Ryan Murphy Explores Ageism and Sexism in Feud: Bette and Joan

Set in 1961, the premise of Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan is still relevant today.

Starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as the title characters, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the show explores the rivalry between the two Oscar winners during the making of Robert Aldrich’s 1962 horror classic, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The film—about two aging stars who no longer have the success they once did—closely resembles the life of Feud’s leading characters.

The new FX series indulges its audience in all the glitz and glamour of 1960s Hollywood, with stunning sets, costumes, and a star-studded supporting cast featuring Stanley Tucci (Jack Warner), Judy Davis (Hedda Hopper), Alfred Molina (Robert Aldrich), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Olivia de Havilland), and Kathy Bates (Joan Blondell). But behind all the glamour and hilarious dialogue, Murphy explores two themes still seen in Hollywood today: Sexism and ageism.

At a time when most leading ladies, no matter how much fame or success they’d had, saw their career decline around the age of 40, Crawford and Davis (both in their 50s in 1961) were still trying to make a living in an industry that saw them as unemployable.

Due to Hollywood’s ageism and misogyny, Crawford had to find projects herself because—unless she wanted to play Elvis’s grandmother—movies weren’t being made for someone her age. Lange’s Crawford explains that “Everything written for women seems to fall into just three categories: ingenues, mothers, or gorgons.” Upon discovering the book, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by Henry Farrell, Crawford pitched it to Robert Aldrich, played by Alfred Molina, who agreed to direct. Aldrich went to all the studios, and they all refused to invest in the project for the same reason: They wanted younger stars like Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day. At first, even Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), who made millions off of Davis and Crawford when they worked for him at Warner Brothers, was reluctant to cast two “big has-beens.” But horror was a genre that the new competition, TV, wasn’t doing yet, and after seeing the success of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Warner saw the film as a good investment.

Bette Davis’s talent and star power, like Crawford’s, didn’t matter anymore in the eyes of the male-dominated studio elites. After having received no movie offers, Davis tried, to no avail, to find new success on the Broadway stage. Despite being pitted against each other during their years working for Jack Warner, Crawford knew that having Davis be her co-star would boost their careers because, when women come together, they’re unstoppable.

In the 50+ years since the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? women in Hollywood (or anywhere) are still subjected to sexism and ageism. During an interview for Feud: Bette and Joan, Jessica Lange stated that it’s an issue seen prevalently within the political climate in the United States:

We’re still living in a sexist, misogynist, ageist (period). That last gasp of white patriarchy is not going to give it up easily. I think women suffer in this. I think we see it in this landscape that has happened over the past year — it couldn’t be more in evidence.

You don’t need to have seen Aldrich’s 1962 film to appreciate what Murphy is trying to capture. While women have made a lot of progress, the fight is far from over. And as Lange’s character puts it, “Men may have built the pedestal, but it’s the women who keep chipping away at it until it comes tumbling down.”

Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10PM on FX.

(Featured image: Feud: Bette and Joan, FX)

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