“Feud: Bette and Joan,” which premieres on FX March 5, tells the tangled story of the rivalry between Hollywood icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. As its eight episodes unfold, it depicts many of the sordid, amusing and difficult things that transpire as the actresses make “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” as well the events that followed the release of the 1962 film that returned them to prominence.
But one of the many ironies of “Feud” is that, no matter how ugly the events or emotions on screen, the show itself is gorgeous to look at. Much of it is a celebration of Old Hollywood glamour, and even the “Feud’s” version of the ramshackle house at the center of “Baby Jane” was re-created with exacting care.
The luscious jewel tones of Joan’s wardrobe, the fastidious plastic coverings on her chairs, the earth-toned, New England feel of Bette’s homey interiors and her preference for capri pants over elaborate ensembles — all of these elements reinforce the differences between these complicated women even as they provide an enjoyable feast for the eyes.
The shows created by “Feud” director and executive producer Ryan Murphy are known for their distinctive visuals, of course, and when he set out to make “Feud,” he called upon Lou Eyrich, a costume designer he’s collaborated with for almost two decades, and Judy Becker, a production designer who has worked on features like “American Hustle” and “Carol.” Both women threw themselves into researching the period — and for Becker, that meant diving into her library of books on the Hollywood of that time and researching the preferred paint shades of the era.
“The colors are really rich, and that was realistic for the period,” Becker says. “They each have their own color palette.”
A January visit to the costume trailers on the “Feud” set offered a handy visual guide to the differences between the women. The wardrobe worn by Jessica Lange, who plays Crawford, is full of creams, silvers, cool blues and vivid greens.
“It’s a very beautiful palette for Joan, and very glamorous. Very glamour girl, and in ‘Feud,’ that’s her role,” Eyrich says.
The fabrics on the “Joan Crawford” clothes racks are rich, silky and almost demand to be touched. Crawford’s palette not only reflected her elegant image, her clothes also were far more au courant than those of her “Baby Jane” co-star.
“Joan kept it pretty current,” Eyrich explains. “She was of-the-moment. She kept the same silhouette all the time. She wore shift dresses and sleeveless shift dresses ensembles.”
Next to Crawford’s luxurious wardrobe are the costumes worn by Susan Sarandon, who plays Davis. In that part of the costume trailer, sensible knits, crisp cottons and practical choices prevail.
“For Bette, it was capris with a blouse, maybe a cardigan, and shirt dresses,” Eyrich notes. “She always wore a charm bracelet and her pearls, and she would often wear her fur with her capris.”
Eyrich custom-made the iconic dress that Sarandon, as Davis, wears during the making of “Baby Jane”; the lacey white Victorian gown is somehow delicate and creepy at the same time. The “Feud” costume designer said she would have had more custom pieces made for the cast, but as she notes, four different episodes of “Feud” were often filming at once, and there were dozens of characters who had to be dressed in retro clothes. Hence her many trips to vintage clothing shops and private dealers.
But Eyrich wasn’t just on the lookout for clothes: Judy Davis’ Hedda Hopper wears a succession of fantastic hats in “Feud,” which make for the most notable TV chapeaus of the year.
“Jack McConnell was a major milliner [of the era,] so we used a lot of his hats,” Eyrich says. “A bunch of our hats we got from a store here in Los Angeles called The Way We Wore. They have an amazing hat room that I had so much fun digging through.”
Murphy wanted hats with movement, so Eyrich added long, iridescent black feathers to one cap-like white hat. Another hat looks like an alien ship had landed on the wearer’s head.
“I like that in this show, Hedda is every bit the star that Joan and Bette are,” says Ryan Murphy.
Hedda is certainly a striking presence: Every time she enters a room, she almost takes it over, in part due to the dominance of her color-coordinated outfits and her assertive hats. Her clothes emphatically and even joyfully announce that she is not a woman to be trifled with.
The women of “Feud” also asserted their identities with their surroundings. At home, as in her sartorial choices, Crawford was more of a trendsetter than Davis, who was generally a traditionalist when it came to decorating.
“Bette was from outside of Boston,” says Becker. “She was a Yankee. We did a brown and green and earthy palette for her. She had a lot of American Colonial furniture, and she had a braided rug. You would think you were in New England, but this was in L.A.”
Davis’ interior décor, seen above in photo of Kiernan Shipka, who plays Davis’ daughter, B.D., “never changed,” Becker notes. “It was kind of timeless. It probably looked a little dowdy in the ’30s and it remained so.” Davis was more focused on maintaining her acting career than on interior design, and though she moved around Los Angeles a number of times, the look of her homes didn’t vary much.
Crawford, on the other hand, stayed in the same house that she acquired when she first became a leading lady. With the help of prominent Hollywood decorator William Haines — a former actor whom Crawford befriended — the actress radically altered the house and its contents a number of times.
“It started out as a Spanish-style house, and then it became a Hollywood Regency-style house,” Becker says. “When you’re looking at photos [from different eras], you would never know it’s the same house.”
The saturated colors of Crawford’s home — which were, like her clothes, dominated by shades of blue and cream — reflected her status as a regal and fashionable Hollywood matron of the post-war era. But Crawford’s repressed personality is also reflected in one trend: There are plastic coverings on almost every horizontal surface.
Becker confirms that the plastic coverings appeared in many, many pictures from Crawford’s life. “My favorite picture with the plastic — it’s a publicity shot, but she’s lying in bed, and there’s plastic over her bedspread, and you can see it,” Becker says.
One of the biggest design challenges was creating the sets for “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.” Becker found color photos of the sets for the film, which was, of course, released in black and white.
In “Feud,” the “Baby Jane” sets had to perform two functions: They served as the backdrops for re-creations of black-and-white scenes from the 1963 film. But they also had to work in color and not seem jarring in “Feud’s” behind-the-scenes shots of the two women making the film.
“I had worked on a movie about Hitchcock [making] ‘Psycho,’ and we never found color stills of it, so I don’t know what the sets looked like,” Becker notes. “But in ‘Baby Jane,’ we could see that most of the sets were really monochromatic, and then there were really bright touches of color. That was what we went with in all of the black-and-white sets. It’s interesting to the eye, because you see the [elements in] color contrasted with the gray or the white.”
Of course, “Baby Jane” was a movie with a low budget, so Becker and her team intentionally imitated the shortcuts that the 1963 film’s team had to take.
“Examining the movie, you could see where they had just used linoleum [instead of] wood on the floor,” Becker said. “You could see where the spaces between the flats were. It’s supposed to be tile work on the staircase, but they just painted it and stenciled it. We went with all of that — all those really cheap methods we used, because that helped make it look like the movie. Instead of aiming to make it look real, it was really fun to make it look fake.”
For more about “Feud” from Murphy, Sarandon and Lange, check out this feature on the drama.