'Bette And Joan' Reveals The Electric Personalities Behind 'Baby Jane' | KUOW News and Information

'Bette And Joan' Reveals The Electric Personalities Behind 'Baby Jane'

Mar 3, 2017

As horror movies go, 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a B movie, in budget and, if I gave it one, a letter grade. It didn't deserve an A for its scares or its innovation, as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho did two years earlier, or his movie The Birds would in the following year.

But there was something about Baby Jane, with its story of two actress sisters — one confined to a wheelchair, the other obsessed by memories of her glory days as a child star — that was truly, deeply creepy. The director, Robert Aldrich, who had come up from live TV, was good, but was no Hitchcock: the movie didn't belong to him. It belonged, completely, to Joan Crawford as the invalid Blanche, and especially to Bette Davis as the sadistic Baby Jane.

Why make a miniseries out of the making of this particular cult motion picture? Ryan Murphy jump-started the current craze of miniseries anthologies, with new stories and characters being presented each season, with American Horror Story, and he's had even more success with The People v. O.J. Simpson, the first entry in his American Crime Story miniseries.

Now he's going back to the well a third time, for the same network, with a new FX anthology series called Feud, dramatizing memorable, very personal conflicts in history. And rather than starting large, with some political or philosophical battle, he's starting small, with the eight-episode campy drama called Bette and Joan.

Because it's only an eight-hour commitment, the supporting cast of Feud is unusually strong. Alfred Molina plays Aldrich, the director who has to handle both temperamental actresses at the same time. Stanley Tucci plays studio head Jack Warner, who still resents Davis for suing him to shut down the old Hollywood studio system of seven-year contracts. And there are plenty of other stars, including appearances from regular Murphy rep players Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates.

But the real electricity in Feud is generated from the same source as in Baby Jane. It's the sight of two iconic actresses sharing the stage, and crossing swords. In Feud, it's Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. And in Feud, the dialogue is laden with comments, about Hollywood, ageism and sexism that are just as cutting, and as relevant, all these years later.

Bette and Joan is a salute to the joys, and difficulties, and intricacies of filmmaking. It's also a clear salute to female empowerment: both Sarandon and Lange are producers on this project — and Lange, playing several chameleonic parts on American Horror Story, has demonstrated her range on TV more than she's been allowed to, of late, in the movies.

Television, increasingly, is where the best and most challenging roles are, and not only for women — but as portrayed here, Davis and Crawford are wonderful roles indeed.

And finally, there's the whole idea behind Feud. With the nation as polarized as it is, watching a drama about a constant battle of wills and egos might not sound much like entertainment, let alone escapism. But it is. Sarandon and Lange are so vibrant, and so into their respective roles, that this first Feud, at least, is much more of a wickedly clever comedy. Bette and Joan has two guaranteed Emmy-nominated performances at its center — and it's a blast.


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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The 1962 low-budget horror movie "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" starred two once-major actresses, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, as sisters in a story of escalating and very unsettling sibling rivalry. The conflicts behind the scenes were just as intense as the one depicted on screen. Now Ryan Murphy, the creator of "American Horror Story" and "American Crime Story: The People Versus O.J. Simpson," is presenting a new miniseries on the FX Network about the making of "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" Premiering this Sunday, it's called "Feud: Bette And Joan." It stars Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: As horror movies go, 1962's "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" was a B-movie in budget and, if I gave it one, a letter grade. It didn't deserve an A for its scares or its innovation as Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" did two years earlier or his movie "The Birds" would in the following year. But there was something about "Baby Jane," which is a story of two actress sisters, one confined to a wheelchair, the other obsessed by memories of her glory days as a child star, that was truly, deeply creepy. The director, Robert Aldrich, who had come up from live TV, was good but was no Hitchcock. The movie didn't belong to him. It belonged completely to Joan Crawford as the invalid Blanche and especially to Bette Davis as the sadistic Baby Jane. Why make a miniseries out of the making of this particular cult motion picture? Ryan Murphy jumpstarted the current craze of miniseries anthologies with new stories and characters being presented each season with "American Horror Story." He's had even more success with "The People Versus O.J. Simpson," the first entry in his "American Crime Story" miniseries. So he's going back to the well a third time for the same network with a new FX anthology series called "Feud," dramatising memorable, very personal conflicts in history. And rather than starting large with some political or philosophical battle, he's starting small with the eight-episode campy drama called "Bette And Joan." But as Catherine Zeta Jones notes, while in character as the role of fellow actress Olivia de Havilland, it's quite a story.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN")

