How I Dreamt Up Joan Crawford and Bette Davis Legendary ‘Feud’

Michael Zam, who with his writing partner Jaffe Cohen, had the original idea for what has become the FX drama, ‘Feud,’ reveals how Bette Davis and Joan Crawford got under their skin.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

It was with some surprise that I realized the FX 8-part series, Feud: Bette and Joan, which premieres this Sunday night at 10pm, began in my living room a decade ago when my old friend, Jaffe Cohen, said to me, “We should write a script together. “

Having just endured a presidential election in which a qualified woman was shunned aside in favor of an unqualified man-child, the question of whether strong public women can get the break they deserve is very much in our zeitgeist. That’s why we believe Feud: Bette and Joan will strike a nerve.

Having originated as a script by myself and my old pal, Jaffe Cohen, Feud chronicles the decades-long rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (or Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: If they were still around there’d be a battle over who gets billed first, even in this story), two of Hollywood’s most revered legends, two women forced to compete for roles when all that time they could’ve been friends, and it all began ten years ago with two old friends who one day decided after all these years that maybe they could’ve been writing partners when Jaffe one day said to me, “We should write a script together.”

A snarly “Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” was my first thought, but Jaffe looked as if were in the dumps, so trying not to make him any unhappier, I scanned my brain for the most articulate, but noncommittal response I could find. I eked out, “Hmm…”

Now I’ve had writing partners in the past. I love to work in collaboration. My first inspiration to write was The Dick Van Dyke Show. The great playwright George S. Kaufman has always been one of my writing heroes, and he nearly always wrote in tandem with others. As for me, well, by myself I like having written.

Jaffe and I tried working together in the past. It often started out fun, but we’d soon realized that as much as we made each other laugh (essential for writing together) and admired each other’s complementary skills, we were both too competitive to submit to the other’s ideas, even when it the best thing for the project. In other words, we were both writing tops.

Jaffe didn’t seem to quite grasp the subtle complexity of my murmur above. Not wanting to leave him hanging, it was with extreme reluctance that I added, “Maybe if we found the right idea…”

Jaffe jumped right in with, “How about the story of two battling actresses who have to work together… You know, like Bette and Joan?” To which I replied as if it were completely obvious, “Well in that case, why don’t we just write about Bette and Joan?”

Jaffe’s eyes lit up like he’d just seen a lifeguard doff his Speedo. “Yes! Yes!”

It was a great story: two aging actresses, sworn enemies, both at personal and professional low points—Joan Crawford, now a widow, relegated to supporting roles playing frigid workaholics; Bette Davis, mourning a failed marriage, a big-budget flop, and noticeably out of her element on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana — choose to do the last option left to rescue them: making a film together. That film, of course, is now an acknowledged Grand Guignol classic, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

And It had so many of the crucial screen story elements I nag my screenwriting students at NYU to look for: a strong and complex protagonist and an even greater and more complex antagonist (in this case two bigger-than-life protagonists, each of whom was the antagonist for the other); extremely high stakes that to them feel like life or death; lots of character-driven humor and drama; as well that definite Ma Nish Ta Na, which is Hebrew for “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”, the first of the four questions the eldest child is supposed to ask the host at the Passover ceremony.

The best stories have characters thrust into situations they’ve never been in before—or, at least old ones that are more intense than ever. The story of battling Bette and Joan fit that bill.

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And the behind the scenes “making of…” stuff was juicy. Without having read any book or movie about it, or even a book specifically about Bette or Joan, I already knew so much about it. Some of this is because I’ve read hundreds of books and thousands of articles about all kinds of Hollywood history.

I can barely remember where I left my ATM card, but ask me who won the ++Oscar++[ /content/dailybeast/topics/the-oscars.html] for Best Black and White Cinematography in 1942 and suddenly I’m the human IMDB. (The winner was Mrs. Miniver; in the color category, The Black Swan, a Tyrone Power swashbuckling picture, not the much later Natalie Portman nutso ballerina film).

Throw in many devoted hours watching TCM and friends who loved to talk old movies as much as I do, and I guess much of my research was done for me.

Of course, we’d need still need to do research, which would include lots of old movies. Watching old movies would no longer be a distraction from work, but instead be work itself.

