The Juicy True Story Behind Feud, Ryan Murphy's Newest Show

The master of milking the melodrama out of history is back at it with Feud: Bette and Joan, set to premiere March 5 on FX. This time around, Ryan Murphy — the creative mind behind Glee, The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, and American Horror Story — didn't have work too hard to conjure up drama. The real events that inspired the eight-episode miniseries are quite wild enough on their own, thank you.
Perhaps the grass is always glitzier on the other side of history. But from what we can tell, in Old Hollywood, the divas were diva-ier, the insults shadier, and the feuds far more entertaining. And there was no rivalry more notorious than that of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two Hollywood powerhouses whose decades-long battle captivated tabloids (and drove directors crazy).
Here’s your primer for the history behind Davis and Crawford’s four-decade rivalry. Study up, so when you sit down to watch Feud, you can focus on the modern-day powerhouses of Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon instead of playing catch-up.
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1933: It Begins

It all began, like most of the drama of 2017, with The New York Times.

Compared to Crawford, who had been acting for almost 10 years, Davis was a relative newcomer to Hollywood in 1933. Only on the scene for three years, Davis' career was just gaining traction. For the first time, the young ingenue had finally scored a role so significant that her name was advertised above the title, Ex-Lady.

Unfortunately for Davis's ego, news from Crawford's personal life swiftly upstaged Ex-Lady's massive publicity campaign. On the same day Ex-Lady was set to come out, Crawford announced that she was getting divorced from her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. As a result, newspapers switched coverage from Davis’ movie to Crawford’s love life.

Perhaps due to stunted publicity, Ex-Lady was dropped from theaters after only a week. The movie failed, sure — but it gave birth to a legendary feud.

Pictured: Bette Davis and Gene Raymond in Ex-Lady
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1935: Boy Drama

The feud's intensity got cranked up a few degrees after Joan Crawford married the man Bette Davis loved. Okay, we can’t blame Davis for being upset over this one.

In 1935, Davis co-starred in the drama Dangerous with the dashing actor Franchot Tone. On-screen chemistry translated into off-screen longing, as happens to co-stars to this day (see: Brangelina). In an interview with journalist Michael Thornton in 1987, Davis said, “I fell in love with Franchot, professionally and privately."

Unfortunately for Davis, Tone was totally enamored with Crawford, who visited the set each afternoon. Davis reported that Tone would emerge from his trailer with his “face covered in lipstick.” She admitted to being jealous, yet there was nothing Davis could do to stop their engagement, which was announced on set.

Looking back on the affair, Davis is convinced that Crawford “took him from me...she did it coldly, deliberately, and with complete ruthlessness.”

Crawford wasn’t having any of Davis' whining. With an ample dash of old-school sass, Crawford was purported to say that Tone “thought Bette was a good actress, but he never thought of her as a woman.”

So, to summarize: Crawford 2, Davis 0.

Pictured: Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone
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1943: Turf Wars

By this point, the feud had been raging for almost a decade, with notable incidents taking place over the years.

In 1943, the women were thrown into close proximity when Crawford left MGM and signed with Warner Brothers. Keep in mind that Davis had famously said, “[Crawford] slept with every male star at MGM, except Lassie.” Well, no more MGM men for Crawford — she was coming over to Davis’ turf.

Back in the day, actors and actresses only took roles within their parent production company. So, Crawford and Davis now had to compete directly for Warner Brothers roles. When Crawford signed over to MGM, she requested the room next to Davis’, and frequently sent gifts and flowers to get on her good side. All her presents were returned. Cold, Bette, Cold.

Pictured: Bette Davis in The Letter, a Warner Bros. film
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1945: Fierce Competition — & An Oscar

Bette Davis was the Warner Brothers' first choice for the drama Mildred Pierce, but she turned it down. Crawford was eager for the role, though the film’s director Michael Curtiz wasn’t quite as enthusiastic. Eventually, Curtiz relented. Turns out Crawford knew what she was doing. She won her only Oscar in 1946 for her work in Mildred Pierce.

Crawford pulled a similar stunt in 1947 when she took another role originally written for Davis in the drama Possessed. She scored another Oscar nom for that role, too.

Pictured: Jack Carson and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce
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1952: Bette Plays Joan

Turned out Joan Crawford had more than one feud actively raging during this period. One was with screenwriter Katherine Albert, who teamed up with Davis to get back at her ex-best friend Joan.

