[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers about Sunday's episode of Feud: Bette and Joan, but really, Oscar history. Read at your own risk.]
What ever happened at the 35th Academy Awards? Lawrence of Arabia won seven statuettes, 16-year-old Patty Duke became the youngest winner at the time, and Joan Crawford did something that Feud: Bette and Joan creator Ryan Murphy can only describe as "so batsh-- crazy."
Really, it is the type of thing that is too good to be true. Crawford was not nominated for Best Actress for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but her career-long rival Bette Davis was shortlisted for her performance in the camp classic that injected some life into the aging titans' stagnating careers. Unsatisfied to merely campaign against Davis, Crawford offered to accept the award on behalf of the other nominees should they win (hard to believe now, but no-shows were very common back in the day). Anne Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker and onto the stage strutted Crawford to pick up the golden guy Davis — who was aiming to become the first actress to win three Oscars — had believed was hers.
It's insane, diabolical, petty, amusing, tragic and strikingly dramatized in Sunday's episode of Feud, which aired almost 54 years to the day of the April 8, 1963, ceremony. Murphy, a lifelong Oscars fan who interviewed Davis shortly before her death in 1989, recreated the night with painstaking detail, from Crawford's (Jessica Lange) takeover of the green room (yes, that did happen) to her "silver Oscar" dress, and added some flourish of his own: a mesmerizing tracking shot of Crawford leading Best Director winner David Lean through the backstage maze (see above). It snakes all the way around, bringing Crawford to stage left, where Davis (Susan Sarandon) is about to get her heart broken by the Academy and then thoroughly crushed and stomped on by Crawford.
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It's not just about losing a trophy, but what it represents: relevance, potential, a chance to stay in the game that had prematurely put her on the sidelines. Crawford's surrogate big night (yes, she did hog the winners' photo shoot) was a temporarily respite from the same cold, hard truth. There were no winners (well, except for Bancroft).
Below, Murphy, who wrote and directed the episode, discusses the great lengths he and his team went to in order to recreate the ceremony without help from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, what Davis herself told him about that night and her loss, and what to expect from the final three episodes.
I'm a huge Oscar nerd, so I loved this episode. Did you plan from the beginning to devote a whole episode to the Oscars?
Ryan Murphy: I love this one too. I did know. Once we decided to do this and I got the green light, we worked out the different parts of their feud, and this was always the midway part of it. I've always been interested in Old Hollywood and the old Academy Awards at the time where it did seem to be much more of a party. Once we decided to do it, we decided to do it as a true love letter to the Oscars. We budgeted extra money to make sure that all the extra details were super authentic. I've always loved reading about that particular year in Oscar history because I thought that what Joan Crawford did was so batsh-- crazy.
Do you remember when you first found out what she did?
Murphy: I guess I always grew up with that story. I guess my grandmother would tell me about it, and there was this wonderful book called Inside Oscar.
I have the same book. Both editions.
Murphy: Yeah, isn't it great? It was always my favorite chapter in that book. Maybe [it's because] the authors, who I later got to know, wrote that chapter with such glee and excitement. You could feel their love of it, so that was sort of infectious and contagious. And also, I got to interview Bette Davis at the end of her life. She spent a lot of time with me and this was one of the things she talked about a lot — her pain of it. She only found out later what Crawford had done. She thought for sure she would've won had it not been for that. That had always interested me.
But when we started writing the episode, the thing I realized I needed to do was contextualize Joan Crawford's mania and her Machiavellian-ness about it all. Jessica and I worked really hard on humanizing her and trying to ask the right questions. Like, what was the pain underneath this incredible act of derring-do that she did? That was another thing I wanted to explore.
She says her confidence got zapped when she didn't get the nomination. She didn't care if she didn't get more work had she gotten nominated.
Murphy: Yeah, and that's true because she always felt [she was] in Bette Davis' shadow. Even when they were making the movie, Jack Warner told Joan that she wasn't as good of an actress as Bette Davis. She had one Oscar and I think she wanted another. And Bette wanted one for two reasons: to be first actress in history to get a third, and the thing they had in common was that if they had gotten a nomination or won, that would add years more to their careers because they would be seen as actors living in the present, not relics. It was all very convoluted and emotional for a lot of reasons and I liked exploring that and writing that.
How did you go about recreating the night? Did you get help from the Academy?
Murphy: Once we were green-lit, the first thing I said to all my department heads, who did such an amazing job — Judy Becker, our production designer, Lou Eyrich, our costume designer, Leo Bauer, my first AD, and Nelson Cragg, my DP — I said, "Let's research the hell out of this because I want to be absolutely pinpoint perfect," so we did. The Academy doesn't give permission for this type of stuff. We had a research group dedicated only to that night. We pulled hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs and looked at a lot of video. We made our own Oscars and then destroyed them all when we were done. And then we found out the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was open. We were thrilled we were going to be able to shoot it where they held it.
Then we showed up and it was like, "Uh-oh," because they had ripped almost all of that period stuff out. So then there was talk of doing it somewhere else that was more period, but I wanted to keep it there, so I said, "No, we're just going to rebuild it." And that's what we did. We rebuilt a lot of the outsides and the landscapes. What we couldn't build we added with CGI. We built a large part of the auditorium and the seating.
