On Feud Alfred Molina’s Robert Aldrich is a man in the midst of a dubious balancing act. As the director of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, he’s both trying to keep his warring leading ladies happy while undermining them for what he thinks is the success of the film. He wants to be a good husband, but is also having affairs. Which brings us to Sunday’s episode. He rebuffs Joan Crawford’s (Jessica Lange) advances, but ends up consoling Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) late one night after her daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) insults her and leaves home. Their commiseration turns into an exchange of compliments and they land in a kiss. The rest is just implied.
Molina plays Aldrich with a beleaguered air, allowing him to be both fundamentally decent without letting him off the hook for his perhaps unintentionally malevolent actions. The A.V. Club spoke with him about the part and the most recent installment.
The A.V. Club: How did you prepare for the role?
Alfred Molina: I watched as many of his movies as I could and there were two books that were available, which were kind of analytical studies of his movies. One of them, which is very interesting, is a collection of all the major interviews that he gave throughout his life as a filmmaker. It was interesting to track through those interviews to see what he thought of a particular movie immediately after making it and what he thought about it 25 years later.
He was very very discreet about the whole issue between Joan and Bette during the making of Baby Jane. I saw lots and lots of photographs and some first-hand accounts of what it was like to work with him and so on. The impression I got was that he was very typical of men in [his] generation, men who had been through the war. He came from quite a privileged background. He was related to the Rockefellers. He had a relative who was a senator. He sort of bucked the trend in a sense and instead of taking advantage of his family connections he ended up in Hollywood working in the mailroom at a studio and then just kind of worked his way up through the industry.
He was very much a man of his time in the sense that, as men did in those days, he took a lot of things for granted. One of them being a sense that hard work and focusing on exactly what you wanted would get you there. Throughout his life he seems to have been willing to sacrifice a lot of things for the work and for the sake of getting the movie made: his marriage, his relationship with his kids, his relationship with friends. Toward the end of his life he seemed very honest about those things, he didn’t try and pretend that they hadn’t happened. He didn’t try to sugarcoat anything. He said, “Yeah, I made movies and that cost me a lot.” I got the feeling of a man who was very single-minded and he really just wanted to get the movie made. I think that was the overriding thing that I came away with.
AVC: Why do you think Feud included a sexual relationship between Aldrich and Bette Davis?
AM: There was sufficient evidence to suggest that he did have an affair with Bette Davis. Not including the fact that Joan Crawford herself stated quite emphatically that she believed they were having an affair because she told a story about phoning Robert late at night to discuss something to do with the script and hearing Bette in the background shouting, “Hang up the phone, hang up the phone.” I think there’s enough of a suggestion to justify it.
I think what’s more important is that this was a man who was willing to do almost anything to save his movie. He had been friends with both those women at different times in his life. I think sex is very much part of the currency of relationships and trying to save a situation. I think his priority was always to get the movie made, get the movie finished. He was desperate, in a way much more desperate than they were. Joan and Bette, regardless of whether those movies were made, were still stars. Whereas the industry had very much forgotten Robert Aldrich. He had made two or three flops, one after another. He couldn’t raise money anywhere until he finally found What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? thanks to Joan Crawford. Obviously the rest was history.
There’s a much deeper, more painful story going on, which is not so much whether or not Robert had affairs with these two women, but how the industry was treating these women. By putting the spotlight on that I think the show kind of illuminates the way women are still being treated by the industry and how our language has changed and our vocabulary has changed but really very little has changed for women in show business in terms of disparity in pay scales, what’s acceptable for women to have to do in movies as opposed to what’s acceptable for men. All the things that are brought up in Feud in terms of how unfair it is for women are still happening and I think that’s really kind of why those scenes were included.
AVC: As opposed to the portrayal of Jack Warner [Stanley Tucci] who is outwardly crude and piggish, Bob is appearing to be a friend to both of these women. But he’s also playing into the sexist system. How did you approach that?