CATHERINE ZETA JONES: (As Olivia de Havilland) You know, they only made one film together and how that happened and what happened afterwards, well (laughter) well, that was a story and a feud of biblical proportions.

BIANCULLI: Because it's only an eight-hour commitment, the supporting cast of "Feud" is unusually strong. Alfred Molina plays the director Robert Aldrich who has to handle both temperamental actresses at the same time. Stanley Tucci plays studio head Jack Warner, who still resents Bette Davis for suing him to shut down the old Hollywood studio system of seven-year contracts. And there are plenty of other stars, including appearances from regular Ryan Murphy rep players Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates. But the real electricity in "Feud" is generated from the same source as in "Baby Jane." It's the sight of two iconic actresses sharing the stage and crossing swords. In "Feud," it's Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. And in "Feud," the dialogue is laden with comments about Hollywood and ageism and sexism that are just as cutting and as relevant all these years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN")

JESSICA LANGE: (As Joan Crawford) Guess what, Bette? I have finally found the perfect project for the two of us. It's always been my dream to work with you. Do you remember how I begged Jack Warner to put us together in "Ethan Frome?"

SUSAN SARANDON: (As Bette Davis) With Mr. Gary Cooper.

LANGE: (As Joan Crawford) You do remember.

SARANDON: (As Bette Davis) You wanted to play the pretty young servant girl and I was to play the old hag of a wife. Forget it.

LANGE: (As Joan Crawford) But this is different. These are the parts of a lifetime.

SARANDON: (As Bette Davis) No, thanks, Lucille. I've got plenty of better offers.

LANGE: (As Joan Crawford, laughter) I know what kind of offers you've been getting - exactly none because the same is true for me. They're not making women's pictures anymore, not the kind we use to make.

SARANDON: (As Bette Davis) It's all cyclical. They'll come back in fashion.

LANGE: (As Joan Crawford) But we won't. If something's going to happen, we have to make it happen. No one's looking to cast women our age, but together, they wouldn't dare say no. We need each other, Bette.

SARANDON: (As Bette Davis) So what the hell happened to her anyway, Baby Jane?

LANGE: (As Joan Crawford) Read it. Find out. Oh, I'm offering you the title role.

SARANDON: (As Bette Davis) The lead.

LANGE: (As Joan Crawford) You can call it that.

BIANCULLI: "Bette and Joan" is a salute to the joys and difficulties and intricacies of filmmaking. It's also a clear salute to female empowerment. Both Sarandon and Lange are producers on this project, and Lange, playing several chameleonic parts on "American Horror Story," has demonstrated her range on TV more than she's been allowed to of late in the movies. Television increasingly is where the best and most challenging roles are and not only for women. But as portrayed here, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are wonderful roles indeed. And finally, there's the whole idea behind "Feud." With the nation as polarized as it is, watching a drama about a constant battle of wills and egos might not sound much like entertainment - let alone escapism - but it is. Sarandon and Lange are so vibrant and so into their respective roles that this first "Feud" at least is much more of a wickedly clever comedy. "Bette And Joan" has two guaranteed Emmy-nominated performances at its center, and it's a blast.

DAVIES: "Feud: Bette And Joan" begins this Sunday on the FX Network. David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television." Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Logan," the latest Marvel superhero film starring Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.