Feud: Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon on Women’s Aging in Hollywood

FX’s anthology series Feud, created by Ryan Murphy, centers on the legendary backstage battle between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, played by Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, respectively.

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Murphy explained at the TV Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, that he had “lots of discussions with women in the entertainment business, and what came out of that for me was a lot of very moving sentiments from women.”

“I wasn’t necessarily interested in doing anything campy,” Murphy said. “I was interested in something deeper and more emotional and painful.”

“The show is set in 1962, but its issues are modern and women are still going through those things and nothing has changed.”

“A big part of the show is what Hollywood does to women, as they age, which is just a microcosm of what happens to women generally as they age, whether you want to say they become invisible or undesirable or unattractive,” Lange said. “What happens when that beauty is no longer considered viable because it’s equated with youth?”

Lange, 67, noted that Crawford was actually 10 years younger than she is now when she starred in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?–the cult film at the center of the eight-part FX anthology series. “And yet, her career was finished.”

Sarandon believes Hollywood has made some progress:“When I started, it was over by 40. So definitely the line has been pushed. I was told on many occasions not to bring up that you had children. I think those things have changed and you see the line has been moved forward.”

Lange disagreed: “I don’t think it has changed very much to tell you the truth.” “It’s not a question of age or looks,” Lange continued. “If the powers that be aren’t interested in a story of a woman of a certain age,” then older women won’t be cast in those stories.

Sarandon agreed, noting that women are often shut out of leading roles in Hollywood solely because of their age.  Aging in Hollywood is difficult “even for people who were trying to do parts that aren’t youthful glamour parts.”

“When Bette Davis doesn’t get the Academy Award, she sees it–and probably rightly so–as her last chance to get good parts,” Sarandon recalled. “Part of the interesting dynamic is that Joan Crawford was the beautiful one and Bette went for the character actor.  She was counting on that Oscar to revive things.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is playing Olivia de Havilland in Feud, said that she hopes to portray her character as a strong-willed woman who was ahead of her time.

“She was a tough ball-breaking woman. She went up against the studio, which was rare at the time, and today,” Zeta-Jones said. “There’s a bit of an enigma, which I love, but I want to play her stronger than more people would have imagined.”

Executive producer Dede Gardner echoed Murphy’s sentiments that the show covers current issues.  “I think the show is deeply modern. I think it’s delicious of a celebration of a town that was less crowded, but I don’t think it romanticizes it. I think it calls it out for its truisms,” Gardner said on the panel. “These women were treated brutally and were meant to treat each other brutally, and seemingly that was the only way to succeed, and I don’t think much has changed in that regard.”

Sarandon admitted that there’s been progression in Hollywood, with women now developing their own projects.  She added, “And then there’s Ryan Murphy.”

Murphy, who founded the Half foundation, an organization that aims to fill half of the director slots on his shows with women–regrets not having initially made an effort to include diverse voices behind the scenes of his projects, which now has become an integral part of his life.

“I really have changed my business paradigm,” Murphy said. “that’s a big part of my day, making sure that different voices are represented behind the scenes.”

Half of the directors on “Feud” and all of Murphy’s other shows (“Scream Queens,” “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story”) are women. And on “Feud,” 15 on-screen roles are for women over the age of 40.