If you're familiar with ripped-from-the-headlines fare, you know that anything "based on a true story" should be taken with a grain of salt. There are shows that are so loosely rooted in reality that they barely resemble the original story, and then there are those whose teams pore over meticulous research and exhaustive interviews to keep things as factual as possible. Fortunately, Hollywood's latest life-to-screen retelling falls into the latter camp, because Ryan Murphy says Feud is surprisingly accurate and for more reasons than one.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the showrunner said that, while they did take some creative liberties, the series — which follows the infamous behind-the-scenes rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis — may actually be more truthful than most viewers would imagine. As he told the outlet,
"The weird thing about this show is how much of it you can’t believe is accurate. My stance on the show is we’re not making a documentary — we’re making a piece of drama based on fact. So right there, that’s our rule. We did a lot of research. We looked at around 25 books. In some cases, we spoke to people still alive who knew them. And then, of course, I spent four hours with Bette Davis and so a lot of that stuff is her perception of how a lot of that happened."
He goes on to describe some of the true-to-life scenes fans have already been privy to since Feud's premiere earlier this month, including that Davis (played by Susan Sarandon) allegedly slept with Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? director Robert Aldrich, and that she and Crawford (played by Jessica Lange) were actually getting along when the movie first started filming. He told EW,
"[Aldrich and Davis' affair] is based on the fact that Davis, by her own admission to me, loved sleeping with her directors. She slept with at least four of them. It’s based on the fact that Robert Aldrich and Joan Crawford did have an affair when they were shooting Autumn Leaves. It’s based on the fact that Robert Aldrich was going through a very difficult divorce at the time and he did leave his wife. And also most interesting to me is that Joan Crawford herself said they had an affair. She says 100 percent they had an affair because she saw intimations of it and she was worried Aldrich was throwing the picture to Davis. When they were doing the sequel, she would call his room to give him voluminous notes, and Davis was in bed next to him saying, 'Shut up! The champagne is getting flat.'"
But the most interesting takeaway here isn't that some of Feud's juiciest details are real; it's that the "backstage battle" between Davis and Crawford wasn't — at least the way Murphy views it. He continued,
"The Hedda Hopper dinner at the end of Episode 1 is an absolute truth that happened during the beginning of production. She had these people to her house and they were very careful and respectful of each other in the interview. So we know they were getting along at the beginning and Hedda was frustrated with how boring it was. Then, mysteriously, a couple weeks after that, items started popping up all over gossip columns about the two women having difficulties and that the crew was thinking Joan’s performance was better. Then halfway through the picture, they actually started to physically and emotionally fight. So our question as writers was, what turned south? And what turned south was the press started to write about all this stuff that wasn’t true."
In this portrayal, the drama between Davis and Crawford was started as a marketing ploy and fueled by tabloids, which in turn took its toll on the women and caused them to fight in real life. Feud, then, isn't so much a racy rehashing of Hollywood drama as it is an eye-opening takedown of the misogynistic tendency to pit women against each other, whether it be for entertainment or for profit.
If that was indeed what led to Davis and Crawford's on-set conflict, Feud is actually more accurate than the story that it's based on — well, at least the one that publicly unfolded — and that makes the show all the more compelling to watch.