'Feud' Star on That Heart-Breaking Career Twist

FEUD BETTE & JOAN - Alison Wright - Publicity-H 2017
Kurt Iswarienko/FX

[This story contains spoilers from the "More, or Less" episode of FX's Feud.]

Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series, FX's Feud: Bette and Joan, has offered plenty of overarching themes in its freshman season: ageism, sexism and the idea of media-perpetuated feuds, to name a few. But following Sunday’s episode, “More, or Less,” the FX drama made it clear that Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) weren’t the only women getting the short end of the stick in the early '60s.

As What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? hit theaters and the masses declared it an overall winner thanks to skyrocketing ticket sales, Joan, Bette and director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) were ready to celebrate. Unfortunately, the expected offers didn't come for anyone involved. Meanwhile, the studio decided to do what it did best and capitalize on what it saw as a potential trend: older “broads” fighting each other onscreen.

For Aldrich’s loyal and savvy assistant Pauline Jameson (Alison Wright), however, the movie’s success meant she was ready to attempt to push her own career to new heights. And so out of sheer determination she approached Crawford’s right-hand woman Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) in a bid to see if Crawford would even consider starring in the movie she wrote and wanted to direct.

Despite Mamacita’s approval and the obvious need for Crawford to find her own script after firing her agents for failing to do so, Crawford flat out declined Pauline’s proposal in a heartbreaking twist. As she lamented the fact that Hollywood wasn’t ready for a female director, Crawford was blunt in her rejection, explaining that Pauline’s first shot couldn’t be Crawford’s last.

To delve a little deeper into those feminist themes and gather more insight into the overarching storyline, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Alison Wright from New York, where she’s currently starring in Lynn Nottage's Sweat. Below, she talks about filming integral Feud scenes before and after the presidential election, the inspiration behind her character (despite original reports she’s not based on the actress of the same name) and the evolving place for women in Hollywood.

Is Pauline Jameson actually based on any historical characters?

Pauline is a composite character. She’s a fictional character who is loosely based on the stories and impressions of women who worked in the studio system. There was a British lady named Geraldine Hersey who was an assistant at one point to Bob Aldrich while he was in Europe working on other projects. She reached out to him with Baby Jane and suggested he do it even though it was under option to someone else at the time. He wrote a piece in the New York Times later on and said something to the effect that she knew more than the major studio heads about what it would take to make a good film. Because of course he shopped it around and in reality nobody wanted to make it. Heaven forbid they do a project about women who were over 50. And apparently not viable or a commodity and they would never be able to sell a story about women who were of that age. So that’s the person that Pauline was directly based on but of course she represents all the girl Fridays; all the women who were running around behind the men and doing all of the legwork. Pauline has ambitions to be in the business and is capable and plans on having a future behind the camera on her own terms.  

What did you physically want to bring to this role?

Pauline wasn’t really in a position to be able to speak her mind. Women really aren’t today even; we often have to bite our tongues in many meetings and rooms full of men. It was only magnified back then in 1962, 1963. No one wanted her opinion unless it was asked for; it wasn’t really something women could give out at the time. There are lots of things that Pauline witnesses and hears Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) saying. If she were to react to those things and let him know what she thought of them she would be out on her ass and her job would be gone.

Do you feel a weight representing Pauline given Ryan Murphy’s investment in female directors?

I felt a weight in that Ryan Murphy offered me this role directly and I could only imagine he’d realize he made a mistake at some point and fire me. That was the way I carried the responsibility. I was a big fan of his sensibility and his esthetic and the stories that he tells; the strong women, both the actresses and the characters that he brings to the screen. Especially the resurgence he gave to Jessica Lange in American Horror Story, it’s impossible not to fall in love with that. So it was pretty intimidating. Especially since it was something I didn’t audition for.

What kinds of creative conversations did you have?

He told me that saw her as being whip-smart and cool as a cucumber and able and competent. Even though she was a smaller part he wanted to make sure he hired someone that would make her a fully fleshed human being. He wanted her to have an older sensibility and a bit of sass.

Why do you suppose Pauline approached Crawford for this part rather than Davis, who was more known to take risks?

We decided that Pauline had worked with Robert Aldrich for a while and he made Autumn Leaves with Joan a few years back. So we decided she had worked on that project. It felt like she thought she had a stronger relationship with Joan because they had a shared history and that she would be the more viable option of the two in terms of using the connections. I don’t think it’s a slight to Bette that she approached Joan.

How did you approach the rejection scene with Jessica Lange?

You’ve got to think about what Pauline’s expectations were and where she thought the meeting was going to go. She’s not interested in finding a husband and having kids necessarily; she wants to have a career. So I think she felt really empowered and thought it was going to happen. There’s a quote Aldrich had said about the sort of characters and films he was interested in making: he was interested in characters that were looking to fulfill their dreams no matter what the odds. They just went after what they wanted and tried to self-actualize their wants and needs. I thought that could absolutely apply to this woman as his assistant.

Was it shocking that as a struggling actress at that point Crawford didn’t want to help a fellow woman out because she was a female?

Joan’s explanation makes total sense. Pauline’s first chance can’t be her last. Joan was scratching to stay not just at the top, but to keep her head above water. She and Bette both were. There was this insinuation that there wasn’t enough room for everybody at the top so they had to self-preserve and look after their own careers. In reality what they really needed to do as women was band together rather than stick with this divide and conquer mentality.

The scene with Mamacita at the diner offers hope about an equal future for men and women; in your opinion why has equality been so slow to happen in this industry?

That’s a question for the masses. Here we are 50, 60 years later and women only represent four percent of the film industry. We’re only four percent. Until people start actively making changes and choosing to go out of their comfort zones and asking for something new nothing will change. Ryan has done that with his Half foundation. He’s somebody actually putting his money where his mouth is. We all have to step up and take more steps, whatever steps we can, to shake up the system a little bit.

Does a female director bring something to the table that a male director can’t?

I’d say so; we’re built differently. We have different qualities and abilities. Within our sexes there’s a difference. Ideally we should have both behind the camera because then we have both perspectives represented. It’s like asking what does a woman bring to a marriage as opposed to what a man does. It’s a little hard to pin down but by the same token I could write you pages of lists of what these things were. There is a difference between men and women so of course there’s a difference between a male and female energy.

What’s been your biggest personal takeaway from doing this show?

Well this episode especially, but the first half we shot before the election and the second half was after. The realization that I thought there was going to be a certain amount of tongue and cheek and a certain amount of irony by the time this show aired as we took a look at how it was for women compared to how would be now. I got very into the book The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, it was a great source of research for me for women of that time and the thinking of that time. I grew up in a different country and of a different age. So there was a certain idea that it would be a little bit, “Oh look at this quaint thing of how things were in the past.” And then the hammer and it turned out that not that much had changed. And by the time we are watching the show here we are again. We thought we were going to have a female president and that was taken away from us. So really how far have we come? I think that’s just an obvious feeling in the collective consciousness these days.

Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX. Thoughts? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling