In 1962, powerful Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper held a strange and intimate dinner party, hosting rival movie stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis for a truce meal at her home on Tropical Avenue in Beverly Hills, an elegant brick colonial Hopper winkingly called "the house that fear built."
“Will it be disappointing if we get along well?” Davis asked at the start of the dinner, acknowledging the pleasure Hopper’s readers undoubtedly took in a catfight between aging divas.
Hopper, whose syndicated column appeared in the L.A. Times, had convened the actresses just before they began production on “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” a now-iconic film with a mixed legacy. Director Robert Aldrich’s psychological thriller about an actress who holds her crippled sister captive in an old mansion united Hollywood’s warring grande dames for the first time on screen and yielded five Oscar nominations, but it also minted a particular strain of camp that degrades older women, a kind of hagsploitation film.
“Feud,” which will star Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford during what Hopper politely called the “Indian summer" of their remarkable careers, has the potential to start another timely conversation — on the topic of older women in Hollywood. At this stage in their lives, the actresses, who by all accounts genuinely despised each other, were bumping against the ageism of their industry.
Contemporary research suggests that’s a problem that hasn’t gone away and may even have worsened since Davis and Crawford dined at Hopper’s table.
In 1962, two women over 50 were still able to topline a major studio film, something which isn’t happening today. According to a 2015 USC study, not one of 2014’s 100 highest-grossing films featured women over 45 in a leading role. Between 2007 and 2014, women made up less than a quarter of film characters between ages 40 and 64.
“Older females are an endangered species,” said Stacy Smith, director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School. “Viewers were more likely to see talking animals or anthropomorphized objects than a woman over 45 in a leading role.”
Television has been somewhat more hospitable, with streaming networks the most likely companies to cast women over 40, giving them 33% of roles thanks to shows like Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie” and Amazon’s “Transparent.”
For the Record
May 10, 7:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this post listed “American Horror Story” among shows on streaming networks that cast women over 40. “American Horror Story” is on the FX cable channel.
Crawford and Davis were glamorous screen creatures of an earlier era, when studio executives believed the tastes of women drove the box office and cast actresses in rich, complex roles, such as Crawford’s independent single mother in “Mildred Pierce” and Davis' vulnerable aging career woman in “All About Eve." By the time they made “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," however, Crawford was 57, Davis was 54, and their power was waning.
At its best, [‘Feud’] could reveal the ugliness of the way Hollywood treats aging actresses, their desperation to work even in fairly grotesque roles just for the sake of working.
Despite beautiful black-and-white cinematography and often chilling performances, the actresses were essentially putting on an old lady minstrel show, wearing garish makeup and, particularly in Davis' case, behaving like tantrum-throwing babies. That the stars took the roles at all suggests how urgently they wanted to work, according film historian and author Cari Beauchamp, who is working on a book on the topic of aging actresses. In that tension, Murphy’s show might find its gold, she said.
“At its best, [‘Feud’] could reveal the ugliness of the way Hollywood treats aging actresses, their desperation to work even in fairly grotesque roles just for the sake of working,” Beauchamp said. "These women had portrayed incredible three-dimensional protagonists on screen. They were the stars of those movies, and their stories were what brought people to the theaters.”
On set, Crawford and Davis' long-simmering competition came into full flower, whether it was because they were raving narcissists or because they were oppressed by an industry that considered them past their sell-by dates or, in all likelihood, some combination of the two.
“These two women were scene-stealers,” Beauchamp said. "You put two scene-stealers together — whoa, sparks are going to fly. Whose back is to what? What side are we showing?”
Murphy’s eight-episode series, which does not yet have a premiere date, will also star Alfred Molina as Aldrich, Stanley Tucci as studio chief Jack Warner, Dominic Burgess as actor Victor Buono and Judy Davis as Hopper.
How the producer, who has a track record of inclusion on his shows “Glee” and "American Horror Story," frames his leading women will be key in either redressing the cringe-worthy nature of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” or repeating it.
Among the real women behind those roles, there is plenty of nuance and wit to mine. The same month Hopper’s column ran, Davis took out an ad in Variety: “Thirty years experience as an actress in motion pictures,” it read. “Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood (Has had Broadway).”
At Hopper’s house that day in 1962, the actresses discussed the paucity of star vehicles open to them at the time and spilled some information on their “Baby Jane" contract details — Davis would get first billing, both would share in the profits.
Hopper documented the little things they had in common in her column — both had had four husbands, she noted, and had made more than 65 films at the time. Davis took her Scotch on the rocks, Hopper wrote, while Crawford produced her own flask of vodka.
“I say if you’re going to have a drink,” Crawford said. "Have what you want.”