When you take two of today’s most admired actresses and cast them in brief but crucial roles as – surprise – two of the most admired actresses of their respective generations, what do you get? Two of Feud‘s most inspired more-than-cameos from Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sarah Paulson, natch.

Zeta-Jones tells Mashable she had enormous respect for British actress Olivia de Havilland, one of the most glamorous and talented actresses of the ‘30s and ‘40s, who is still remembered today for her star-making roles as Maid Marian, in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Melanie Wilkes, well-mannered rival to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind —  not to mention her Oscar-winning turns in 1946’s To Each His Own and 1949’s The Heiress

Zeta-Jones notes that, despite the competitive fractions that were all too common – and encouraged – between many of the leading ladies of the era, de Havilland and Bette Davis bonded quickly and became extremely close. 

“It was Bette who became a friend to Olivia, first,” says the actress. “Olivia had a touch of royalty. She was an ex-pat; she had an exotic air – she was born in Tokyo, but she lived here. She started doing Shakespeare in upstate California; she was certainly not found having a popsicle at the diner. Her name alone — de Havilland!”

“Bette saw that she was more than a pretty face very early on and Olivia never forgot that and they became friends,” adds Zeta-Jones. “I think Bette wasn’t threatened by Olivia and Olivia wasn’t threatened by Bette. It was a great dynamic they had and they respected each other for that.”

“She’s a woman who didn’t take a lot of BS at the time and who left [Hollywood] of her own accord,” Zeta-Jones says of de Havilland, noting that when the actress had fulfilled her seven-year contract to Warner Bros and the studio tried to forcibly extend her commitment, she filed suit and won an important legal victory for all actors that is still enforced today. 

Despite a two-year virtual blacklisting in Hollywood, when she returned to the screen  de Havilland quickly reclaimed her box office clout and critical accolades, before retreating to a quieter, semi-retired life in France, taking occasional roles – as when she stepped into help Davis save 1964’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte after Joan Crawford’s acrimonious departure. 

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Susan Sarandon

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Susan Sarandon

“She was very happy to go out to France, to Europe,” says Zeta-Jones. “She wanted real stuff in her life. She went up against the studio heads. You don’t do that now, but to do that then, when they were literally pawns in the chess game of Hollywood, the women – she was tough! If a woman can live into her hundredth year, she must have been a lot tougher than [people thought].” 

De Havilland celebrated her 100th birthday in 2016 and remains a living link to Hollywood’s Golden Age – much like Zeta-Jones’ father-in-law, Kirk Douglas, whom the actress says has schooled her on the close-knit friendships of many Golden Age stars. 

“There were a lot of really true friendships then,” says Zeta-Jones. “My father-in-law had good relationships with a lot of actors: Tony Quinn, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra – really good friendships. Women of that time were always, in the press, made to look like they were feuding; bitching. I found that a lot of strong friendships were made in those studio system years. It was like all the women were vying for the better roles; vying for the popularity contest, but they knew that they had to have each others’ backs.”

Emerging a generation after de Havilland to become one of the most revered actresses of her own generation, Geraldine Page respected the value of professional camaraderie among actresses by the time she encountered the more manipulative Joan Crawford in 1963 and agreed to, in necessary absentia, let Crawford accept her Academy Award for Best Actress for Sweet Bird of Youth if she won — a role she originated on Broadway and which provided the second of eight career nominations.

“You don’t become an actress and not know about the genius that is Geraldine Page,” says Paulson, who played Page in Episode 5, set at the Academy Awards. 

Paulson dove into her research on Page: the Lee Strasberg-trained actress was a stage sensation during her formative years in the 1950s, starring in productions of playwright N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker and Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke and Sweet Bird of Youth, which also led to her first Tony nomination. 

While she remained a huge stage attraction throughout her career, Page also scored many Hollywood roles – including Hondo, Toys In the Attic, Pete ‘N’ Tillie, Interiors and A Trip to Bountiful, for which she finally claimed an Oscar, two years before her death in 1987.

“I know a lot of people from New York in the theater community who told me a lot of things about her that were utterly useless to me in what was required of me in this part, in terms of what I was having to do,” admits Paulson. “I was serving a bigger picture story of Joan’s and her need, so it wasn’t about Geraldine. So some of the information I had gathered, I had to kind of chuck out, because it wasn’t really about that.”

Paulson adds that she’s itching to reprise the role, should opportunity knock: “Boy, would I long to play her in a really larger fashion! She’s a fascinating woman, and an extraordinary actress, and a very proper human being… I want a whole Feud about Geraldine Page and whomever she’s feuding with, but I don’t know who she’s feuding with!”

Unlike Page, de Havilland did have a public personal and professional feud of her own, as hinted at during the course of the series: a longstanding and often bitter rivalry with her only sibling, actress Joan Fontaine, who was also a Best Actress Oscar winner – a contentious relationship that Zeta-Jones suggests was likely exacerbated by Hollywood.

“Even today, people will say what a tough business we’re in,” she says. “But back then it was really tough, and really tough for women. And it was a popularity contest, where if you were in, you were in with the studio behind you. And they showed you in a wonderful light. And if you were out, you could be ostracized and kicked out of town, like the Blacklist. It was a real tough time.”

Zeta-Jones admits that she was oblivious to the politics of the studio system when she started out. “Myself, growing up – I didn’t know. It always sounded wonderful. I knew I wanted to be part of it. I came to Hollywood at my time; a different generation, and it’s not as glamorous. It’s not all autographs and sunglasses, as they say. It’s sad: women in Hollywood are still having a tougher go at it than men. It’s changed somewhat, but it’s still baby steps in the whole bigger spectrum of it all.”

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