'Feud': Ryan Murphy Explains His "Love Letter" to the Oscars

FEUD Bette and Joan - Jessica Lange - H 2017
Courtesy of Suzanne Tenner/FX

[This story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of FX anthology Feud.]

The Academy Awards weren’t always the televised spectacle that they have become today; in old-school Hollywood the glamor was slightly more subtle, the ceremony was less grandiose and the stars didn’t always show up to accept their awards. But that didn’t make winning an actual Oscar any less prestigious.

It’s a time period that Ryan Murphy traveled back to during Sunday's Feud: Bette and Joan, for the "And the Winner Is ... (The Oscars of 1963)” episode of the FX anthology.

The installment focused heavily on Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and her actions following her snub for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? while also exploring how much becoming the first actress to win three trophies would have meant to Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) had she won.

Instead, following a smear campaign aided by Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), it was Crawford who was left holding an award in her hand as she accepted the best actress statue on behalf of Anne Bancroft, who had agreed to let Crawford say a few words on her behalf. A helpless Davis could do nothing but watch from the sidelines with her friend Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) as Crawford not only stole her moment, but her potential future employment opportunities as well.

In order to re-create the epic night, production went back to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium where the 1963 Academy Awards were held, and spent a pretty penny rebuilding the vintage space. The result is what Murphy, who wrote and directed the episode, calls his “love letter” to the awards, and featured drama to rival that of this year’s #EnvelopeGate.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Murphy to discuss crafting the episode, the conversations he had with Davis about that devastating loss, and how he was able to get inside Joan Crawford’s head following some of her more heinous acts.  

How did the drama of the 1963 Oscars stack up to the drama that went down with the envelopes this year?

They were both similar in that they were both huge upsets. Everybody expected La La Land to win and in 1963 I think Bette Davis, from everything we’ve read, was absolutely considered to be the frontrunner and a lock. Her loss was very surprising to people and interestingly enough was very surprising to her. It seems like with most awards shows these days there’s so much written about them in advance with people taking bets and really scrutinizing the races and talking to the voters that by the time you get to them, most of the time it does seem like a fait accompli. This year and that year both had major upsets that definitely became a thing of legend so that what’s they have in common.

Did Davis ever talk to you about what that third Oscar would have meant for her?

Yes, she told me she was devastated and that she thought she should have won it and it was very important to her to be the first to win three. She always prided herself on the fact that she was a pioneer and by that point Katharine Hepburn had won her third and fourth Oscars so Bette had been [overwritten] in history books. She was very disappointed. She talked about it with a huge amount of regret. When I walked in to meet her the first thing she said to me was, “Do you want to hold my Oscars?” She had great pride in them. The line I have in the episode where one of them seems a little tarnished and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis says, “I hold one of them in bed sometimes and it reminds me of the night when I was loved and the whole world stood and applauded,” Davis discussed that with me. To her it was a validation and indication of her worth. She told me that she really wanted to — pride aside — win an Oscar for Baby Jane because, and it still continues through today, when you win one of these big prizes, it does guarantee you more years of steady work. People will take a chance on you and it reignites the studio’s belief and passion in you. So she felt that she lost opportunities because of that. That she would have been seen differently as a person living in the present and not as a relic from the 1930s and '40s. It was sad for her and I felt badly for her. She obviously had a great amount of pain and regret over it.

My challenge on the episode was trying to humanize Joan Crawford. I grew up being obsessed with this book called Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona and I was always obsessed with that Crawford-Davis chapter because I couldn’t believe what Joan Crawford did. It was very weird and odd and delicious and haunting. So my job as a director became to ask why she did that. I thought it was because she was in such pain. She felt rejected and snubbed and that the industry thought Davis was more talented than her. She was just a glamour girl who maybe once lucked into a great part with Mildred Pierce. So for me it had to be more than just a story of revenge. It had to be a story of pain for Joan Crawford.

Do you believe that if Davis had been kinder to Joan in the press this might have turned out another way?

Yes and no. My position on that is make no mistake: Bette Davis knew her brand. She knew making bitchy, kind of pithy quips about Joan Crawford… she was playing for the public in the press. She did it for years. That year she would say things that 25 years later… every time she did a talk show appearance in the '70s and '80s she would talk shit about Joan Crawford. It just became part of her commodity and she realized that it became part of her legend and people liked hearing about it. So she was going to do that. But I do think that she was nervous and fragile and really wanted to win. She had regrets; it was complicated for her. Saying those things was kind of her brand, and yet she regretted that she and Crawford weren’t friendlier. And she regretted that she hadn’t said maybe one or two nice things about her performance, which after Joan died she kind of did. She said she was a professional, and she knew her lines and my lines and she was the first person on the set and the last person to leave. But by that point it was too late to make any difference in their friendship. Joan was dead and it was a lost opportunity. Which again was to me, part of the tragedy of the story.