AM: Of course, absolutely. He was morally conflicted, but he was also morally complicit in the sense that he found it very uncomfortable to stoke the fires of this feud between Bette and Joan but he still did it. The paradox, of course, is that he was also a victim, in a sense, of that system. He was at the beck and call of his paymasters as well as they were.
AVC: He comes from this place of privilege as a man but, you said that Davis and Crawford would always be stars and he was looking out for his career.
AM: Absolutely. It’s still male privilege no matter how you slice it. He’s still the beneficiary of male privilege. I think what makes it so interesting from a storytelling point is just how complicated these things are. There’s nothing cut and dry and absolute in any of these relationships. [Fear] I think is the overarching theme throughout the story. I think Bob’s fear was also about being forgotten about being unemployable about being no longer a valid or current or valued voice in the industry. He went on to enjoy a career well into the ’70s. He carried on making films that made money. But no one speaks about Aldrich in the same breath as we speak about Raoul Walsh or John Ford or John Huston, all of his contemporaries who we kind of revered now. Aldrich is very rarely mentioned in those lists. I think part of that was the fact that he was a survivor in a sense. He made movies in practically every genre: horror movies, Westerns, gangster films, war movies, romantic comedies, action films. I think what’s most interesting about what we’re doing in Feud is by spotlighting how things were then is we’re also kind of building a bridge to understand how things are now.
AVC: What did you glean watching his films? What do you bring to your portrayal from that breadth of genre?
AM: I think he was very much a technician. I don’t mean that in any disparaging way. He was a craftsman. I don’t think he viewed himself necessary as an artist. I think he spent too long in the industry and had started way too low in the food chain to think of himself as an artist. He knew the industry very much from a craft-person’s point of view. I think that was his great strength as a filmmaker—I think it was in a sense what kept him in this box of being a journeyman. He was very much in the studio system.
It was, I think, a little bit like the bad old days of TV, where you have to crank it out. And even though you have a shitty show you still have to crank out 22 episodes a season and you knew there were certain directors that could do that without too much finesse, who didn’t take too much time. That was very much the kind of world that he was forced into. He had a much more vivid and a much more creative vision for films than that, and when he had the chance to make those films with more of a creative vision he made them, Baby Jane being one of them. It was partly way the industry viewed him, but also partly the way he viewed himself. His process seemed to be keep working, keep making films, just make movies. Don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring, get out and find a product and make it. I think that gave his films an urgency and a kind of practicality that shines through.
AVC: You have these two parallel scenes in the second episode: One with Jessica Lange as Joan trying to draw him into a relationship and the other which seems to emerge more organically with Susan Sarandon as Bette. Can you talk a little bit about playing those? What did you want to convey in them and what was it like from your perspective?
AM: It was fantastic to work so closely and so tightly with these two wonderful actresses. It was very interesting to see how different they were in the way they approached their scenes. So that was really really fascinating. Also I was struck by how good the writing was. In a sense we had to do very little, really. I know that sort of sounds like a disingenuous thing to say. The writing is so clear and what each of these characters needed was so clear that in a sense you just have to be sure to get out of your own way. And when you’re working with people like Susan and Jessica, who come with the most extraordinary amount of experience, the most extraordinary amount of understanding of how film works—and I’ve done a few movies myself—so we were all sort of speaking the same language. And that makes for a very pleasant, a very productive workplace.
AVC: What surprised you about their different approaches?
AM: It wasn’t a question of one being better than the other or anything like that. It’s about working at a different speed perhaps or shifting a gear at different times. It’s the difference between actors who like to keep the atmosphere active and actors who like to work with an atmosphere that’s a little more quiet, a little more concentrated. What united us all I think particularly with Susan and Jessica was you could see that they have real respect for the material and a great deal of respect for Ryan [Murphy] and for the directors that [we] were working with.
They are both iconic women and they are playing women who were equally iconic. I can’t speak for them, obviously, but I can imagine that that must feel like quite a responsibility. I certainly felt a responsibility toward Robert, so I can understand a little bit of what it must have felt like for them. They carried that responsibility with such grace and such energy and commitment that it was just wonderful to watch.