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Since its release in 1962, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has become a cult classic thanks to its combination of dark comedy and camp, not to mention the enduring appeal of stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
However, Ryan Murphy promises that his upcoming anthology series Feud: Bette and Joan, which looks at the making of the movie and the relationship between the two stars, will be a much “deeper” exploration.
“I wasn’t interested in doing anything that was quote unquote campy,” he told reporters Thursday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
“I think there’s something much more delicate and moving, and for me, what I love about the show is … the issues in the show are modern and women are still going through this sort of stuff today. Nothing has really changed. We really wanted to lean into that aspect of the show.”
The eight-part drama stars Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Joan and Bette, respectively, and follows how two actresses struggling to find good roles later in their careers must band together, despite their personal differences, for a film in hopes that it will change both of their career trajectories.
Exec producer Dede Gardner agreed with Murphy’s sentiment about Feud‘s relevancy in 2017. “I think the show is deeply modern. I think it’s delicious in its celebration of a town that was less crowded, but I don’t think it romanticizes it. I think it’s called it out for its truisms, but it was brutal. These women were treated brutally and made to treat one another brutally,” she said. “Seemingly this was the only way anyone was going to get ahead, and I don’t think much has changed in that regard. I think we could stand to improve a great bit.”
Murphy was inspired to do the series by looking at the lack of women in Hollywood last year after several reports pointed to the startling few number of women and minorities positioned behind the camera despite the proliferation of TV shows in the Peak TV era. Since then, Murphy has launched the Half foundation, which aims to put more women behind the camera.
“What came out of that for me was a lot of very moving sentiments from women, and from that I decided to jump off into Feud,” he said.
The struggle of women in Hollywood, and particularly for aging women in Hollywood, was something Lange said is still an issue today and pointed to Amy Schumer’s take on the subject: Last F—able Day in Hollywood from her Comedy Central series, a reference that drew laughter and recognition from the crowd.
“We’ve touched on that in a very profound way. Joan was 10 years younger when this takes place than I am now, yet her career was finished because of her age,” Lange said. “What we were talking about, especially with Joan, who was known for her tremendous beauty — what happens when that beauty is no longer considered viable?”
“I think that’s a big part of the show,” added Sarandon. “What Hollywood does to women as they age, which is just a microcosm of what happens to women generally as they age whether you want to say they become invisible or they become unattractive or undesirable or whatever it is.”
Sarandon said it’s gotten better since she began acting. “When I started, it was over by 40,” she said. “You see the line being moved a little bit further.”
However, Lange was more skeptical. “I don’t think it’s changed that much really, to tell you the truth,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a question of age or looks; I think it is who is interested in these stories. If the powers that be don’t find that there’s anything viable or interesting in a story about a woman of a certain age, those films aren’t going to be made.”
Sarandon pointed to the rise of female producers and specifically actresses developing their own material. Fittingly, Murphy told reporters after the panel that both Lange and Sarandon would remain producers on future installments of Feud even if they do not return onscreen.
When discussing potential future seasons of the drama, Murphy said they would not be set in Hollywood and would not center on women. One possibility is a story set in the 16th century, but he is also going out to friends in the industry like Mark Ruffalo about what other famous feuds might be worth bringing to the small screen.
Feud premieres Sunday, March 5 at 10 p.m. on FX.
With additional reporting by Lesley Goldberg
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