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Joan Crawford Researcher Bryan Johnson Talks ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’

For many Old Hollywood fans, Joan Crawford’s face is forever etched into memory. Those large, expressive eyes and pouting lips made her one of the most beautiful women in the world. And her indelible talent enabled her to live with glamour and fervor on the big screen for all to see. As familiar as Crawford’s look and legacy are to film fans everywhere, she has always remained something of enigma.

Despite Crawford’s legendary status, people choose to remember her in fragments: a cold-creamed face, giant shoulder pads, or perhaps a wire-hanger wielding hand. But researcher Bryan Johnson has a different idea in mind.

Bryan Johnson at Joan Crawford’s handprints in Hollywood

Johnson runs The Concluding Chapter of Crawford, a comprehensive online research guide that focuses primarily on Crawford’s life and career post-1960. Through his research, Johnson brings the truth of who Joan Crawford was to the fore by presenting fans with unbiased facts and hard-to-find remnants of Crawford’s last years. Altogether, Johnson’s efforts create a fuller, more human image of the woman so many remember as simply “Mommie Dearest.”

Curious about his take on FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan, I reached out to Johnson to better understand where the series falls on the accuracy scale:

TARA MARTINEZ: You run a website called The Concluding Chapter of Crawford, which is an excellent resource for information about Joan Crawford’s last years. What prompted you to start this project?

BRYAN JOHNSON: I started the website on Joan Crawford’s birthday (March 23rd) 2002 after researching Crawford for about two years. My main area of interest is into Crawford’s life in the 1960s and 1970s, however, there was very little information about Joan Crawford’s life at that time available. I decided to contribute to changing that.

TM: What about Joan Crawford appeals to you most? Why dedicate your time to her and not someone like Bette Davis or Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo?

BJ: Crawford’s determination appeals to me the most. I have researched into other classic Hollywood actors and actresses, however, none of them had the determination and drive that Crawford possessed. Also, Joan Crawford’s life was fascinating. She achieved the “American Dream” by rising to the highest point of her profession, after surviving a very deprived childhood and early life.

TM: What were your initial thoughts when you learned that FX would be creating a series about Crawford’s feud with Bette Davis?

BJ: I was both excited and concerned. Excited that the memory of Joan Crawford is continuing to live on in a new reinvention which is aside from the “Mommie Dearest” image that is out there in the public. Also excited that Crawford would be introduced to an entirely new generation of fans. That is what keeps Joan Crawford immortal. However, I was also concerned if the true essence of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis would be accurately represented on the show.

I would say that with the exception of several factually-inaccurate events and unproven rumors about Joan Crawford making their way into the show, the show has been true to the overall essence of Joan Crawford’s persona, and with a biography-based television show, that’s all you can really ask the filmmakers to do.

TM: Based on your research, where did this feud originate? And how does the real story differ from what we’ve seen on Feud?

BJ: All I can do is offer my opinion, and I believe the true issue between these two people began due to dueling egos. Both actresses were under contract to Warner Bros. during the mid to late 40s, and during that time they must have felt a level of competition with one another for the best film roles. Both were strong-willed, career-driven Aries, and that is going to naturally create a recipe for trouble. However, I do think both women respected each other’s talent and professionalism.

The “feud” didn’t really begin until after the completion of filming What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? Baby Jane was filmed in an extremely short period of time due to its low budget, and both actresses had to be professional and work well together. It was after the film’s release that the actual rivalry began, and again it was due to ego. Crawford resented that she was overlooked during the film’s promotion, and I think it was personal for her being that it was Crawford who originally found the novel of “Baby Jane” and recognized its film potential.

Following the film’s success, both actresses’ egos (and price) rose, and I think to a degree they felt the same euphoria they had felt during their career peaks from years earlier. Unfortunately, that caused a greater chasm between the two women, because they were again competing for the spotlight.

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford | FX

TM: Overall, what has Feud gotten right about Crawford?

BJ: The show has captured the essence of the “feud” between Crawford and Davis. That, I feel they have accomplished. They have also done a fantastic job in the set designs for the show. Many details are very precise in recreating the film sets.