Albert penned the drama The Star, a film which centered on an older actress barely holding on to her former star power. Essentially, it's a loose depiction of Crawford herself. Davis starred in The Star and got to portray a Crawford-lookalike at her most unflattering.

For her work in The Star, Davis scored one of her 11 Oscar nominations.
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1961: Joan Convinces Bette To Join Forces

This brings us to the culmination of the Davis-Crawford drama, and the focal point of Murphy’s miniseries.

Around this time, opportunity for juicy roles were few and far between for both Bette and Joan. But in 1961, director Robert Aldrich wanted to take on a movie adaptation of the psychological horror novel called What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? In the script, Blanche, a crippled actress confined to a wheelchair, is terrorized by her unstable older sister, Jane, in their Hollywood mansion. As aging divas themselves, Crawford and Davis were perfect for the leading roles.

Crawford agreed to play Blanche in the film, but both she and Aldrich agreed that the project needed a boost of star power to carry the role of Jane. Who, of all people, did Crawford suggest? You guessed it — her arch nemesis with 11 Oscar nominations, Bette Davis.

Rebuilding a burnt bridge called for drastic measures. Crawford flew out to New York where Davis was starring in The Night of the Iguana on Broadway, and begged Davis to take the part. Davis agreed to take the part only after Aldrich promised that there had been no sexual relations between himself and Crawford.

Pictured: Bette Davis in Night of the Iguana
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1962: What Did Happen To Baby Jane?

This bring us to the film itself. For the first and only time, Bette and Joan appeared on screen together.

While a commercial success at the time, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is remembered to this day for the insane drama that occurred during filming.

In one famous incident, Davis’ character (Jane) was supposed to beat Crawford’s character, Blanche. During filming, Crawford was so scared Davis would actually harm her that she requested a body double. Well, Crawford’s instincts were right. A body double couldn't be used in a close-up shot, so Davis took the opportunity to hit Crawford smack in the head.

Crawford had a retaliation plan up her sleeve. It came in a scene when Jane lifted Blanche from her wheelchair. Knowing that Davis suffered from severe back problems, Crawford filled her pockets with rocks or wore a weightlifter's belt to make her heavier. After a few botched takes, Davis was howling in agony.
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1963: Talk About Real Oscars Drama

The 2017 Oscars snafu doesn’t hold a gun to Joan Crawford’s completely insane stunt.

Only Davis received an Oscar nod for What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? Crawford actively campaigned against her co-star — but then she took it a step further. She was determined to get up on the Oscars stage herself. Crawford volunteered to collect the Best Actress award for some of the other nominees who couldn't make the ceremony.

Cut to the night of the Oscars. Expecting to win, Davis was devastated when Anne Bancroft’s name was called instead. To everyone's surprise, Crawford proceeded to leap onstage and accept the award on Bancroft's behalf. Crawford went on to pose with the three other award winners backstage, as if she’d won the Oscar.

Davis was livid, saying, “I almost dropped dead! I was paralyzed with shock. To deliberately upstage me like that — her behavior was despicable.”

Still, with her two wins and 11 nominations in total, Davis certainly won the Oscars war against Crawford's one win and three nominations.

Pictured: Gregory Peck and Joan Crawford, post 1963 Oscars ceremony
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1964: A Sequel Is Squashed

Recognizing they had quite the dynamic duo on their hands, Warner Bros. wanted to capitalize on Baby Jane's success by producing a sequel. This follow-up was called Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte, and, like Baby Jane, was about two women psychologically sparring with one another.

Plans of a reboot were soon squashed by the women’s refusal to cooperate.

After a week of filming, Crawford dropped out. The director, the same as Baby Jane, actually went so far to hire a detective to track down Crawford. Alas, the director couldn’t convince her to come back on set, and Olivia de Havilland took over the part.

Pictured: Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte
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1977: RIP Joan

On May 10, 1977, Crawford passed away of a heart attack in her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Not even death could dissuade Davis' grudge. Supposedly, upon hearing of her rival's death, Davis said, “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good...Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”

Pictured: Joan Crawford in 1970
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2017: Ryan Murphy Brings The Feud Back To Life

This brings us to the already drama-filled year of 2017, about to get more exciting by Baby Jane's reintroduction to the screen. The miniseries will star Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford, catching the aging stars just as filming for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? begins.

We're sure that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, divas then and divas now, would be happy to know they're getting such widespread publicity.

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