What Feud Teaches us About Aging
Posted on 21 March 2017
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
My latest obsession is Feud on FX. This docudrama from the producer of American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy, examines the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford while they were filming the movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962. Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange masterfully portray the challenges Bette and Joan faced with ageism, sexism and misogyny.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane 1962
I was too young to see Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in movie theaters. But because I had a mother who sometimes inappropriately let me watch movies I was much too young to see, I did watch it on tv when I was about 9. I was terrified.
I'm sure that I missed a lot of the nuances in the film at my young age, but I was specifically horrified by Bette Davis. Her scary makeup, her giant bug eyes, and her crazy smile gave me shivers.
I didn't know any other Bette Davis. In my little mind, I thought that this crazy woman was surely over 80 years old and one of the most horrifying women I'd ever seen on television. She was literally Baby Jane Hudson to my 9 year old brain.
It wasn't until I was much older, when I watched more black and white movies and became enamored with all things old Hollywood that I discovered the other Bette, and the other Joan.
Joan Crawford in Gilbert Adrian Dress in I Live My Life 1935
Bette Davis in the 1930's
These much more glamorous versions of Bette and Joan seemed very far removed from the women I saw onscreen at the age of 9. The younger Joan and Bette represented everything beautiful and romantic about the 1930's and 40's. Their confidence, the dramatic make-up and the deco gowns they wore, made them the epitome of glamour.
Joan Crawford in Sadie McKee 1934 in a Gilbert Adrian Gown
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's talent and broad appeal helped make the major Hollywood studios the successful industries they became, but as these stars aged, they became irrelevant to the Hollywood power players. The studios were moving towards bombshell blondes and younger starlets. Bette Davis was only 42 when she filmed All About Eve, her "comeback" role about an aging actress being replaced by a younger, newer version. Just for some context, Angelina Jolie, Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett and Drew Barrymore are all in their 40's.
Even though they were feeling as if their careers were over and they might not ever work again, Joan Crawford was 58 (approximately) and Bette Davis was only 54 when they filmed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Joan Crawford was still feeling the need to wear "falsies" and tighten her neck before scenes. The talent that both of these remarkable actresses was overlooked because they no longer fit the description of what Hollywood defined as the ideal of beauty.
"I get up at seven for the make-up, Rita Hayworth at six, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis at five. I don’t want to know the time when I’ll have to come to the studio even earlier."
Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange are also stars that have aged in the public eye. In contrast, however, Susan Sarandon is 70 years old and Jessica Lange is 67 - much older than the 50+ year old characters they portray in Feud. It's hard to imagine denying roles to these women because of their ages. It's hard to watch, at times, the struggle they face with their fading star power and realization that the world has moved past them.
Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in Feud
Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in Feud
Susan Sarandon as Bette and Joan Crawford as Joan in Feud
Bette Davis, Jack Warner and Joan Crawford
I am really fascinated by the issue of ageism. It seems to be a problem that only gets worse with the culture of youth we are so focused on today. No one ever feels old on the inside, it's the outside world that makes us all feel more invisible the older we get.
But has anything really changed? Yes, we live a little longer. And, perhaps there are more roles available to female actresses over the age of 50 than there were in the 1960's. And yes, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange look much younger today than their younger characters did when they filmed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. But do they feel any less pressure to look a certain way than Bette and Joan?
Modern beauty products and techniques have helped us all maintain the illusion of youth for a bit longer. I see more and more women in their 30's getting botox and even some as young as 20 are getting injections. Has our ability to delay the appearance of aging made us even more focused on it? I understand it though, our beauty standard has changed so much that aging, especially in Hollywood, isn't really an option.
If a female star decides to forego any type of help and ages naturally, will she still be offered award worthy roles in Hollywood? And what do we say when we see her on the Late Show or at an award ceremony? Do we admire the fact that she is aging gracefully or do we shake our heads at how old she looks?
This is the way that I remember Bette Davis; so chic in her Patrick Kelly dress at the age of 79. Her skin very wrinkled, a cigarette in her hands, her voice a little raspier, and her frame much thinner. But, she still commanded the room with her sharp wit and no nonsense personality. The role of baby Jane Hudson gave her the opportunity to reject all that was glamorous and truly show her true talent. We would call that a brave performance today, and indeed, it was.
Sarandon and Lange haven't shied away from brave roles and their talent is undeniable, I can't think of any two better actresses to play Bette and Joan. But somehow, I don't think much has changed in the world in terms of our love affair with beauty and youth. I think the pressure to stay beautiful has just become more pronounced as the procedures and techniques become more available.
I'd like to think that I can be brave, like Bette. I hope that my appearance isn't the definition or sum of my life's meaning. But I will admit, it will be hard to embrace aging in a culture that abhors anything older than the newest, shiniest face on Instagram. A world that used to honor and respect older human beings now discards them with an almost arrogant disdain.
Her once legendary eyes might have grown a bit dimmer toward the end of her life, but I hope that the world will get to a place where they see beyond wrinkles, a few extra pounds and gray hair. I hope they will see the beauty, life experience and wisdom that lives behind the aging eyes we all will someday have. Until then, we should all remember something that a wise Bette Davis once said,
"Old age is no place for sissies."