Jessica Lange On ‘Feud: Bette And Joan,’ Meeting One Of The Stars And Sexism In Hollywood

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Both Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon  have fans and critics agreeing that they are “killing it’ in “Bette and Joan’s Feud!”  But Lange admits that the role has been daunting and that she has in fact learned a lot about what these groundbreaking women went through in Hollywood, in an era where women had very little power, yet these two were powerful women.

 

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What’s your earliest memory or experience with Joan Crawford’s work?

It must have been one of the early movies, but I couldn’t tell you definitively which one it was. As a child, I used to watch all those old black and white movies on TV, that was a real source of entertainment. I’m sure it must have been during that time that I first saw her. I wasn’t that aware of her all those years except for certain films that I really liked, like Grand Hotel or Mildred Pierce. But I have to admit I wasn’t a huge Joan Crawford fan. Not that I didn’t like her work, but it wasn’t something that I really spent a lot of time looking at.

 

Had anyone ever commented on your resemblance to her or does that come from hair and makeup alone?

I think that came out of hair and makeup. I don’t think physically I resemble her, really. She was a very small woman, she was just like 5-foot-3? When I first went to MGM, we shot King Kong there. That was before they really dissembled the studios and they still had their wardrobe department. I would go in there for fittings and they would still have the dress dummies that were based on these women’s bodies. I was always amazed at how tiny they were. I remember Crawford’s was in there because she was of course for years the great MGM star. And they had waists about 15 inches big — it was unbelievable. And in the face, except for the cheekbones and forehead I don’t think we really look that much alike. But hair and makeup makes a big difference.

Do you remember your first experience with Baby Jane?

I don’t remember where or when, but of course I saw it. But I do remember I was struck by the way it was shot, that stark black and white. And the performances were wonderful.

 

Physically what kind of a process was it for you to play Joan doing this movie, with the wheelchair and such?

That was easy enough, it was just getting used to it and learning how to do it and watching how she did it. She was unique in that way; she had very minimal movement always. Even in interviews in real life she was very still. So when I first started learning how to work that wheelchair I did it in the way that felt natural to me and then when I looked at it I realized that she was very contained, always, when she was wheeling that back and forth. Her arms were tight to her body… I just had to watch how she did it and then adjust my natural way of doing it.

 

Now that you’ve played her, do you find yourself inadvertently taking her side in this feud?

Well, obviously there are two sides to everything, but just because I played Joan I’m more sympathetic to her. That obviously happens when you play somebody, you delve into the way they feel and think. So I have a greater understanding of what made her do things and therefore a much greater sympathy.

 

The show has made the point of how media is responsible for these feuds — especially between women. Have things gotten better over the years?

It’s funny, this morning I was looking at magazines at the dentist’s office and I was flipping through one of those weekly magazines and there was a page titled, “This Week’s Feuds.” And then they had four or five pictures of people who were supposedly involved in a feud. So no, I don’t think it’s changed that much; I think observers have a natural fascination with what they think is people feuding. Why that is I don’t know. It’s not ever been something that has interested me. But obviously if you have a whole page devoted to it in a weekly magazine it must be of interest to somebody.

 

Can you speak to the scene where Crawford is rejected at the adoption agency right on the cusp of wrapping Baby Jane? Mothers spend a good chunk of their lives balancing a family and career and then suddenly in this case both are gone.

It’s very hard, believe me. I think anyone who has raised a family or who is raising a family and having a career knows it’s exhausting. I just know for myself that when my children were little, my career really… there’s a certain point where you have to decide what’s more important: family or work. I would always choose family, so my work suffered in a way. I was also extremely distracted by being a mother. In that way it is hard to do both and do both well all the time. With Joan, for instance, when her first two children she adopted were little, that was at the height of her career. When you think of how those studios worked, when you were under contract you worked almost all year long. You went from one film to another, to another, to another. In terms of giving her kids the attention that maybe she imagined she could, I’m sure it didn’t pan out. And I’m sure it didn’t pan out for a lot of those women.

 

Ryan recently tweeted a picture of you and Bette Davis together from years ago. What’s the story behind it?

 

(Laughs.) Somebody showed that to me not long ago, yeah! I hadn’t seen that before. We were doing some panel from what somebody investigated. I don’t really remember. I remember doing this event with Bette Davis and I think Jimmy Caan was there, if I remember correctly. I think it was a panel for the American Film Institute. By why I, at a young age and with little experience, would be on a panel with somebody as formidable as Bette Davis is beyond me. It had to have been 1977 or 1978, something like that.

 

Do you remember speaking with her?

Well yes, we were cordial and we spoke, but it wasn’t the kind of situation where there was a lot of time to sit and chat. We arrived, we sat down, we did this panel, we exchanged a few words and that was probably the extent of it.

 

What has been the most revelatory thing about doing this show or about playing Joan Crawford?

What we’re dealing with isn’t exactly revelatory; we’ve all understood the Hollywood that was. It still remains very ageist; there remains a lot of ageism in Hollywood. I think there’s a lot of sexism in Hollywood. I think there’s a lot of misogyny. It’s not like that was a great revelation but we’ve explored those elements. More than anything, the revelation has been learning about Joan Crawford. It’s how exciting it became to play her. What a complete and fully realized character she was for me as an actress; I didn’t anticipate that going into it.

Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX.

 

Written By: Tommy Lightfoot Garrett
Photographs are Courtesy:  FX
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