The years are catching up with Bette and Joan.
This season of Feud has only spanned two years so far, from early 1962, when Joan Crawford approached Bette Davis with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, to 1964, when Crawford exited Hush, Hush… Sweet Charlotte. At the start of the series, both actresses jumped at the chance to do Baby Jane; they were hungry for their next big success. And it was a bigger hit than anyone predicted. What happened in those two years? The women are on the other side of Baby Jane, and they aren’t hungry now; they’re scared. What if Baby Jane was their last success?
Most of my grim fascination with Feud is how it addresses getting older. Everything revolves around the actresses’ ages: what they wish they’d done, what they’ll get to do before it’s over. Many actresses can relate, I’m sure; it’s a familiar pattern. Margo Channing’s career was in danger of ending in All About Eve, and all because she was turning 40.
With all that ghoulish pancake makeup, you may be surprised to know Davis was only 54 years old in Baby Jane. The film’s grotesqueness made her seem older, her features harsher, more terrifying. Meanwhile, Susan Sarandon seems almost unchanged from the days of Bull Durham and Thelma and Louise. Sarandon, whose personality always seemed older and tougher than her looks, is even younger at 70 than Davis was at 54.
And it’s poignant to see her in a starring role again, after years of working steadily as every male star’s mother… and even Melissa McCarthy’s grandmother. The work’s never dried up, maybe because (and I’m speculating) she’s also looking for that next big success. Jessica Lange came to her career renaissance through Ryan Murphy and his TV repertory company, and now he’s welcomed Sarandon into the fold. A star again at 70. She has the advantage of re-enacting a period in an actress’s career that she herself has already lived through.
Her embodiment of Bette Davis is uncanny. I can’t think of another actress more suited to it. She doesn’t fully replicate the voice; Sarandon’s is pitched lower, a rusty growl beside Davis’s whooping, schoolmarmish head tones. She lets Davis’s very precise pronunciations and clipped speech patterns do the trick. But Sarandon shares the actress’s petite, diminutive frame, and her magnificent eyes are so reminiscent of Bette Davis, one moment wide and alluring, the next tart and theatrically chilling like any Disney villain’s.
Jessica Lange, 67, has the less enviable job: Joan Crawford was 58 at Baby Jane’s release, and she didn’t look it. The real-life Crawford was radiant at the 1963 Oscars, blithely accepting Anne Bancroft’s award. The show’s been unfair dressing up Lange as a young Crawford for her earlier films, like 1945’s Mildred Pierce; it’s uncomfortable to watch, too close to parody to take seriously. The only plus to these scenes is the “meta” factor: Bette Davis insisted on playing herself as a twenty-something in Charlotte, though she’s filmed from across the room.
As an actress, Lange seems to love getting her hands dirty. Watch her fall to the floor in hysterics when Mamacita leaves her hospital room. Meanwhile, the real Joan couldn’t bear to wear death makeup on the beach in Baby Jane. Like Sarandon and Davis, Lange was—and is—stunning; the three women all looked a lot alike as young, ingénue actresses. But we think of Lange first as a master of her craft, capable of transforming herself to dig into a part. She was vixenish but never a screen siren; she never exuded Crawford’s intoxicating sexuality. Feud forces her—and us—to compare her to the real Joan, and what we get is an interpretation of Crawford rather than an embodiment like Sarandon’s Davis.
There’s one episode left, and it looks like we’ll follow Crawford and Davis into their twilight years. The FX wig department must be working overtime. At Sarandon’s age, Bette Davis filmed supporting roles in Death on the Nile and Return from Witch Mountain. At Lange’s age, Joan Crawford had already completed her last movie, Trog, and was preparing for her last screen appearance ever, on the TV show “The Sixth Sense.”
It must be remarkable to relive your own decades-long career through a screen legend’s, seeing with hindsight their highs and lows and stacking them side-by-side against your own. It was never good enough, both Crawford and Davis admit to each other. Do Sarandon and Lange—at this creative high point—feel the same way?