to me and to Jessica and Susan to show that side of Bette and Joan. They were sexual in that they did have romances, they did sleep with men in their 50s. They weren’t just actresses and mothers, they had a completely other thing going on, as everybody does. But you don’t often get to see that in movies or TV shows in regards to women over 40, particularly women over 50. So we spent a lot of time talking about that, the romantic and sexual lives of Bette and Joan and making sure that we documented it. Right before Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte Bette Davis was having an affair with an actor in his late 20s. Nobody ever thought of that of Bette Davis, but that’s who she was and how she acted. I love that she lived her life unapologetically as a man would and I wanted to show that.

Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX. What did you think of the episode? Sound off below. Click here to read our interview with Alfred Molina about Sunday's episode.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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