The new show by Ryan Murphy, Feud: Bette and Joan, hits Lightbox next week. Sam Brooks runs down which great current-day actor is playing which star of Hollywood’s golden age, and where to check out their best work.
For a self-identified actressexual like myself, Feud: Bette and Joan is a goldmine. The miniseries follows the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the horror film from 1962 that cast Bette Davis and Joan Crawford opposite each other as ageing sisters, one of whom is required to look after the other when she’s injured in a car accident. It was a huge media sensation at the time, owing to what huge stars Davis and Crawford were and how much they were reported to outright hate each other. It’s the kind of furore that wouldn’t happen now, unless Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston were somehow cast in a film together.
Feud is about a Hollywood age when actresses’ personas were as big as the screens that held them – and the cast evidently knew they had to go big too. If you’re not big when you play these people, it’s not gonna feel real.
But who are they? Never fear, this over-educated actressexual is here to make sure you know who is playing the big names, why the big names actually matter, and where you can check out more of their work.
Susan Sarandon is Bette Davis
Who is she? Susan Sarandon is one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation, and is probably most famous for playing Louise in canyon-jumping Thelma and Louise. Since then, she’s won an Oscar for playing a nun in Dead Man Walking, established a ping-pong club in New York and like apparently every other actor who has lived, had a guest starring role on 30 Rock.
Who is she playing? Bette goddamn Davis. Davis was one of the most famous actresses of her era, winning two Oscars right out of the gate for Dangerous and Jezebel, but cemented her image and career with films like The Letter, All About Eve and the film that’s the whole focus of Feud, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. She was a huge contrast to many of the actresses (and honestly, actors) of the time for her willingness to go dark and dirty for a role, and not worry about whether the audience liked her or not. It worked out for her in the long-term, you guys.
What’s her best work? If you want to go mainstream, All About Eve. It’s a comedy about a bitter ageing actress realising the industry around her has no use for her, and dealing with an upstart fan-turned-stalker-turned-fellow-actress. If you want to deep dive, I recommend Of Human Bondage, a Somerset Maugham adaptation from 1934 where Davis goes dark, ugly and unlikeable and she’s never been better.
Jessica Lange is Joan Crawford
Who is she? Jessica Lange is, like, Susan Sarandon, one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation. She’s got two Oscars, for Tootsie and Blue Sky, and in my humble opinion she should have a third Oscar for her role in Frances, one of the best performances ever put to screen. She’s had a mid-to-late career renaissance for her roles across multiple seasons of American Horror Story, and it makes perfect sense for Murphy to continue her love of her by getting her to play Joan Crawford.
Who is she playing? Joan Crawford was, like Bette Davis, one of the most famous actresses of her era. Whereas Davis was well-known for deglamming and going ugly, Crawford maintained her ladylike and glamorous image throughout her career. She’s probably most famous now, unfortunately, for her daughter Christina’s memoir Mommie Dearest, which was turned into a camp movie classic of the same name. It’s a truly excellent film, and Faye Dunaway got a lot of shit playing Crawford, but good god she is something else in it.
What’s her best work? It’s a bit cliche to say this, because it’s what she won her Oscar for, but Mildred Pierce is genuinely one of the best film noirs of the ’40s, and as a Hardworking Single Mum™, Crawford goes full noise acting in it, and it’s tremendous. If you want a deep cut, go for Humoresque, the film which has a fourteen minute scene where Crawford literally walks into the ocean because a man doesn’t love her anymore.
Judy Davis is Hedda Hopper
Who is she? Judy Davis is one of those titanically and loudly talented actresses who often become the passion obsessions of gay men. Her best work is in the now problematic/potentially always problematic Husband and Wives, but she also does beautiful work as Judy Garland in Me and My Shadows, little known Australian indie film Children of the Revolution and the better-than-you-remember Debra Messing vehicle The Starter Wife.
Who is she playing? Hedda Hopper, who was basically the Mike Hosking of Hollywood. She was a columnist who wielded tremendous power, such that she was given credit for swinging popular favour towards Joan Crawford to win her Oscar way back in 1945, the first time a columnist used their power to do so. Also, because she was a woman who had an opinion, she was hated by almost everybody at the time. Man, it sucked to be alive decades ago!
