Catfight on the Set! Why a Juicy Feud Among Women Remains an Irresistible Hollywood Story

From Bette and Joan to whatever happened behind the scenes of Empire and all the legends and rumors in between, it's still too easy to believe that most women don't get along with each other

By Natalie Finn Apr 13, 2017 4:45 PMTags
Female FeudsE! Illustration

Ryan Murphy deciding to delve into the tortured relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford might have seemed random at first glance.

But really, he could've pitched that idea any time—next month, 10 years ago, 10 years from now—and been perfectly in sync with what audiences are always in the mood to see.

There's just something about two (or more) women at odds with each other that proves irresistible every time. The interest—revived for some but new to most—in a 55-year-old beef between Crawford and Davis, brought back to life on Murphy's Feud via Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, is actually just a fresh chapter in a book that's only going to get longer.

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Feud in its entirety shines a spotlight on what women—particularly ones of a certain age—were dealing with in 1960s Hollywood (which is what they dealt with in 1950s-era Hollywood, and '40s-era, etc.). And while there was animosity between Davis and Crawford, both two of the biggest stars of their "day" and forever linked to the golden age of movie making, the series points out how much insecurity and fear of becoming completely irrelevant was driving both of them.

Davis was only 12 years removed from starring in All About Eve, still one of the greatest movies of all time, when she shot Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the title itself an eerie allusion in hindsight for both of its Oscar-winning leading ladies. Davis was also only 54 in 1962 and Crawford was 56; considering Meryl Streep is 67 and upon her head still sits the crown, we can all be glad this is a different time.

But what hasn't changed a whit is the unmistakable tendency to pit women against each other—however loosely based in fact.

Fact-Checking Feud: Bette and Joan Episode 6: Did Joan Crawford Have a Secret Porn Past?!

However, we're not going to say that women don't feud or that they don't feud more than men—although the interest in lady feuds is so out-sized, who knows how many man feuds we've missed out on? And with regard to how much men don't get along with each other, women tend to spar more emotionally, purposefully and/or ostentatiously—therefore word might get around more when it does happen.

Yet there's a sociological explanation for women stealing all the thunder when it comes to reports of disquiet on the set. 

Every Hollywood set, every office, every classroom, every business opportunity, every voting booth is a place that had to evolve from its beginnings as being the domain of men. Women worked their way into places of power eventually but painstakingly, so the idea that there were fewer opportunities for women and therefore a greater need to elbow each other out of the way was an unfortunate mythos that took hold eons ago.

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So, instead of the propping each other up that's all the rage now, and that has historically been the bedrock of the most important social movements over the years, women were once mainly shoehorned into being competitive and suspicious of each other.

And that's the deep-rooted culture that every woman has been born into since, though it's less likely now that it will actually color her interactions with her fellow females in that way. The confidence to have each other's backs and be more appreciative of each other's gifts is, slowly but surely, becoming the norm.

But while the realization that women are stronger together is increasingly more prevalent, that hasn't ended the fascination with women fighting with each other, whether it's Bette vs. Joan or Nicki Minaj vs. Remy Ma.

There's the prurient allure of the catfight in some cases, the stereotypical male fantasy that two women are going to get so incensed with each other that they start rolling around and clawing each other's clothes off.

But with full-on physical throw-downs not all that likely outside of a "reality" show or a soap opera, it's apparently still just that easy to believe that women don't get along—or that if they do have a momentary spat, that it means they actually have an intense dislike for each other.

No woman can just get angry and then get over it, right? As if men have cornered the market on such enlightenment.

A relatively few amount of times the animosity has been real. For instance, Shannen Doherty and Jennie Garth had some rough moments on the set of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Tori Spelling did admit years later to encouraging dad Aaron Spelling to fire Shannen, confirming decades of speculation. Alas, the "difficult" tag that's so tough for a woman to shed stuck to Doherty, clouding her years on Charmed, too.


Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey weren't exactly buds on American Idol. Nicollette Sheridan once called Desperate Housewives co-star Teri Hatcher "the meanest woman in the world." As most people could easily discern every morning, there was also no love lost between Rosie O'Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck on The View. In fact, what is The View, after all, without the ever-present stories about how the hosts actually can't stand each other?!

