Ryan Murphy has surely proved himself to be the hit maker of modern TV today, even more so than the beloved Shonda Rhimes. Between “Nip/Tuck” (2003-2010) “Glee” (2009-2015), “American Horror Story” (2011-present) and “American Crime Story” (2016-present), Murphy has defined and redefined the zeitgeist over and over again, each time bringing innovations to a medium that is arguably living its ‘golden age.’ One of Murphy’s biggest strengths is his awareness about the industry’s shortcomings; he likes to fill the void that other executive producers cannot. For example, Murphy revives genres that have been long dead: musical in “Glee” and horror/anthology in “American Horror Story.” Lately, he’s been experimenting with historical shows/biopics with “American Crime Story” and, most recently, “Feud” (2017).
What’s peculiar about both “American Crime Story” and “Feud” is that both shows tell unoriginal and tedious stories. The trial of OJ Simpson is one of the most worn-out stories in Hollywood as hundreds of books and movie adaptations have been released on the topic over the last 20 years. Similarly, the Bette Davis-Joan Crawford feud that is the central story arc on “Feud” seems like something only a grandma would find entertaining, at best. Yet Murphy is able to find aspects in both stories that are heartbreakingly relevant to the social and political climate today. With “American Crime Story,” it is racism and race relations in contemporary America. With “Feud,” a story about the competition of two washed up starlets, it is certainly the sexism and ageism found in Hollywood. Ironically the show itself is evidence that ageism is still an issue in the movie industry today.
“Feud” features a star-studded cast, comprised mostly of women. In addition to Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon playing the leads of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, respectively, the cast includes Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and cameo appearances by Catherine Zeta Jones as Olivia de Havilland and Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell. Of the five actresses, one (Lange) has won two Academy Awards, three have won one each (Sarandon, Jones and Bates) and one has been nominated twice (Judy Davis). All five actors are over the age of 45, and a quick IMDb search will reveal that all of them are struggling to find good roles in films recently.
Luckily, ‘the golden age’ of TV has come to their rescue. In fact, cable and online programming have been a refuge for talented older (by Hollywood standards) female actors for a while now. The trend started with the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie” (2009-2015), “United States of Tara” (2009-2011) and “The Big C” (2010-2013). This year, ambitious television series starring past ‘it girls’ have been premiering back to back. HBO’s “Big Little Lies” has Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. Netflix’s “Santa Clarita Diet” has Drew Barrymore. These shows have been receiving critical acclaim and good ratings.
The pilot episode of “Feud” features a scene in which Crawford tries to convince Davis to sign the contract for “What Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962). Crawford bluntly states that, at their age, female actors would simply not get cast. Crawford’s statement is confirmed when film executive Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) asks the director of the movie whether he “would you like to f–k them.” This line of thinking is still present in Hollywood, and actors — such as Amy Schumer with her sketch “Last F–kable Day” — often voice their criticism. Classic Hollywood as we know it still has to reply to criticisms, but at least TV offers an alternative career option for older female actors.