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Newsletter: Classic Hollywood: Playing Bette Davis, the pleasure and the pain

This image released by FX shows Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in “Feud.” Sarandon was nominated for
Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in “Feud: Bette and Joan.”
(Suzanne Tenner / Associated Press)

It was a role Susan Sarandon was in some ways destined to play: the tempestuous Bette Davis.

Welcome to the latest edition of the Classic Hollywood newsletter. I’m Scott Sandell, and this week we’ve got our eye on the story behind Sarandon’s Emmy-nominated turn in “Feud: Bette and Joan.”

Producer-writer-director Ryan Murphy’s eight-episode series on FX received 18 Emmy nominations, including one for co-lead actress Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford. It also spawned a lawsuit from two-time Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland, who says her identity was used without authorization and whose lawyer wants a preferential court date because she is 101.

For Sarandon, the project was a daunting bit of destiny.

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After fighting back the fear, Susan Sarandon found her fun on the “Feud” set playing Bette Davis.
After fighting back the fear, Susan Sarandon found her fun on the “Feud” set playing Bette Davis.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

“Originally, [Davis] approached me through a director when I was a kid and her daughter had just written the horrible book,” Sarandon told Times TV editor Sarah Rodman. “And she said she wanted me to play her, but there was no script and I didn’t have the wherewithal to figure out how to make that happen. So that would’ve been the early days.”

Sarandon said there were a couple of plays that came her way too, but she didn’t actually take on the legend until Murphy persuaded her. Then came the terror of trying to get the essence of Davis — whether it was her idiosyncratic speaking style or her walk — down pat.

Susan Sarandon, left, as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in “Feud: Bette and Joan.”
Susan Sarandon, left, as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in “Feud: Bette and Joan.”
(Kurt Iswarienko / FX)

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“Her walk was like a truck driver,” said Sarandon, who also worked with a dialect coach, shaved her head and wore white makeup for the role.

You can watch the full 23-minute interview on video right here.

As for who would do a great job portraying Sarandon on screen, the actress has an unconventional pick: “I love Tom Hardy. I would like him to be me, or I would like to be him. But I think he could do just about anything.”

You heard it here first.

THE RHINESTONE COWBOY

The songs bring back such memories: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Rhinestone Cowboy.” The list goes on.

This week, we lost 81-year-old Glen Campbell, who went public with his advancing Alzheimer’s disease in his final years and did so with a song.

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My colleagues have some personal accounts of meeting Campbell in 2011.

“I witnessed up close the ravaging effect that Alzheimer’s disease was having on Glen Campbell in the later years of his life,” wrote Randy Lewis, who went to Campbell’s Malibu home for an interview with the entertainer and his wife, Kim.

“That day, when I asked how he perceived the effect of this pernicious disease, his response shifted from astutely analytical to frustratingly forgetful. ‘I’m fine,’ he said at first, as we sat at the counter in his kitchen, his wife, Kim, seated near him. ‘It’s just sometimes days are better than other ones.’

“A moment later, he added, ‘It hasn’t affected me in any way. In fact, I don’t even know what it is. Who came up with that?’ When Kim reminded him — ‘Your doctor,’ she said — he shot back, ‘Well, he’s probably wrong.’

“In other situations he liked to quip, ‘I don’t have Alzheimer’s. I have part-timer’s.’”

Country singer Glen Campbell at his home in Malibu on July 27, 2011.
Glen Campbell at home in Malibu on July 27, 2011.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The photographer that day was Genaro Molina, who related his own experience:

“When making one of my last images of Campbell in his small studio, I asked him what his favorite song was, out of his whole career. ‘It’s still “Wichita Lineman,”’ he said. He then picked up his guitar and started singing the song for an audience of one.”

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If you haven’t already, read Adam Tschorn’s obituary, which chronicles the life and career of “the seventh son of a seventh son” who was “possessed of a crystalline tenor voice and boy-next-door good looks.”

THE ORIGINAL GODZILLA

He was the man behind the monster: Haruo Nakajima, who portrayed Godzilla in the original 1954 classic film, has died at age 88. “I am the original, the real thing,” he said in 2014. “My Godzilla was the best.”

And who would disagree with him?

Nakajima said he invented the character from scratch, developing it by going to a zoo to study how elephants and bears moved.

Original Godzilla actor Haruo Nakajima in his home in Sagamihara, near Tokyo, on April 28, 2014.
Original Godzilla actor Haruo Nakajima in his home in Sagamihara, near Tokyo, on April 28, 2014.
(Junji Kurokawa / Associated Press)

REMEMBERING MOREAU

Cinefamily and the French Film and TV Office will co-present a screening of “Jules and Jim” on Monday.

As film critic Justin Chang wrote: “The title may refer to the two men played by Oskar Werner and Henri Serre, but the movie belongs to Catherine, the irresistible, unattainable woman they both adore, played by an incandescent Jeanne Moreau in her most famous screen role.”

Moreau died July 31 at the age of 89.

AROUND TOWN

-- It’s been 50 years since “Bonnie and Clyde” hit theaters with frank portrayals of violence and sex as it followed the exploits of Depression-era bank robbers, lovers and killers Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty). Fathom Events and TCM will present the film at various theaters, Aug. 13, 2 and 7 p.m.; Aug. 16, 2 and 7 p.m. www.fathomevents.com

-- Laemmle Theatres will feature a weekend of westerns including “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” and High Noon.” Aug. 18-Aug. 20. Full schedule: www.laemmle.com

Get more highlights of this week’s film events, revivals, festivals and series in the Moviegoer column.

WHEN BEATLEMANIA HIT L.A.

From 1964 to 1966, August was Beatles season in Los Angeles, with the band’s performances at the Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium. Enjoy these photos of the Fab Four and their fans, some of whom didn’t always act so fab.

Aug. 25, 1964: Beatle fans run pass barricades and rush policemen in effort to reach the Bel-Air hom
Aug. 25, 1964: Beatle fans run pass barricades and rush policemen in effort to reach the Bel-Air home where the band was staying. The fans were stopped before reaching the band.
(Los Angeles Times / Los Angeles Times)

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

-- Producer Norman Lear, one of the honorees of the upcoming Kennedy Center Honors, said he will not attend the pre-awards reception hosted by President Trump in protest of some of the president’s policies.

-- He’s back: David Letterman will do a six-episode talk show for Netflix.

-- “Lucy and Desi,” Aaron Sorkin’s feature project about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, has been acquired by Amazon Studios.

-- A sprawling Rancho Mirage estate built in 1956 for actress Marion Davies has sold for $2.175 million. It’s very pink.

The Rancho Mirage estate built for film actress Marion Davies.
The Rancho Mirage estate built for film actress Marion Davies.
(Mark Karlstrom / Real Estate Glide Tours)

-- And finally, speaking of real estate: The Bel-Air mansion used for the exterior shots on “The Beverly Hillbillies” has hit the market. Asking price: $350 million, which makes it America’s most expensive residential listing. Does it come with a “cement pond”?

For more vintage Hollywood, go to the Classic Hollywood Los Angeles Times Facebook page.


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