Career Adjustments

A new television series, “Feud,” starts its first season with an examination of the challenges faced by two aging movie stars. Bette Davis is played by Susan Sarandon and Joan Crawford is played by Jessica Lange. The result is a stunning example of art imitating life. As aging actresses play two aging actresses from a generation before, a bright light is shined on the ageism that still exists in Hollywood.

The opening episode of “Feud” finds Joan and Bette struggling to find good roles. They finally agree to take unattractive parts in a horror film, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” This seems their only choice despite both women having successful leading lady careers—Joan’s starting in the 1920s and Bette’s in the 1930s. By the 1960s, these women were reduced to accepting roles in horror films in order to keep working.

I have to admit, when “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” came out in 1962, it was my introduction to Bette Davis, and was the reason I saw “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” in 1964. I loved her in both movies and assumed she’d always done horror flicks. Only years later did I discovered her rich, glamorous film career.

After meeting Joan Crawford through “Baby Jane,” the next films with her that I went to were the 1965 “I Saw What You Did” and 1967’s “Berserk.” Again, I was totally unaware of her long career as a tough leading lady.

Was it courage that moved these women to take less-than-attractive roles in horror films late in their careers? Was it a compelling need to keep working at their craft? What about the actresses who are portraying them? Is horror the only future for Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange?

Lange, after her iconic role in “King Kong” and a sizzling part in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” more recently has been a part of the popular TV show “American Horror Story.” She may be following in footsteps of Joan Crawford.

Sarandon will always be remembered for her roles in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Bull Durham,” and the stand out classic, “Thelma and Louise.” With more than three times as many film and television roles as Lange, even when she plays a grandmother, Sarandon continues to show sexy doesn’t disappear with age. She may be bucking the trend.

The first season of “Feud” is a promising look at how age worked against big stars and how they used their age to keep themselves working. Why is this such a non-issue for male actors?

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