Magazine article Variety

Batle Royale

Magazine article Variety

Batle Royale

Article excerpt

Dressed in a black ensemble topped by a long brown coat, Ryan Murphy darts back and forth between two rooms in the chilly Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. On this January day, a cramped space in this deliciously retro complex houses the monitors for Murphy as he directs an episode of his new FX series "Feud: Bette and Joan" that's set at the 1963 Academy Awards.

It's a pivotal moment in the famous rivalry between legendary actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Having co-starred in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" both women wanted the career boost of appearing on the Oscar podium. While it's tough to spoil an event that happened more than five decades ago, let's just say it was, to quote Davis, a "bumpy night."

"Feud" - which debuts March 5 - mines that decades-old conflict to tell a modern and highly relevant story about Hollywood, sexism, and survival.

Unfailingly courteous but always clear about what he's looking for, Murphy works Susan Sarandon (who plays Davis) so that she swivels away from the camera at the exact right moment. The scene, in which she's pacing and smoking, is punctuated with the exclamation, "Jesus Christ, this night!" Sarandon tries it a variety of ways, always careful to preserve Davis' clipped New England accent, on which she worked extensively with a dialogue coach.

The process is marvelous to watch, given that Sarandon and co-star Jessica Lange, as an imperious but fascinating Crawford, are at the top of their games. When Murphy offers a note, each actress executes it flawlessly, while crafting a distinct, scrupulously thought-out performance. It's like watching a deft conductor work with a top-flight orchestra.

Except.

Imagine a world in which an orchestra required its best players to retire at age 40 or 50. That's what Hollywood does to its actresses. There are exceptions, of course, but the well-documented bias women face, especially in a movie industry dominated by tentpole pictures starring men, has not gone away.

When the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism examined the most popular films for the past eight years, it found that women had 31.4 percent of speaking roles in 2015 - a decline of 1.4 percent from 2008. Even when they do get work, high-profile actresses have to contend with gossipdriven narratives about how much they dislike each other - no matter what the reality is.

"There's still that old thing in the press of 'Oh, they hate each other,'" says Catherine Zeta-Jones, who stars in "Feud" as Olivia de Havilland, "when we never actually work with each other."

As Sarandon puts it, she and Lange have "known each other for a long time, but we've never had the opportunity to work together, because they just don't put two [women] in a movie."

"Feud" doesn't sidestep the lore involving the hostilities that broke out on the set of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" But at its core, the FX series takes the ambitions and artistry of these women seriously.

"Joan doesn't get credit for what a good actress she was," Lange says, noting that "Mommie Dearest" has affected Crawford's reputation. "Because of her daughter's book, she never really got a fair shake."

Leveling the playing field for women in Hollywood may require a Herculean effort, but it's one that Murphy is tackling head-on. "Feud" represents his latest step in that direction.

To be sure, TV has become more welcoming to actresses and female creators: HBO's "Insecure," Amazon's "Transparent" and "Fleabag," Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black," the CW's "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and "Jane the Virgin," and FX's "Better Things" are part of a wave of acclaimed shows made by and starring women. But there's still a long way to go. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, only 20% of creators and 27% of writers for the 2015-16 season were women.

"Across all platforms, females comprised 39% of all speaking characters," a 1% decline from the year before, the center notes. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.