The 'reel' Bette and Joan: The stars behind 'Feud'

Updated 6:47 AM ET, Fri March 3, 2017
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"Hollywood T.N.T." is how The New York Times characterized the explosive teaming of Bette Davis, left, and Joan Crawford in the 1962 movie "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Davis and Crawford were two of the biggest stars of the 1930s and '40s, but by the early '60s, roles for actresses in their 50s were scarce. Despite their dislike for each other, they leapt at the chance for meaty parts in the low-budget horror flick based on a novel by Henry Farrell. Everett Collection
Susan Sarandon, left, and Jessica Lange tackle the roles of Davis and Crawford in the new FX anthology series "Feud," which promises a campy peek at the epic battle during the making of "Baby Jane." Writer-producer Ryan Murphy is the creative force behind the eight-episode show that follows on the heels of his success with "American Horror Story" and "The People Vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime." KURT ISWARIENKO/FX
Studios were reluctant to finance "Baby Jane" with such "mature stars" in the leads. Seven Arts finally agreed to do the film, with Warner Bros. releasing it. Here, Warner studio chief Jack L. Warner promotes the movie with the two actresses in 1962. Davis, known as the fourth Warner brother when she was a box-office queen, often called Warner a father figure, but she stormed off the Warner lot on bad terms in 1949. Crawford had been her rival at the studio. Hulton Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Relishing character parts, Davis, left, tore into the role of Baby Jane Hudson, an alcoholic ex-child star who torments her crippled sister, Blanche. She was largely responsible for the character's macabre makeup. "Jane's appearance, I felt, was fascinating -- and just exactly the way she would look," she told author Whitney Stine for the 1974 biography "Mother Goddam." "I felt Jane never washed her face, just added another layer of makeup each day." Everett Collection
Crawford also shed some of her glamour as Blanche Hudson, a once great film star injured in a car accident and now at the mercy of her vengeful sister. But she was reluctant to give up vanity entirely, according to Davis. In her 1987 memoir, "This 'N' That," she claimed Crawford insisted on padding her breasts in the beach scene as "Baby Jane" ends. Davis, whose character had to fall atop Crawford's, said it felt like she was landing on a pair of footballs. Everett Collection
Crawford approached director Robert Aldrich, right, about teaming her with Davis in the "Sunset Boulevard"-type story of two show-biz sisters trapped in a decaying Hollywood mansion -- one crippled emotionally, the other in a wheelchair. "Baby Jane" became a sleeper hit when released in the fall of 1962. It revitalized the careers of Davis and Crawford and created a Hollywood genre in the '60s: schlocky horror films starring aging actresses. Everett Collection
Crawford shares the Oscar spotlight with best actor winner Gregory Peck ("To Kill a Mockingbird") at the 1963 ceremony. She holds the best actress award for Anne Bancroft ("The Miracle Worker"), who was appearing in a play in New York. Davis received her 10th Oscar nomination for best actress for "Baby Jane" -- then a record -- and she hoped to become the first actress to win three Academy Awards. She was devastated when she lost, but Crawford wasn't. Denied a nomination herself, Crawford offered to accept the award for Bancroft or other no-show nominees, infuriating Davis. AP
Crawford wasn't a stranger to the Oscars. She nabbed the best actress award for the title role in "Mildred Pierce," the 1945 film of James Cain's novel about a waitress who builds a restaurant empire while battling a spoiled and ungrateful daughter. "Mildred Pierce" marked one of the great comebacks in movie history; her career in decline, Crawford landed at Warner Bros. -- where Davis was queen -- when MGM ousted her after nearly two decades. Davis, who had first dibs on scripts, turned down "Mildred Pierce," and Crawford grabbed what would become one of her most quintessential roles. Everett Collection
She claimed to be the same age as Davis (born in 1908), but Crawford was at least four or five years older. She became famous in the silent era, the personification of a flapper in "Our Dancing Daughters" (1928). She was already a star at Hollywood's biggest studio, MGM, when Davis arrived from the stage. Crawford established herself as one of the most glamorous and popular actresses of the 1930s, but formulaic films would jeopardize her career. AP
Davis wasn't the first actress who Crawford, left, battled in Hollywood. Her struggles with Norma Shearer, center, the queen of MGM, during the making of "The Women" (1939) were likely warm-ups for "Baby Jane." Crawford resented that Shearer got all the top parts, mainly because her husband, Irving Thalberg, was the studio's production chief. In the George Cukor comedy from Clare Boothe Luce's play, Crawford was a salesgirl out to steal Shearer's husband -- an unsympathetic role that would pave the way for her tougher, grittier performances in the '40s. Rosalind Russell, right, also starred. John Springer Collection/Corbis Historical/Getty Images
