Despite its acclaim and awards, 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has something of an image problem. The film, in which Joan Crawford plays a paraplegic former actress who is held prisoner and tormented by her deranged sister, also a former star (Bette Davis), is widely remembered as a camp classic, rather than the psychological horror story it is.
Karina Longworth of the You Must Remember This podcast, a treasure trove of stories from Old Hollywood, acknowledged during a recent episode on Baby Jane that she had fallen into the same trap. "I had remembered it as a lot of people seem to think of it—as something to be appreciated through the lens of camp," Longworth said. "But I don't think that's fair… the movie is consistently complex in the way it depicts both sisters, the damage they do to one another and the insanity inspired by fame."
The same is true of new FX drama Feud: Bette and Joan, which chronicles the real-life rivalry between Davis and Crawford, born in the 1930s and escalated during their time on set playing warring faded stars in 1962's Baby Jane. Their feud has become the stuff of legend, and when news broke that it would retold on television by Ryan Murphy—the man who brought button-pushing camp into the mainstream—it seemed clear what kind of show this was going to be. But Feud, like Baby Jane, strikes a much more nuanced tone than you expect as Susan Sarandon's Bette and Jessica Lange's Joan circle each other. Though the sensational trappings of their fight are all present and correct, the show is more interested in exploring its causes: the insecurities of two very different stars, a movie studio determined to engineer conflict for the sake of headlines and an industry that forced its aging stars to fight savagely for ever-diminishing scraps of attention.
Our first glimpse of Crawford is at the 1961 Golden Globes, where she glares from the sidelines as Marilyn Monroe breathlessly accepts a Best Actress prize, female jealousy put immediately front and center. Crawford later goes on record with infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), complaining that Monroe is ruining the industry with her "vulgarity" and lack of wholesome morals. But the real problem is that Monroe's getting the parts (and the attention) Crawford is now too old for.
Told by her agent that the roles "just aren't out there," Crawford takes matters into her own hands and carves out an opportunity for herself, in one of many moments that illustrates just how little has really changed for women in Hollywood. Understanding the need to boost her bankability, Crawford persuades her longtime rival Davis—who in 1961 was unenthusiastically "slumming it" on Broadway—to join her in Baby Jane.
There's a heartbreaking vulnerability to Lange's performance as Joan; even at her most vicious, you feel for her in her desperation to remain relevant to an industry she loves more than anything. Sarandon's Davis is more brittle and barbed, but the cracks in her armor begin to show fast, especially in her relationship with eldest daughter B. D. (Kiernan Shipka). It's made clear early on that Crawford craves Davis's respect more than anything, which becomes poignant once buzz for the movie starts to build and studio mogul Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) all but instructs the film's meek director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) to pit his leading ladies against one another.
And so blind items are planted, the gossip mill gets its grist, and resentment begins to build on both sides. As Davis and Crawford's feud reaches what Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta Jones) calls "biblical proportions," the tone of the show moves closer to hysteria if not outright camp—but always with the underlying understanding of how aging actresses are backed into a corner by Hollywood's lack of opportunity. A reputation for being "bitchy" and "jealous" builds as a result of women being forced to see one another as the enemy, forced as they are to fight over such a finite resource.
In What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, there's a late revelation that fundamentally shifts our understanding of its core relationship and prompts one of the sisters to reflect, sadly, "All this time, we could have been friends." Feud makes a compelling case that these actresses, too, could have been friends, or at the very least trusted allies, were it not for the indignities and outright manipulations of their industry. If you're coming to Feud for a rich, ravishing, beautifully realized portrait of Old Hollywood glamour, you will not be let down—but richer still are the ugly truths beneath the surface.
The real Davis and Crawford on the set of 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?'