TM: Which aspects of Crawford’s life, career, and temperament has the show gotten wrong?

BJ: The show has displayed Crawford as being more emotionally fragile than I believe she was. Certain scenes come across as portraying Joan as a cry-baby and complainer when that wasn’t the case. Joan was tough, and didn’t sweat the small things. She always remained professional.

One character featured prominently on the show is Joan’s maid “Mamacita.” While the actress portraying her is wonderful, the real Mamacita wasn’t Joan’s assistant and/or caregiver as shown many times on the show. She was strictly Joan’s personal maid whose duties were limited to cleaning, cooking and assisting Joan with tasks such as packing for trips.

I am friends with the real Mamacita’s family, and talk with them from time to time. They are enjoying the show, but insist that it’s not an accurate portrayal of the real woman.

In actuality, the show’s version of “Mamacita” is closer to that of Crawford’s longtime west coast secretary, Betty Barker. Betty Barker was a wonderful lady who was Joan’s full-time secretary from 1955 until Joan’s death in 1977. Joan and Barker were also friends, and had known one another since Barker was 12 years old.

TM: What do you think of Jessica Lange’s portrayal of Crawford?

BJ: I think Jessica Lange is a wonderful actress. She always gives a quality performance. As Crawford, I think she has done the best she can of capturing the essence of Crawford’s persona. According to one of Lange’s interviews, she cited that she couldn’t find an instance of when Crawford wasn’t “on” – and thus making it a challenge to portraying Crawford’s private side. I think Lange rose to the challenge well, and I commend her for her portrayal of Crawford.

 TM: History remembers Crawford quite negatively, largely due to Mommie Dearest. Has Feud changed that narrative at all, in your opinion?

BJ: Yes, definitely! I operate the largest Joan Crawford Facebook page, online Crawford group and Crawford Youtube channel, with a total of nearly 55,000 followers on all, and growing rapidly each day. I have been in awe of the amount of young people and new fans who are joining and discovering the real Joan Crawford. My website is one of the largest Joan Crawford websites and the largest resource of later-day Joan Crawford research in existence. I receive emails daily from new fans who express their newfound love of Crawford. It’s a wonderful thing!

“Mommie Dearest” (the 1981 film) engrained an image of Joan Crawford into the public’s mind which did not exist. Christina Crawford, Joan’s daughter and author of “Mommie Dearest,” cited that the film wasn’t accurate and the portrayal of her mother was totally wrong with many of the more violent scenes exaggerated or inaccurate. The 1981 film is now over 35 years old, and a new generation of fans are discovering Joan Crawford from this alternate, more complimentary source. I think the image that “Mommie Dearest” displayed of Crawford has ran its cycle. The new generation of fans are discovering Joan thanks to Feud and through Crawford’s film work.

TM: Ultimately, what should people take away from Feud and its depiction of Crawford?

I hope viewers are learning that Crawford was a human being, and that she did have her faults in life as everyone does, however, that she was also a kind and generous person who I don’t think will ever fully be understood. Her goal in life was to do her best, and to contribute to her industry and to her fans.

I also hope that viewers walk away from Feud with the understanding that Crawford and Davis were forces to be reckoned with, but to also understand how similar these two people were. In a day when the issue of diversity is prominent in our society, I think it’s also important to remember that being too similar can create an even wider gap of miscommunication.

I think there’s a moral to Crawford and Davis’ feud, and that is to not approach a situation with a superior attitude, but rather to watch, listen and learn together.

TM: If someone wants to learn more about Joan Crawford, where would you encourage them to start?

BJ: My website is a collection of my 15-years worth of research into Joan Crawford’s life after 1960. I think it’s a great testament to Crawford’s final decades. However, I always suggest starting with Joan Crawford’s films. There is probably more truth and understanding of Joan Crawford within her film work than will ever be fully revealed about her private life.

For more information about Bryan or Joan Crawford, be sure to visit The Concluding Chapter of Crawford.

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Tara Martinez
Tara Martinez is a New York-based writer with a passion for pop culture and a penchant for analysis. She frequently covers film, television, and representations of women in the media.