Jessica Lange Susan Sarandon Feud Variety
Michael Muller for Variety

Dressed in a black ensemble topped by a long brown coat, Ryan Murphy darts back and forth between two rooms in the chilly Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. On this January day, a cramped space in this deliciously retro complex houses the monitors for Murphy as he directs an episode of his new FX series “Feud: Bette and Joan” that is set at the 1963 Academy Awards.

It’s a pivotal moment in the famous rivalry between legendary actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Having co-starred in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” both women wanted the career boost of appearing on the Oscar podium. While it’s tough to spoil an event that happened more than five decades ago, let’s just say it was, to quote Davis, a “bumpy night.”

“Feud” — which debuts March 5 — mines that decades-old conflict to tell a modern and highly relevant story about Hollywood, sexism, and survival.

Unfailingly courteous but always clear about what he’s looking for, Murphy works Susan Sarandon (who plays Davis) so that she swivels away from the camera at the exact right moment. The scene, in which she’s pacing and smoking, is punctuated with the exclamation, “Jesus Christ, this night!” Sarandon tries it a variety of ways, and, having worked extensively with a dialogue coach, she’s careful to preserve Davis’ clipped New England accent.

The process is marvelous to watch, given that Sarandon and co-star Jessica Lange, as an imperious but fascinating Crawford, are at the top of their games. When Murphy offers a note, each actress executes it flawlessly, while crafting a distinct, scrupulously thought-out performance. It’s like watching a deft conductor work with a top-flight orchestra.

Except.

Imagine a world in which every notable orchestra required its best players to retire at age 40, or 50 at the latest. That’s what Hollywood does routinely to its actresses. There are exceptions, of course, but the well-documented bias women face, especially in a movie industry dominated by tentpole pictures starring men, has not gone away.

When the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism examined the most popular films for the past eight years, it found that women had 31.4 percent of speaking roles in 2015 — a decline of 1.4 percent from 2008. And even when they do get work, high-profile actresses have to contend with gossip-driven narratives about how much they dislike each other — no matter what the reality is.

“There’s still that old thing in the press of ‘Oh, they hate each other — when we never actually work with each other,’” says Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Olivia De Havilland in “Feud.”

Food Fight: Susan Sarandon, Alfred Molina, Matthew Glave, and Jessica Lange film “Feud.”
Byron Cohen/FX

As Sarandon puts it, she and Lange have “known each other for a long time, but we’ve never had the opportunity to work together, because they just don’t put two [women] in a movie.” (Promoting her HBO project, the female-driven ensemble piece “Big Little Lies,” Reese Witherspoon dubbed the sole-woman-in-a-movie scenario “the Smurfette syndrome.”)

For an array of reasons, the narratives surrounding high-profile women in Hollywood too often devolve into simplistic tales of vengeance and jealousy. While those things aren’t exactly unheard of, the truth about being an actress in a very competitive industry that is still frequently sexist is much more complicated than many people are willing to admit.

“Feud” doesn’t sidestep the juiciness of the scandals of the era, or the lore involving the hostilities that broke out on the set of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” As it depicts the making and release of that film, it has a lot of fun with icy zingers, dramatic entrances and diva attitudes. But at its core, the FX series takes the ambitions and artistry of these women seriously, and it gives the stories behind their battles nuance and shading. In particular, it adds depth and poignance to the story of Crawford, whose legacy as an actress was turned into a pop-culture joke after the film adaptation of her daughter’s scathing memoir, “Mommie Dearest,” became a camp classic.

“Joan doesn’t get credit for what a good actress she was,” Lange says. “Because of her daughter’s book, she never really got a fair shake.”

Leveling the playing field for women in Hollywood may require a Herculean effort, but it’s one that Murphy is tackling head-on. “Feud” represents his latest step in that direction.

To be sure, TV has become more welcoming to actresses and female creators: HBO’s “Insecure,” Amazon’s “Transparent,” “One Mississippi” and “Fleabag,” Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” ABC’s “Scandal” and “Jane the Virgin,” and FX’s “Better Things” are part of a wave of challenging and acclaimed shows made by and starring women. But there’s still a long way to go. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, only 20% of creators and 27% of writers for the 2015-16 season were women.

