Feud: Bette and Joan

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as feuding Hollywood legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Feud.

Equal billing, darling! I am no one’s support.

What could be more splendid than feuding actors? Aside from pop stars, actors are perhaps the most diva-ish of creatives. Aside, perhaps, from authors….

FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan is currently on UK screens, and I have been nibbling my way through the box set on BBC iPlayer, as if through a box of the richest Belgian chocolates. The mid-century costumes and sets pop with colour, Lange and Sarandon flounce and stomp and glower with gusto, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a wonderfully crisp and zesty layer of camp. And I want every one of Hedda Hopper’s hats for my collection.

Of course, I can’t watch Feud without thinking of Adam and Thomas in the short story “An Actor’s Guide to Romance”, written collaboratively by myself and Catherine Curzon.

There’s something fun about a theatrical feud – even if it’s not always that fun for the players involved, though one suspects that anyone whose profession is performance cannot but resist bringing some drama off-stage. A melodramatic flounce through the theatre bar after a performance, a sulk in the Green Room, a battle for parts and plaudits.

Back when I acted in Little Theatre am-dram, I was on the cast of a panto which included a couple who had the most wonderfully camp battles of wits. On one occasion, the entire female cast was in the dressing room loos, ears pressed to the wall to hear the fantastic Adam-and-Thomas-like war of words that was raging in the men’s dressing room.

As if projecting to the gods, loud and clear through the breezeblocks and mortar, we heard the immortal words,

And I don’t know why you’re bothering to wear your toupĂ©e under your periwig, darling – it’s not as if anyone’s been fooled into thinking you still have a full head of hair!


While this is of course amusing to witness, I mustn’t laugh too much as I have had my own fair share of diva moments over the years. I was once in a band, and every soundcheck before a gig nearly resulted in us splitting up. But that experience at least gives me an idea as to why creative people are divas.

If you’re about to stand up to perform in front of a room full of people (or display a painting, or unleash a book), there is an incredible amount of pressure on you not to mess up. Adrenaline courses through your veins and sometimes it’s difficult to rein the worst of yourself in; the monster who resides in us all. Channeling that anxiety into your performance is perhaps the healthiest way to make use of that energy, of course, rather than have a meltdown at a fellow performer, or flounce away in a pique, no matter how tempting it might be at the time.

Thomas and Adam’s rivalry hides something else and, unlike Bette and Joan, they can work through their sparking clash in a manner that Bette and Joan wouldn’t. Thomas and Adam, after all, are the heroes of a romance and (I doubt this needs a spoiler warning…), like Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick, at the root of their sparring is a love that they have been too proud to face.