Though she’s been offered the chance to play Bette Davis her entire career, Susan Sarandon wasn’t keen on bringing a caricature of the iconic actress to the screen, especially in a movie that didn’t dig deep into her story. “It’s not enough to think Bette Davis is cool,” Sarandon tells ET. “What do you do with her then? It’s really a challenge to make an audience experience something in that moment -- and not just a camp impersonation of somebody, because that’s going to get tired really quickly.”
In fact, when the first installment of Ryan Murphy’s new FX anthology series Feud (premiering Sunday, March 5), about the legendary rivalry between Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Davis (Sarandon) during their collaboration on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, was first presented to Sarandon as a film, the actress passed on it. “You still need a good script,” she says, not interested in “an hour of bitchy one-liners.” But when Murphy said he was going to turn the script for Best Actress by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam into a TV series, Sarandon eventually signed on.
Expanded into eight hours, Feud goes beyond the events of the making of the 1962 thriller to add context to the rivalry that peaked when Davis was nominated for Best Actress for her role as Jane Hudson while Crawford was overlooked as her crippled sister Blanche. The shooting of the film and the Academy Awards showdown are all there in the first five episodes, of course, but the show dives deep into the pain that drove both women to do the things that they did to each other. “The thesis statement of our show is that last line of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” Murphy says, referring to when Jane says, “You mean, all this time, we could have been friends?”
“That was our jumping-off point,” Murphy continues, adding that the real tragedy is the fact that Crawford and Davis did have so much in common and could have been friends if Hollywood and their own insecurities hadn’t pitted them against each other.
“We wanted to say something about the culture of the time in the country and Hollywood,” executive producer Tim Minear says of Feud: Bette and Joan, which, in 2017, is also an examination of Hollywood ageism and sexism, which very much still exists today. He adds that the show couldn’t have been done without Sarandon. “I can say that now, not while she was making her deal.”
The cast alone, which features nine women -- Sarandon, Lange, Judy Davis, Jackie Hoffman, Alison Wright, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Molly Price -- over the age of 40, is a rare feat for any screen. “Everyone thinks that women don’t like to work with women. But the fact is we never get a chance,” says Zeta-Jones, who portrays Olivia de Havilland, adding that the beauty of being part of a show like this is the opportunity to work with women she’s admired for so many years.
While Murphy didn’t go into Feud with a quota to fill, he did set out to prove that a show about women is not a risk. “Good programming is good programming,” he says, adding: “Women, in particular, are starved for shows about their lives.”
And right now, it seems, TV is the only place to tell those stories. “Television is definitely much further ahead than film. A lot of very powerful parts are on TV,” Sarandon says while lamenting the fact that some studios can’t empathize with women. “It’s hard for male executives to look at a female in a lead and identify with that.”
Of course, that’s not the case with Murphy, who saw Feud as an opportunity to write and produce roles for longtime friends and collaborators, including Lange, who has appeared on four seasons of American Horror Story and recently returned to the Broadway stage in the Murphy-produced revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Sarandon, on the other hand, is new to Murphy’s tribe of loyal actors and collaborators. “You better make sure that he doesn’t dislike you. Let me add that,” she deadpans, later adding that she’d love to work with him again after such a positive experience making Feud.
Sarandon spent six months portraying the iconic actress in front of the camera, digging deep into the many layers of the character. Not only is there Davis’ distinct speech pattern -- the dropping of Rs and a fast manner of speaking compared to Sarandon’s own “sloppy” style -- there were the iconic looks both on- and offscreen as well as an entire film to recreate. “It was partially difficult, I think, for Susan because she’s so different from Bette,” Murphy says of the actress, while acknowledging her unwavering passion for the project.
“Both Jessica and I felt overwhelmed in the beginning,” she admits. “For me, the fear-fun ratio was really not in my favor for at least five weeks.” Eventually, however, it clicked for Sarandon, who will likely walk away with at least an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Davis.
But for now, Sarandon’s ready to put Davis, a role that’s somehow chased her most of her career, behind her. “I finally got it out of my system,” she says.
--Additional reporting from Angelique Jackson and Nischelle Turner