What ever happened to Bette and Joan? Two legends face off in 'Feud'

Story highlights

  • Ryan Murphy's "Feud: Bette and Joan" premieres Sunday night on FX
  • Eight-part series explores the bitter rivalry of legendary movie stars Davis and Crawford

(CNN)It sounds like the juicy plot from an old movie.

Two larger-than-life stars do battle while attempting a film comeback.
Susan Sarandon shows off her "Bette Davis eyes" with a requisite cigarette.
Maybe writer-producer Ryan Murphy had that idea in mind when he turned to the longtime rivalry of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for his new anthology series, "Feud: Bette and Joan," which premieres at 10 p.m. ET Sunday on FX.
    The promos for the eight-part show promise campy fun with two modern-day stars -- Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford -- impersonating the legendary actresses during the making of the 1962 cult movie classic "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"
    The all-star cast also includes Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland, Stanley Tucci as studio mogul Jack L. Warner, Alfred Molina as "Baby Jane" director Robert Aldrich and Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
    "Feud" also is expected to tackle a more serious theme, Hollywood's ageist attitude toward women. At the time of "Baby Jane," Davis and Crawford, both in their 50s, had few job offers, even as their male contemporaries still played romantic leads opposite actresses 20 or 30 years their junior.
    After "Baby Jane" became a sleeper hit, Davis loved to quote the money men reacting to the risky casting: "Those two old broads? I wouldn't give you a dime." (She later complained that Crawford asked her never to refer to her as an "old broad" again.)
    Jessica Lange tackles the role of Joan Crawford, the ultimate movie star.
    The two Oscar-winning stars had a strained relationship long before they filmed together. Was it because they were too alike? Too dissimilar? Did they both have a romantic interest in the same man (actor Franchot Tone, Crawford's second husband and a Davis co-star)? Or did Davis see Crawford as a threat to her reign at Warner Bros. when the latter arrived at the studio in the '40s?
    "They were both remarkable women, dynamic and fascinating, so alike in the struggles to achieve recognition -- clawing their way to the top in a man's world and industry, and staying there," the late Vincent Sherman, who directed both women, recalled in his 1996 memoir, "Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director."
    Sherman described Davis as "simple, forthright, honest and unaffected" off-screen, while he saw Crawford as "actorish, theatrical and affected." The reverse happened when they began acting, he said.
    "Bette dressed poorly and never seemed to care much how she looked (outside of the movies), whereas Joan was always well dressed and highly conscious of how she appeared," he wrote. "Bette never thought of herself as being beautiful or attractive, whereas Joan was sure of her beauty and dedicated her life to taking care of it."
    Near the end of her life, Davis publicly insisted she and Crawford hadn't feuded but declined to say whether she liked her co-star. "Well, we never knew each other very much personally. We were very different kinds of women," she told CNN's "Larry King Live" in 1988.
    Her rival likely would have agreed with her.
    "Bette is of a different temperament than I," Crawford explained at a tribute in 1973, four years before her death.
    "She has to yell every morning, and so I just sat and knitted. I knitted a scarf from, uh, Hollywood to Malibu."
    For those unfamiliar with the legendary stars, check out the gallery above for a crash course on their long careers.