Maintaining a movie star image was important for Crawford, here posing in matching outfits with daughter Christina in 1943. Christina Crawford shattered that perfect image when she accused her mother of child abuse in the best-seller "Mommie Dearest," published a year after the star's death in 1977. In the 1981 movie version, Faye Dunaway would cement Crawford in the public's mind as an over-the-top perfectionist shrieking, "No wire hangers, ever!" Everett Collection
Crawford sets out on a honeymoon with her fourth husband, Pepsi-Cola exec Alfred Steele, in 1955. After Steele's death, the star became a member of Pepsi's board of directors, zealously promoting the soft drink as her career waned. "Baby Jane's" success prompted the reteaming of Crawford and Davis in "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte." When illness forced Crawford out, Davis posed for a picture on the set drinking Coca-Cola in front of a Coke machine. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Davis attends the Cannes Film Festival with her oldest daughter, B.D., in 1963, where she saw "Baby Jane" for the first time. Like Christina Crawford, B.D. Hyman would write an unflattering book about her mother. Unlike "Mommie Dearest," "My Mother's Keeper" was published when its subject was still alive. Davis, who was recovering from a stroke, was devastated by what she saw as her daughter's betrayal and disinherited her. GRAGNON Francois/Paris Match Archive/Getty Images
Davis chats with her favorite director, William Wyler, after winning her second Oscar. She took home the prize as a Southern belle in Wyler's "Jezebel" (1938), consolation for losing the role of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind." Wyler also directed her in "The Letter" (1940) and "The Little Foxes" (1941). "I would have jumped into the Hudson River if this man had told me to, directorially speaking," Davis said in her 1962 autobiography, "The Lonely Life." Archive Photos/Getty Images
Davis scans the morning papers during a photo shoot for Life magazine in 1939. That year, she starred in four movies -- "Dark Victory," "The Old Maid," "Juarez" and "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex." She became known as "the first lady of the screen" and was a top box-office star. "Juarez" co-star Brian Aherne would later write in his memoir, "Surely nobody but a mother could have loved Bette Davis at the height of her career." Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
The star specialized in villainous roles, none more so than a murderess in "The Letter." In the opening scene, she cold-bloodedly plugs a lover who has rejected her after an affair. A proper British wife in colonial Singapore, she suppresses her passion and calmly deceives her husband about why she killed him. "Davis gives what is very likely the best study of female sexual hypocrisy in film history," film critic Pauline Kael wrote in "5001 Nights at the Movies." Bert Six/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
During her peak years, Davis also played sympathetic heroines in romantic films that critics dismissed as "women's pictures." One of her favorites was "Dark Victory" as Judith Traherne, a girl dying of a brain tumor. The actress, who was called a "little brown wren" when she first came to Hollywood, never achieved the glamour of a star like Crawford but could sometimes look beautiful, even as a character battling a terminal illness. George Hurrell/Moviepix/Getty Images
Davis toasts Miriam Hopkins in the final scene of "Old Acquaintance" (1943), about two longtime writer friends who are rivals in love and literature. The movie was a follow-up to the stars' 1939 teaming in "The Old Maid." Davis had the sympathetic part in both movies, which may have prompted Hopkins to pull out all her scene-stealing tricks. "Miriam is a perfectly charming woman socially. Working with her is another story," Davis said in "The Lonely Life." Warner Brothers/Archive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images
Like Crawford, Davis made remarkable comebacks during her long career, especially with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "All About Eve," the 1950 best picture Oscar winner. As aging actress Margo Channing, Davis faces career and romantic threats from sneaky understudy Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter, left. Davis and Baxter vied for top actress honors, but both lost in a competitive year. "All About Eve" featured a newcomer named Marilyn Monroe, center. Hulton Archive/Moviepix/Getty Images
The elderly actress was a popular fixture on TV talk shows in her later years, including "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson in 1983. She survived Crawford by more than a decade, dying of breast cancer in 1989. During the 1980s, she had a mastectomy and then suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed in the face. But illness didn't prevent her from acting. "It is only work that truly satisfies," she said in her autobiography. NBC/NBCUniversal/Getty Images