The tracking shot is fantastic. How did that come about?
Murphy: In the script I wrote this big, long Steadicam tracking shot. What I really wanted to do was give people like, "OK, so this is what it's like to be backstage." I wanted there to be a voyeuristic element to it. And then when we went to scout, we realized so much of the backstage had been torn out. Judy, our production designer, estimated that only 20 percent of what was there remains. Then we decided to rebuild that. We don't have as many photographs of the backstage area as we do the actual ceremony, but we built all those rooms and we spent a few days choreographing it. There were hundreds of extras and everyone had to know exactly when to move. It was very exact. We got it on the fourth take. There were no cuts.
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That shot really synthesized Joan's need to be top dog. She just took over and was practically running things. It was her night.
Murphy: Yeah, I loved all that. I think that episode in particular is in the details. I think so many people love and know the Academy Awards and you can YouTube everything now, so we just worked really hard on that episode to make sure it was as spot on as we could make it. We copied all those costumes to a T.
Joan's gown was identical.
Murphy: And that gown was a nightmare for Jessica because the gown weighed 40-to-50 pounds, so she kept pulling her back out when she would wear it. And she kept saying, "Oh God, don't make me put that on again." I'm like, "You gotta do it! Joan did it!" [Laughs] But all of that stuff about Joan dressing as a silver Oscar — I was ultimately really moved by it. I was really moved by her desperation to still stay in the game and still show in some way to Bette Davis that she was her equal.
By some accounts, Bette and Joan were in separate dressing rooms when Best Actress was announced. Obviously it makes for more tension to have them right next to each other, and that moment is so great when it's announced — utter shock and devastation on one side and devilish glee on the other. How did you land on shooting that?
Murphy: They did have separate dressing rooms, but that moment was one we researched very heavily. When was Bette backstage? Where was she when they were doing her category because she had just given an award, as had Joan Crawford? That stuff I loved from Inside Oscar, where [it says] Joan Crawford just walks past Bette in the wings. ... There were so many accounts of it too. That's been the amazing thing about this show. There is the Joan Crawford account, the Bette Davis account, their friends' accounts. And where do they [cross paths]? We tried to be responsible. I think that moment of her breezing by is very emotionally true to what Bette Davis felt and specifically what she told me. That was her recollection of the night. She was standing there, she was shocked, she felt like she was punched in the gut. Susan and I talked about that, and then Joan breezes by.
I love the real footage of Joan walking to the stage and you see her sort of biting her lip, trying to hold back a smile, but it comes out. She was so happy, like she won it herself.
Murphy: [Laughs] Yeah! She was so happy. If Bette Davis had won, I think Joan Crawford would've felt very humiliated and very diminished, and also that she had lost in a way. And she did work so hard on convincing the other nominees that if they weren't there, she could accept it. I do think, of all of the moments on the show, this is the one that is the most devastating. And you just wish that both of those women had not had that experience together.
Do you think because Bette wanted to win so badly that she couldn't be objective to see that maybe she wasn't the favorite or at least there might be a good chance she could lose? She lost the Golden Globe to Geraldine Page. Anne Bancroft had won the Tony over Geraldine for the same roles and back then a lot of actors won Oscars for reprising their stage roles. From your conversations, was she absolutely convinced she was going to get it?
Murphy: I think that was a very weird year. I mean, there are newsreels and press accounts of people saying, "The one to beat is Bette Davis!" I think the perception was that the town had rallied for her, and after her nomination, even though other actresses that year had certainly won other awards, I think when we got close to the Oscars, she was favored.
More than that, what I found interesting, she was convinced she was going to win. That's what she told me. She told me she was convinced she was going to win and she did give interviews the night of and the weeks leading up to it [saying], "I'm not proud to say this, but I want to win. It's important to me." In her campaigning, she used the idea that she'd be the first [actress] to win three and that she was Hollywood royalty. I think the press was writing that. Whether it was a La La Land/Moonlight thing, where everybody was writing La La Land would win and then Moonlight won, I don't know.
And it could've been a make-up win for All About Eve.
Murphy: Yes, exactly. She certainly played that up too. She told me that was the most shocked moment of her life, that she was so convinced she was going to win it that when they were announcing the nominees, she was straightening her dress because she thought she was going to sail out and get it. A lot of that perspective — who was favored, who was not favored — some of that she definitely told me about. I was moved by it. I thought to dramatize that too — everybody could relate to when you think you got something in the bag, be it a love or an award or a job interview or something. That is the universal moment I wanted to lay into. But I've read weird accounts from that year that at the beginning of the race and the nomination period, a lot of people thought Geraldine Page would win. And as you know, it took many more nominations for Geraldine Page to finally win [for The Trip to Bountiful]. [Laughs]
And another 23 years.
Murphy: Yeah! And Jessica Lange was in the race that year [for Sweet Dreams]. It was always so meta. That was all something we talked about a lot. But I loved that Bette wanted it. Olivia de Havilland was also quoted heavily saying, "Bette is the greatest. The industry owes her this." That's an actual quote. She said that in many interviews. I think when you had a lot of the old-timers like Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas who were publicly saying that Bette Davis deserved to get it, that was what we drew upon.
