Hollywood Feud Makes Juicy TV

Mar 2, 2017

Can you feel the loath? Bette Davis (l) with Joan Crawford (r) and poor Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers Studios, sandwiched between their barely contained animosity.
Credit K. Gabrielle / Flickr via Creative Commons

From the Hatfields and the McCoys to the Montagues and the Capulets, there's no denying the appeal of a big, juicy feud, especially when it bears the glamorous luster of Hollywood.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford couldn't stand each other. Competitors on the classic Hollywood scene, they rarely missed an opportunity to diss one another.  Now a new TV series peeks behind the celluloid to reveal their mutual loathing and the conflict that arose when they co-stared in the camp classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? 

Jessica Lange stars as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon stars as Bette Davis in Feud: Bette and Joan, a limited run series debuting this Sunday evening on FX. The show follows the conflicts between the sworn enemies and the struggles to bring the classic film to life. The show dives beneath the surface of the old fued, revealing details about Bette and Joan, but also about us, as consumers of popular culture. That's according to  GLT Culture Maven, Shari Zeck, who is the Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts and an avid film scholar.   

"We have a love affair with celebrity," said Zeck.  "You add into that the fact that we, as a culture, are quite taken with conflict of all sorts. So you put celebrities having long standing dislike or disagreements in these public lives that they lead together with our love of celebrity itself and it's a great combination. After all, all narrative is, at its heart, about conflict."

Zeck noted that having two aging classic actresses portrayed by two aging contemporary actresses at the core of the show is a rare thing, but increasingly possible with the ongoing demand for more and more content. "Of course advertisers want that 18-24 demographic of spenders who consume popular culture.  But because we have such a wide range of viewers demanding that content, advertisers know that there's money to be made even from older folks. I think that need for content means that there are pockets of interest for this sort of entertainment."

"I think one of the things that made people love Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is that it's these two old broads, thought to be past their prime, past their beauty point, going after each other in the most cruel and horrific ways. With the two figures of Bette and Joan, there's just a certain level of delight because of the petty and ridiculous ways they would get at each other. We  have some icky interest in seeing how low people will sink, and in knowing that even the wealthy, the famous, the really successful can still be ridiculously low and cruel. I suppose in some way, there's something comforting in that, that we can still feel superior to them."

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