“Across all platforms, females comprised 39% of all speaking characters,” a 1% decline from the year before, the center notes.

Murphy says he’s tired of seeing older actresses not get the kind of roles they deserve. He has certainly done his part: Two of his best-known projects, “American Horror Story” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” have consistently cast actresses over 40, including Lange, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates and Connie Britton.

But Murphy felt there was more he could do to change the industry, and that drive was part of the inspiration for “Feud,” which will be an ongoing anthology miniseries for FX. Last year, he created the Half Foundation, which aims to offer entertainment-industry jobs, mentorships, and scholarships to women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community. He has also promised that at least 50% of the directing slots on his shows will go to people in those groups.

“After ‘O.J.,’ I did say to myself, ‘Well, I should rest a little. Maybe I should just do less,’” Murphy says during a break while filming “Feud.” “But then I formed the foundation, and then I was hearing all these crazy, outlandish stories from women. I was like, ‘Let’s do it now,’ because I have so much passion for it now. I’m not very good at ‘Have passion for it in 18 months.’”

“Feud” certainly got off the ground quickly. Murphy didn’t expect that FX CEO John Landgraf would say yes to the pitch almost before he could finish making it.

The actresses proved a tougher sell. After all, “Feud” attempts a balancing act with a high degree of difficulty: It has the lush colors, arch self-awareness, and heightened style of a classic Hollywood melodrama, yet it strives to depict the difficult emotional realities of these women, who could be devastatingly vulnerable, charming, calculating, and tough to like — sometimes all at once.

After hearing Murphy’s “Feud” pitch, Sarandon says she called Lange.

“I said ‘I know you know that they want me to commit to this. And I haven’t seen any scripts. What’s going on?’” says Sarandon. Lange, who starred in multiple seasons of Murphy’s “American Horror Story,” replied that she hadn’t seen scripts either, but Sarandon said she was reassured when Lange told her Murphy was “incredibly enthusiastic” about the project and “very performance oriented.’”

Sitting in a small room in the warren of spaces occupied by “Feud,” her Oscar gown hidden by a bulky coat, Sarandon says she was still afraid, even after she’d accepted the role.

“The first six weeks, I was a basket case,” Sarandon recalls. “I was just so scared.” She says she told Murphy, “I just am terrified. I just don’t think I can do it.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m scared too.’”

Her fears revolved around playing a well-known actress with a big personality, one that many people thought they already knew. That was part of the reason she’d turned down multiple offers to play Davis on stage and in films in the past. In fact, Murphy approached her years ago with a film treatment of the Crawford and Davis story, but at that point, she says, “It just seemed like a one-joke premise.”

Lange had the jitters too, even though she’d spent plenty of time on Murphy’s sets. “I was very nervous the first few weeks,” she says, adding that she was worried about whether the audience would laugh at the characters or with them. “It was a real tightrope.”

But expanding the story to eight hours gave “Feud” a chance to examine all the ways in which the women were both manipulative and manipulated — by the press and by studio bosses — without turning either of them into a one-dimensional villain. A framing device in which a documentarian interviews classic Hollywood actresses like De Havilland and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) allows “Feud” to gracefully dole out helpful servings of exposition, and Judy Davis’ Hedda Hopper almost steals the show as a crafty industry operator who is convinced she knows exactly how the gossip game should be played.

Murphy, who started his professional life as a reporter, once conducted an extensive interview with Davis that had a formative influence on the script. (Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam co-wrote episode one of “Feud” with Murphy). And he was committed to depicting each woman’s challenges in a way that felt grounded and compassionate. Both Davis and Crawford had struggled with raising children, getting work, and loneliness, and the show’s commitment to displaying those difficulties — and Lange’s assurance that Murphy would do what he said he was going to do — helped Sarandon commit to the ambitious undertaking.

