Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Recasting 2017: "Feud"

This one was sort of a no-brainer. All the way back in 2014 when I posted my full Reimagined Filmography, I had wondered if there was a chance for Meryl to star alongside Susan Sarandon in the blacklisted script, Best Actress. Three years later, the story was expanded into an eight-episode series on FX. I added it to my Shoulda Coulda Wouldas tag in 2019, which at the time, I had thought would serve as my list of films to somehow try to go back and insert into the aforementioned reimagined history. I've already covered in an earlier post how the shear number of films in consideration became too much, sparking this new project. 

Ryan Murphy apparently had Jessica Lange in mind to star opposite Sarandon early on. Lange had enjoyed enormous success following her starring roles in the first four seasons of American Horror Story. The role of Joan Crawford may not have seemed like the meatier part when held up to the larger-than-life character of Bette Davis. But I'd argue that Lange got to explore a wider range of emotions in trying to work out someone as complex and tragic as Crawford. 

The story follows Crawford and Davis in the early 1960s, whereby that point, the two are basically has-beens in the film industry (they were in their mid 50s btw). Crawford aimed desperately for returning to the spotlight. Davis did too, in a way, but more from an aspect of just wanting to have good parts to play for the sake of the work itself. While the two were not huge fans of each other, Crawford understood that the only way she was going to get Warner Brothers to allow director Robert Aldrich to make Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was if they had Bette Davis attached as well. Crawford was savvy that way, even if it may have singed the very fiber of her being to have to concede the necessity of doing so. The picture got made and was a huge box office success. But it did not result in a deluge of new offers afterward, and Davis got the majority of the critics' praise for her performance. 

Aside from it making me want to smoke really bad, I think this may be my favorite scene of the entire series. We get a glimpse into the depravity of Crawford's childhood. In a way, it almost seems obvious that she would grow into a domineering mother whose insatiable quest for attention and validation only drives her to drink, and drives those she loves away. Kudos to Lange for her portrayal here. I think Meryl would have her work cut out for her to convey the kind of ruthless sophistication Lange manages to imbue into the role. I wish I could think of a better antonym for naive, because I'd use it to describe this character. 

What's so nice about expanding this story beyond the making of Baby Jane is that we get to see the aftermath of these two women far beyond the time they spent together on set--although that's some of the best stuff. This clip is an interesting example of how these two women were essentially stars for slightly different reasons. Crawford much for her beauty, Davis for her talent. While I think Meryl happens to be gorgeous, she's not necessarily considered conventionally "pretty" by Hollywood standards. She knows it, and has used it to her advantage, not unlike Davis. Lange, as an actress, has certainly had more opportunities beyond the age of fifty than Crawford did. But Jessica, too, has historically been cast in roles that have often had at least an oblique connection to her sex appeal. It would be fun to see Meryl in that role in Feud. 

The series was a great critical success for FX. It holds a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and 81 on Metacritic, the latter of which is an supposed to be an indication of "universal acclaim." It received eighteen Emmy nominations, including for its two amazing leads. Sarandon and Lange were also both nominated for a Golden Globe (RIP) and SAG awards. Deservedly, supporting players Judy Davis, Jackie Hoffman, Alfred Molina, and Stanley Tucci were each recognized with multiple nominations as well. 

Feud was originally meant to be an anthology series, with the first season more accurately titled Feud: Bette and Joan. The second series was going to follow the lives of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, but was scrapped before filming began. I wonder if after the success of Netflix's The Crown, FX thought the market would've been a bit too saturated with royals for their second season to be a hit. I, for one, kind of like that Feud: Bette and Joan stands alone.


  1. I must watch this series again Jeff, I was thoroughly engrossed with it when I binged the whole thing. Some of the writing wasn't stellar (felt like filler) but I really think Feud was a terrific take on two true icons.

    I also thought the "Bette" part would be more interesting but really it was "Joan" who was the most compelling and memorable. Maybe it was Jessica's performance?

    For 2018 I will say "The Tale", a brave TV movie about an older woman coming to terms with sexual abuse.

    I would have love to have seen Meryl as Queen Anne in "The Favourite" but fear the age difference may have precluded this?

    Glenn was excellent this year in "The Wife" but I do appreciate the movie was a little low-key for some.

    1. I totally agree in regard to the Bette vs Joan part. I really felt Joan was a more interesting character. Probably a combination of Lange and the character itself.

      Also totally agree about The Favourite, but agree the age thing wouldn't have worked for Meryl in 2018.

  2. I recently saw an interview with Faye Dunaway about her work on 'Mommie Dearest' in which she expressed regret about turning down the role of Frances Farmer in 'Frances', shrugging and saying she hadn't wanted to play two 'crazy movie stars'. Well... as we know Lange accomplished both with a grittiness few other performers possess. This performance in 'Feud' might be just too good to hand the role over to another actor. Jeff's re-casting project is nearing the pointy end, and it's getting harder (in my opinion) to suspend 'recasting disbelief' in the current era. It shows how much older actors are bringing to their game, right before our eyes, in ways that performers like Dunaway seem incapable of or unwilling to try. Fascinating.