What’s her best work? The entirety of her rivalry with Louella Parsons, which is told in great detail in this Vanity Fair article.
Catherine Zeta Jones is Olivia de Havilland
Who is she? Catherine Zeta-Jones is the Academy Award-winning actress, singer, dancer and most importantly founder of Casa Zeta Jones, a shopping channel brand of homewares. She is also famous for being hugely pregnant and tremendously Welsh while winning an Oscar, and pretty loopy and out of it while winning a Tony. She also played Zorro’s girlfriend in some films, so there’s that.
Who is she playing? Olivia de Havilland is probably more famous today for her de Havilland law suit, which freed actors from the tyranny of the studio system which essentially contracted them to certain studios, who could make them act in whatever films they wanted them to. Outside of this, she’s mostly famous for her swashbuckling romance-y adventure films with Errol Flynn, for her longtime feud with sister and fellow Academy Award winner Joan Fontaine and for still being alive at 101! You go, girl.
What’s her best work? Olivia de Havilland played Melanie Wilkes in Gone with The Wind, you guys. Game, set, match. No, but actually de Havilland’s best and most layered work is The Heiress, based on the Henry James book about a rich woman who falls in love with a beautiful man, and then finds out he only wants her for her money. Tale as old as time.
Kathy Bates is Joan Blondell
Who is she? Kathy Bates is probably best known to you as the Unsinkable Molly Brown from that film where a boat hits an iceberg. She’s also won an Oscar for playing a woman who, quite justifiably, breaks a writer’s legs, and two Emmys for playing a racist witch in American Horror Story: Coven and the ghost of Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men (which is… quite a range, as ranges go). She is also famous for her ‘wtf’ reaction when co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones won an Oscar for Chicago when Bates was nominated for About Schmidt.
Who is she playing? Joan Blondell, an actress who was largely prominent during the 30s-40s and whose presence here seems odd. She’s a lot less famous than Davis, Crawford and de Havilland now, but in her time she was as famous as any of them, just without the Oscars to gild that fame with. Unlike these other actors, she was also most well-known for her comedy rather than her drama, which might have something to do with it.
What’s her best work? Blondell’s best work, as in her best performance and also the best film she was in, is probably the Busby Berkeley acid trip The Gold Diggers of 1933. If you want a little bit more David Lynch in your Moulin Rouge!, look no further.
Stanley Tucci is Jack Warner
Who is he? Stanley Tucci is a man I would like to marry one day, based solely on his performances as warm and beautiful men in films like The Devil Wears Prada, Julie and Julia, and Easy A. He is someone I would like to avoid based on his performances in Margin Call, The Lovely Bones and Beauty and the Beast. His performance in The Hunger Games films puts me somewhere in the middle. He is a great performer, is what I’m saying.
Who is he playing? Jack Warner was the driving force and one of the titular brothers behind Warner Brothers, which is a studio name you will know the name of, even if you can’t name for certain any they’ve actually made. He’s the dude who got this impressive list of films made: Casablanca, My Fair Lady, Sergeant York, and one of my favourite films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He’s also noted for being notably anti-Nazi and fascism, and proves himself as one of the few people from olden times who isn’t secretly a total dick.
What’s his best work? See above re: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, if you want to see Elizabeth Taylor eat fried chicken, get drunk and deliver some of the best monologues ever put to celluloid. And, to be kind, if you’re not that kind of person, you’re probably not going to be watching Feud: Bette and Joan.
Jackie Hoffman is Mamacita
Who is she? Jackie Hoffman is a classic ‘Hey! It’s That Lady!’. She’s done a billion musicals On and Off-Broadway, and had roles on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Difficult People, Strangers with Candy, a voice role in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and on the complete flipside of that, a voice in Dora the Explorer.
Who is she playing? Mamacita, the fictional maid/nurse/general confidant of Joan Crawford. She didn’t exist in real life, but you can be absolutely sure that someone existed who Joan Crawford was simultaneous emotionally abusive towards and reliant upon, and she might have been called Mamacita.
What’s her best work? Mamacita is a fictional character and therefore has no best work except The episode of 30 Rock where she plays a woman who set her office on fire.
Feud: Bette and Joan drops April 16th on Lightbox.
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