But it's always the same examples of co-star tensions being recycled time and again that have been more than enough to fuel rumors about other feuds that ended up being as real as Jimmy Kimmel having daggers for Matt Damon.

Some recent hearsay that fizzled on arrival was a rather ironic report that Reese Witherspoon was "furious" at Big Little Lies co-star and co-producer Nicole Kidman for not doing enough to promote the limited series, in which they played best friends and which recently concluded its gripping run on HBO. Considering the bond they formed last summer while shooting the lavish murder mystery and how much the Oscar winners at least seemed to revere each other...

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/courtesy of HBO

It was no surprise when E! News heard the tale was completely bogus, and Witherspoon's rep called it "ridiculous, completely fabricated and untrue."

The denial trifecta.

"We didn't know each other very well before we started but I just always...I always looked up to you," Reese told Nicole in February when they sat down to interview each other for ABC News. "You're such an incredible actress."

Kidman replied, "I call myself your big sister now." The Australian star added, "I'd never had the experience of working with another woman so closely that I got to call you and say, 'What do you think I should do with this character? I don't like this scene and I don't know how to play this.'"

Now, Kidman has been making movies for more than 25 years, so to say she's never worked with another woman that closely on a project is actually quite the revelation—one that illustrates why it isn't yet the norm to show up on set and be surrounded by female mentors or even peers, perhaps upping the possibility of certain stars jostling for the spotlight.

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And this BTS plot point is hardly limited to limited series. 

After TMZ reported last month that Nia Long and Taraji P. Henson were "at each other's throats" on the set of Empire, Long's rep denied that anything was off between the actresses, calling the story nothing but "another complete fabrication about a series that has been plagued by constant rumors of drama and misconduct."

A source told E! News, however, that the tension was real, and had occurred because Long had showed up this past season "with her own ideas" about her place in the Empire hierarchy, and Henson wasn't having that. The insider said that they "argued pretty badly in front of everyone" on the last day of filming after Long, who had finished shooting her scenes, returned to the set and found that her trailer had been redecorated for a Make-A-Wish event.


As for those "constant rumors of drama and misconduct," who wants to bet that Nia v. Taraji becomes one of the more lasting headlines to arise from Empire, even if they've hugged and made up since then?

Archie Panjabi insisted it wasn't an issue with Julianna Margulies that kept her from actually sharing the frame with her during their final scene "together" on The Good Wife. And Margulies told Vulture months after the fact, "I feel people just like to have gossip or make something into something that isn't there. There's no animosity on my part. It's a shame, because I wonder if it was two men, when one finds out that he f--ked his best friend's wife [like the actress' characters on the show], if it would get that same attention, you know what I mean?"

As Ryan Murphy pointed out to E! News just last month, when asked about the infamous feud rumors regarding Lea Michele and Naya Rivera on Glee: "There were many boys on our show that didn't get along. And you never hear about that. You never hear about that in our culture."

Before the season had even aired, Tyra Banks was shooting down rumors that she and judge Chrissy Teigen had issues shooting America's Next Top Model in 2015, calling the story "ridiculous."

"I'm the executive producer of the show and I chose Chrissy and everybody else to be on the show," she told E! News, "so I don't, like, beef with people that I choose. That doesn't make sense!"

"That was so long ago, I can't believe people still make such a big deal out of it!" Jennifer Lopez marveled on Watch What Happens Live last year when Andy Cohen inquired about Mariah Carey claiming not to know who she was more than a decade beforehand.

But nothing burns hot for years at a time like the idea of a couple of famous women seething and furiously glancing over their shoulders behind the scenes.

Hearkening back to a...well, to a similar time, Susan Sarandon—who definitively channeled the put-upon Bette Davis, surely with the help of some of her own veteran star perspective, in Feud—just last week tweeted about a decades-old rumor regarding her and Julia Roberts.

The two played ex-wife and new wife, respectively, in the 1998 dramedy Stepmom, remember?

"Press printed that Julia & I hated each other during Stepmom," Sarandon wrote. "Found out it was my PR person creating rumors. #FeudFX."

She linked to an article about the Oscar winners' supposed beef from that November, in which she told Entertainment Weekly, "If you make a movie with a male star, everyone assumes you're f--king. If it's a female star, everyone assumes you're fighting."

So inspiring to see how much progress Hollywood has made since.

(Originally published March 27, 2017, at 5 a.m. PT)