Is it true that Bette slept with her Oscars every night that the gold plating fell off?
Murphy: She told me that. That was an interesting moment when I interviewed her. The first thing she said to me was, "Do you want to see and hold my Oscars?" And I was a young kid, like, "Yeah! I do!" So she took me back to her office in her bedroom and that's how they looked. I said, "It looks like some of the gold plating has worn off on this one. Are you going to get it replaced?" And she said, "No, I like it that way." I said, "Why? What happened? Is it not real gold?" And she said, "I hold it at night sometimes while I watch television. It's like my little pet."
And then she told me the story of when she won — that stuff that Susan says is verbatim, that it was the one moment that night she felt loved. And that's why it was so important to her and why she wanted to win another one. And she actually did say [to her Oscars] that night, "I'm bringing you home a baby brother." All of that stuff she did. That was what was fun for me — to use moments from my personal Bette experience. It was something I didn't really talk about in the piece I did on her, but I got to put it in the scripts.
It's illuminating too because now people try to downplay that. They demure, "It's an honor just to be nominated," they act like they don't really care, but ultimately they really do care. But you can't show you care too much.
Murphy: Yeah, I admire Bette Davis for saying that. I remember when Shirley MacLaine won for Terms of Endearment and she said, "I deserve this," and she got a huge laugh. I think moments like that are refreshing, but it's a tricky slope because you don't want people to feel like you're campaigning or that you want it too much because then they might deny you because they know how much you want it. And she says that in the show, "To want and care about something this much, I feel like a fool." She felt that.
When Geraldine Page (Sarah Paulson) and Anne Bancroft (Serinda Swan) agree to let Joan accept for her, they seemingly do it out of pity — "She needs it. Hollywood should be forced to look at what they've done to her," "Would it make you happy?" It's very sad but also supportive. How important was it to show that there was this awareness from her peers?
Murphy: It was very important. I work with a lot of actresses and the myth of all actresses backstabbing each other and catfighting, in my experience, has never been true. They all know it's a tough business. For the most part, they do celebrate each other's successes. My jumping-off point was that Joan had written that Anne Bancroft had said to her, "You were really great in that movie. It was a really hard part because you were the straight man, but I really admire what you did." And Joan Crawford was so moved by that, maybe because it was the first time someone had told her she was good in the movie because she didn't get the reviews Bette did. And I like showing women supporting women. I like that Olivia de Havilland — yes, she came over to present Best Picture that year — but she was very supportive of Bette.
The other thing I like showing is the generational shift. Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Page were two actresses that didn't come up in the studio system. ... They were following their own instincts as artists and I think, based on what I've read in my research on Page and Bancroft, they were moved by Joan Crawford's desperate need to stay in the game in a kind way. And I like showing that kindness. What Joan did was not kind — it was from a place of pain — so I wanted to show the full emotional spectrum and I do think that actresses for the most part support each other. I can only tell you, with Feud and Big Little Lies being on Sunday nights, we're all such big fans of one another. I call them, I write them, they call them, they talk to Jessica and Susan and Reese [Witherspoon] and Nicole [Kidman]. They're really fans of each other's work. That's the spirit in Hollywood that I think exists now. Maybe it was the beginning of it then.
How difficult was it to find the balance throughout the series of showing how Bette and Joan were victimized by the system but at the same time show that they were survivors and hustlers? I don't think either of them would've considered themselves victims.
Murphy: Definitely not. And I don't think we show them as victims. They were victimized, like you said, but they kept going. I think sometimes the stuff we're dramatizing is difficult because that period of their lives, as we show in the next three episodes, they really had begun to lose roles. And they both, by their own admission, began descents into alcoholism. But I was careful in the beginning and in the end to show them being tough and survivors and role models and trying to deal with their issues in a strong, brave way.
What can you tease about the last three episodes? Are you going to cover Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte?
Murphy: Yeah, Episode 6 is about that. It was considered a sequel even though they didn't call it that. Robert Aldrich and Jack Warner wanted to get the band back together and both women didn't want to do it, but finally agreed to do it if they were given certain things they felt they were not given on Baby Jane, like certain titles and money and creative freedom.
Episode 7 is all about Joan Crawford realizing that, in her opinion, nobody's listening to her input. Bette was a producer on it and she was not, and she got so hurt and angry that she checked into Cedars-Sinai and tried to get the picture shut down.
Episode 8, which I just finished editing and I really love, is so emotional and powerful. It's these two women in the '70s and the end of Joan Crawford's life. It's Joan Crawford doing Trog, Bette Davis doing eight failed television pilots even though she had a couple good films in that decade, like Death on the Nile. To me, it went from a show that was about women and actresses and feminism and post-modern feminism to aging and how we as a society treat people who are aging. The finale becomes a very emotional exploration of that.
Does it end with Joan's death? She died the year before the documentary framing device.
Murphy: Yes, the show ends with the Academy Awards that year. ... She's in the In Memoriam section.
Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10/9c on FX.