Okay, I wanted to write about this, but I was unsure I wanted to write it with Jaffe. Jaffe had been a successful stand-up comic, a groundbreaker, really. He, along with his partners, Danny McWilliams and ++Bob Smith++[/content/dailybeast/articles/2016/10/17/lou-gehrig-s-disease-i-don-t-even-like-baseball-comic-bob-smith-on-living-with-als.html] (later my partner partner) performed together as Funny Gay Males; each one of the first openly ++gay++[ /content/dailybeast/topics/lgbtqia.html] comics, and in the 1980’s, they performed all over the world. He was used to getting big laughs from large audiences, and that’s something from which one never recovers. I assumed he wanted the script to be a go-for-laughs camp-fest.

I suddenly feared we’d be writing only scenes like the one from the 1952 movie, The Star, where Bette, as a broken-down movie star (she supposedly based on Joan), grabs her Academy Award and shouts, “Come on, Oscar, let’s you and me get drunk!”, followed by a her weaving her car down a Beverly Hills street, giving a tour of movie star homes.

I love that scene, but I love it because it’s so crazy. And Bette gives it her all (she was even nominated for Best Actress for it (she lost to a much better performance, Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba). But I was also laughing at it, and after a few minutes of that, I’ve had my fill.

Jaffe assured me he wanted to make the movie real. Suddenly, the story felt dreary, like one of those backstage potboilers starring Susan Hayward. We discussed recent movies we liked that were true stories, especially true stories about public figures. The one we both loved: The Queen starring ++Helen Mirren++[ /content/dailybeast/articles/2016/12/22/helen-mirren-s-bang-on-christmas-message-2016-has-been-a-big-pile-of-sh-t.html].

Directed by Stephen Frears from an excellent screenplay by Peter Morgan, it hit the tone we wanted, which we defined as “just real enough.” It personalizes and humanizes the character of Elizabeth II in the days following the shocking death of Diana, Princess of Wales, while still showing—and sometimes affectionately satirizing—this bigger-than-life monarch. It was touching one moment and very funny the next.

But she was, you know, the queen and this was about a recent incident that captured the world’s interest and altered the British monarchy forever. Would enough people even know who Bette and Jane were anymore? How many would know Baby Jane? And even among those who did, how many would care about a story that few know and had happened a half-century ago?

Producers and agents constantly told me that stories with female protagonists, especially women protagonists over 40, don’t sell. With a few exceptions, neither do movies or TV shows about making movies or TV shows. And if it’s a period piece then the price tag doubles or triples, so cross that off as well.

But then I always tell my students to not only write what you know, but to also write what you love. Write the script for whatever it is you’d most want to see. I was really getting excited about this story. I wanted to see it now.

But I still needed to why I wanted to see it, beyond it being potentially fun to do, and on a subject I liked and about a subject I knew a lot about. But is knowing about something and really knowing it are two different things. Where was I in this story? What the fuck did I have in common with what studio head Jack Warner called, “Two broken down old broads”?

And then it hit me: Jaffe and I were at that point Bette and Joan. Like them, we were middle-aged and in slumps. Jaffe’s dream had always been to be a novelist. He’d written a few comedic nonfiction books, but he had just finally gotten his chance to write and publish his first novel—and it wasn’t the success he hoped it would be and he had no idea what to do next. He was also living in an illegal sublet in a former project on the Lower East Side.

As for me, my partner partner, Bob, had recently been diagnosed with ALS. Nothing compared to that, but it didn’t help that I had just learned my Irish-set comedy screenplay, the script that was most dear to my heart up to that point, was once again not going to get made after about the tenth time of being so very close to being so—and this time I knew it would probably never get made.

After years of this on other projects, I, like Bette, turned my back on film and TV—not that in my case many noticed—and tried my hand at theater: I was working on my first book of a musical with a wonderful pair of songwriters, composer Andy Monroe and lyricist Jack Lechner. Based on Dan Savage’s comic memoir, The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant, our project had a long way to go.

It would eventually do pretty well, getting produced at The New Group Off-Broadway, and winning a bunch of awards, but I didn’t know any of that then. Jaffe and I had lot to learn, so I had pretty much given up on writing screenplays after so many years of having screenplays that almost got made, but never did.

After Bob’s diagnosis, he said his life from then would be measured in dog years. Having an old dog as well as a sick boyfriend, I was more keenly aware than ever to how short time was. How many opportunities would there be? It already felt as if there even fewer spaces for only a few lucky people. Having lived much of my life with a single mom who barely scraped by and was often badly treated by men and other women, I also knew women felt this even more than I did.

And I knew that this must be close to what Bette and Joan would’ve felt prior to making Baby Jane. Why else would they choose, despite their mutual loathing (which also concealed a mutual respect), to work together?

Hey, if those two broken-down old broads could do it and make something good out of it, then maybe so could two broken-down old bros like Jaffe and me.

And so we got to work.