Say what you will about Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan, which concludes its 8-episode run this Sunday, but for cinephiles it has been extraordinary to have had a major television series so steeped in the lore of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Dramatizing the production of Robert Aldrich’s 1962 Warner Brothers hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the animosity of its rival stars, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and the aftermath of both, Feud requires a measure of familiarity with all the major players and their past lives in order to truly appreciate the poignancy of its moment.
Despite its potential for high camp—and if nothing else Feud is a masterpiece of fabulous production and costume design—the show has proved to be remarkably alert to the predicament of women in Hollywood and the paranoia and regret that accompanies the back nine of the life of a Hollywood star. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? revived the fading careers of Davis and Crawford—former Tinseltown goddesses both—who were respectively 54 and 57(-ish) at the time (the actresses who play them so superbly, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, are, astonishingly, 70 and 67). It also ghettoized them in a new sub-genre which, according to Feud, studio head Jack Warner dubbed “hagsploitation.”
Baby Jane was such a hit that studios and actresses alike jumped on the bandwagon, releasing a string of gothic thrillers in which former Hollywood stars submitted themselves to the indignities of the horror genre. By the early 60s many of the great divas of the Golden Age had either retired or were working in television, but the post-Baby Jane craze for what has also been indecorously called “Psycho-biddy” or “Grande Dame Guignol” gave a number of actresses what they most craved: a chance to shine again on the silver screen.
Many of the films featured below are referenced, and even recreated, in Feud, which adds to the fun. The posters for these films are as wonderfully lurid and sensational as you could possibly hope for, full of exhortations and warnings to the audience and more often than not picturing formerly demure movie stars caught in open-mouthed terror or leering over their victims.
Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Stanwyck, Deborah Kerr, Tallulah Bankhead and Shelley Winters all submitted themselves to at least one outing in what the New York Times—in a review of The Anniversary—called “the Terrifying Older Actress Filicidal Mummy genre” but Bette and Joan were the undeniable scream queens of the 60s. The genre petered out in the early 70s, though Davis continued to milk her scary grand dame routine until the late 80s in Disney films and comedies. While Feud indirectly celebrates the glory days of Hollywood it also resurrects, as do these marvelously unrestrained posters, one of its least finest hours.
Posters courtesy of Heritage Auctions and CineMaterial. If you haven’t watched Feud, at least check out Kyle Cooper’s exquisite Saul Bass-esque title sequence.