As a kid growing up in Indiana in the 1970s, Ryan Murphy only ever penned two fan letters.
One was to actor Ron Palillo, better known as Horshack from “Welcome Back, Kotter.” He never wrote back. The other was to Bette Davis. She did write back.
The legendary actress’ response wasn’t gushy, which made it feel all the more authentic. “She didn’t write ‘Love, Bette Davis, XOXOXO.’ It was like ‘Thanks for the letter. You’re sweet. Bette Davis,” Murphy recalled Tuesday during a luncheon panel session devoted to his latest FX series, “Feud,” which bows March 5.
Murphy’s first letter to Davis led to a running correspondence which eventually led to a meeting in Los Angeles about a month before the screen legend died in 1989. Nearly 30 years later, the prolific writer-director-producer is at the helm of the limited series that tells the story of Davis and Joan Crawford’s frenemy relationship during the making of the 1962 thriller “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Murphy, Jessica Lange (Crawford), Susan Sarandon (Davis), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Olivia de Havilland) and Kiernan Shipka, who plays Davis’ daughter, B.D. Hyman, and “Feud” co-creator Tim Minear gathered at the Rainbow Room for a gabfest moderated by “CBS This Morning” anchor Gayle King.
The “Feud” team emphasized their effort to examine what it means to be an actress of a certain age, then and now.
“What was really interesting to explore was the idea of what a tragedy the last 15 years was in the lives of these women and how they deserved so much more,” Murphy said.
When King went to the heart of the ageism question, noting that both Sarandon and Lange are both over 50 and remain busy in their profession, Sarandon touched Lange’s arm and said, “Don’t cry when we talk about this.”
In Davis and Crawford’s day, most leading ladies, no matter how successful, saw their careers effectively end around the age of 40. It wasn’t much different when Sarandon and Lange were coming up. “When we started you were over by 40,” Sarandon said. “If you had kids you were no longer seen as sensual or sexy,” Sarandon recalled. “That wasn’t just insinuated to me. That was told to me.”
Lange said she came to realize in doing her research for “Feud” that Davis and Crawford’s infamous battles were exaggerated to build anticipation for “Baby Jane.” “As long as they kept the pot boiling the publicity was there,” to the detriment of “these two titans of the Hollywood star system,” Lange said.
Zeta-Jones had hoped to meet with de Havilland, the 100-year-old legend who lives in France, to do some primary research for her role. But her plans were derailed by the July 2016 terror attack in Nice. Zeta Jones’ father-in-law, Kirk Douglas, proved to be her “Wikipedia” source for information about the “Feud” characters and the world in which they worked.
Douglas advised her that the era of studios dominating the careers of actors “was tough, especially for the women,” Zeta-Jones said. “I said to him ‘It still is.’”
Lange wasn’t too familiar with Crawford before she took the part. She studied everything that she could find, from movies to interviews to books about the actress better remembered now for her grande dame persona than for her work in such pics as “Mildred Pierce” and “The Women.” It wasn’t until Lange learned more about the early years of the woman born Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas that she “found the way in to the character.”
Sarandon had flirted with the idea of playing Davis in the past but the timing was never quite right, or the scripts weren’t worthy.
“I was too young, my agents were lame, nobody did anything,” she explained.
During the filming of the eight episodes of “Feud,” Murphy would occasionally act out the Crawford and Davis parts to demonstrate what he was looking for from his leading ladies. There was a collaborative spirit on the set that brought out the best in everyone, he said.
“I love those women [and] I love these women,” Murphy said. After he offered his interpretation of their scenes, Lange and Sarandon would inevitably say “OK, we’re not going to do that but we understand what’s in your brain,'” he said.
Murphy’s fascination with Davis began when he was eight or nine and discovered the actress on a late-night TV airing of 1940’s “The Letter.” She reminded him of his grandmother.
Murphy made his first trip to Los Angeles to have his audience with Davis, arranged through the kindness of her assistant, who knew the actress didn’t have long to live.
Murphy recalled Davis greeting him at her apartment door wearing a pill-box hat and surrounded by a “cumulus cloud of cigarette smoke.” What was supposed to be a 20-minute visit turned into a four-hour conversation. “I chain-smoked with her,” he confessed.
The meeting had a profound effect on the prolific writer-producer-director.
“It put me on a path because she was so unusual,” Murphy recalled. “She never bent to who people thought she should be. She was just who she was and goddammit, she was proud of it. I thought ‘I want to live my life like that.’”
Other highlights from the session:
- Shipka, the 17-year-old alum of “Mad Men,” said she was dismayed to learn how Davis and Crawford were pitted against each other in pursuit of work. “I don’t think that’s something that’s changed that much,” she acknowledged.
- Minear said “Feud” was born out of his obsession with the lore of vintage Hollywood. “This is as close as I can get to getting in a Tardis and going back in time and getting to marinate in a place that I want to marinate in,” he said (mixing in a “Doctor Who” metaphor). “I’m now steeped in the delicious juices of ‘Feud.'”
- Lange shared her pessimism about the nation’s political climate and working conditions for women, when pressed by King on what she would most like to be able to tell Crawford and Davis if she could speak to them today. “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.”
- Murphy said his vision for “Feud” was born in part out of a desire to foster more opportunities for women directors and crew members. After finishing up FX’s much praised “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” he decided to be more proactive with his own productions, setting a goal of having 50% of directing assignments and 50% of crew jobs go to women.
(Pictured: Gayle King, Ryan Murphy, Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kiernan Shipka and Tim Minear)