“I had been kind of half in and half out of some other things for television that I didn’t do, and that was usually because there was some massive miscommunication between what they told the actors” and what ended up being made, Sarandon says. With Murphy, “I knew that he’s so strong and so respected that, for better or worse, we would be doing his vision. He wasn’t going to get picked apart by the network or the studio. I just felt after talking to him that if he said something, he could deliver it.”

“Feud” shows some of the women’s early battles with studio bosses (and each other) via flashbacks, but the bulk of the action is set in the early 1960s, when for both actresses, Hollywood pickings were slim. There’s a thread of melancholy and pessimism running through “Feud,” as if the women know, on some level, that nothing will change for them — and possibly not for the actresses who will follow them.

“She was kind of an amazing woman,” Lange says of Crawford. “She overcame abuse, poverty, and so many hardships. It’s very hard to have a true sense of self-worth [under those circumstances].”

“She was always very hard on herself,” she adds. “Of course, there were all the contradictions. The negativity. She had a real drinking problem. She was ambitious.”

Davis, meanwhile, was quite demanding, Sarandon notes. “I think she didn’t suffer fools easily, and that was a problem. She wasn’t tactful.” She adds, “She wanted something that Hollywood wasn’t offering, and that was control over her destiny, in terms of being able to say yes or no to something she was pouring her guts into.”

“Feud” is clear-eyed about the limitations placed on women then, and the clear implication is that things haven’t changed all that much. Decades ago, women had even less recourse and fewer options in the face of the kind of casual and blatant misogyny displayed by studio chief Jack Warner in “Feud.” You can hardly blame Crawford and Davis — or actresses trying to get decent roles now — for feeling bewildered and frustrated.

“You know, when we did ‘Thelma and Louise,’ we weren’t setting out to make any kind of a feminist film. We were doing a cowboy film with trucks and women,” Sarandon says. “We really underestimated that we backed into this territory held by white heterosexual males of a certain age, and that they would get so crazy. But because it was two women and because they had options that you don’t see very often, it was this big deal. But it shouldn’t have been a big deal.”

Crawford and Davis aren’t exactly Thelma and Louise, of course. The actresses were products of the studio system that molded them, but in their own ways, they were rebels. While quite different — Davis was seen as a tough customer and a consummate actress; Crawford as a diva with a flawless exterior — what united them was their inability to be passive. They fought the industry with the means at their disposal, and that wasn’t always pretty, but they didn’t give up.

It’s that kind of fire that makes “Feud” so much fun, amid its realistic treatment of Crawford’s drinking problem and Davis’ parenting heartbreaks. “Feud” is a lot of things, but it is not a downer. Like “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “Feud” has a strong point of view, and its social agenda is expertly wrapped in a well-paced story about larger-than-life yet believably complicated people.

Although Crawford and Davis weren’t able to reshape a change-averse industry, “Feud” is a story of rebellion and even rebirth. In the show, director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) sees “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” as his ticket out of the B-movie ghetto. For Davis’ daughter, B. D. (Kiernan Shipka), who gets a small role in “Baby Jane,” it’s a chance to see how difficult her mother’s job is. Crawford and Davis came away with new appreciation for each other’s work — and work ethic — though they were fated to disagree about tactics and methods.

For Murphy, “Feud” is a chance to show off how he has evolved as a filmmaker, a process that was sped along by the collaborative nature of the “O.J.” miniseries. “I’m less interested now in my way. I’m interested in our way,” he says. “O.J.” represented Murphy’s first time working with “Feud’s” director of photography, Nelson Cragg, “who is really sort of rigorous, and much more classical and character-oriented,” Murphy says. “I started to shoot things wider and relying less on close-ups. I was more interested in behavior moving in and out of frame, as opposed to selling an image.”

Speaking of a bigger picture, “Feud” is part of an evolution toward projects that grab Murphy on an emotional and even spiritual level. “I’m not interested anymore — and I was — in just doing a show for entertainment value, or doing something because I thought it would be a hit,” he says. “I learned a great trick from ‘O.J.,’ which is: The greatest power you can have as an artist is if you actually have something to say. Because then everything that happens, as long as that voice gets out there and you can illuminate that — then who cares? Because that’s the great reward.”

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