Do you consider Joan marching into the academy offices, demanding to present and to have her hair and makeup paid for kind of a turning point in regards to the dog and pony show the Oscars can be these days?

I don’t know if that’s the term for it. But yeah what happens today at awards shows and all of that stuff, the pressure and the scrutiny and the dresses and the gowns and everything, it wasn’t really like that as much in the '60s or the '70s or the '80s. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon would talk about it, that when they were nominated in the '70s and '80s they never went out and did a glam squad or any of that stuff. In the mid-80s it started to become what it is today. But that’s what I loved about Joan Crawford, was that she always treated the Academy Awards as a night of glamour and celebration. But she did that and wanted to look good and literally wanted to dress up as a silver Oscar just to save face and to the industry maybe make it seem that she wasn’t as hurt by the snub as she was. And of course she realized that the way for revenge was to campaign against Bette Davis and to call up people and ask if she could accept for them if they won. The deeper she got into the planning of it the darker it became for her.

Originally Crawford wrote letters to the likes of Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Page rather than visiting them; was crafting those scenes part of how you wanted to capture sympathy for her as a character?

Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft were really smart women and if Joan Crawford had called them and had these conversations I don’t think they would have been like, “Oh sure, you can go.” Joan Crawford thought that maybe she was manipulating them with her movie star legend, but they were smart and savvy enough to see that this woman was in pain and was obviously hurting. The thing that Anne Bancroft says to her, which is “I thought you were really good in that movie,” Anne Bancroft really did say that to her. She was one of the few people to try and make her feel better. That era of women, the Joan Crawfords and the Bette Davises were becoming replaced by a different kind of actress that Lee Remick, Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft sort of epitomized. Those women were stage actresses who came up in different things; they were not products of a studio system the way that Davis and Audrey Hepburn and Crawford were. They had sympathy for the older actresses who felt trapped. I wanted to write that into it because based on research they did feel those things.

Do copies of Crawford’s original letters exist, and if so were you able to see them?

That’s the weird thing about the Joan Crawford letters is that there’s so many of them now… people have copied them. Like the very famous letter that Joan Crawford wrote about Bette Davis’s body odor. We thought, “Is that real? Or is that something that was made in this social media, Internet age?” I know she did contact Geraldine Page and that she did see Anne Bancroft. What was said we could never sort of pin down 100 percent whether it was a real Joan Crawford letter because there are so many parody accounts of them. Some of that we would base on other conversations and accounts and people that we talked to that supposedly had those conversations with them, but we didn’t try to rely 100 percent on those letters because I was never convinced that they were 100 percent real.

Geraldine Page’s role of Alexandra Del Lago was based on a Tennessee Williams play, but Crawford accuses Page in the episode of basing it on her; where did that come from?

That was the thing about Joan Crawford. Joan at that point had a reputation and spoke out publicly against a lot of younger women whom she felt threatened by. If you read some of her biographies and autobiographies she was particularly vicious to Marilyn Monroe, and said some really cruel, mean things about her body and shape and lack of morals. And then she would later regret it. But a lot of that research about Joan Crawford feeling that the new girls didn’t really get what it took to be a star and how to have discipline, a lot of that stuff is literally what she said in interviews. That’s the tragedy of her. She was not as wonderfully supportive as we had wished her to be. There are a lot of mini feuds within the show. Her mini feud with Marilyn Monroe is well documented. Marilyn Monroe was devastated by that because she idolized Joan Crawford as a young woman coming up in the business. That’s the complicated thing about Joan Crawford, is that she was in pain and felt bad and yet she made others feel bad too. So the narrative line is like, how do you psychologically understand her? She came from an era where two weeks before an awards show you really did cut out potatoes. And you really did spend a lot of time and money dieting and on your gown. That’s what movie stars did. Younger women coming up weren’t interested in that and she was outraged by that because she thought there was only one way to be a star in Hollywood. If you didn’t do it her way then you were wrong. Later at the end of her life she spoke movingly about how she regretted saying those things about Marilyn Monroe and other young women. So I do feel like she did come around and realize the error of her ways.

Why put this culminating, Oscars episode as the fifth episode in the narrative rather than holding onto it for towards the end of the series?

We set an outline and episode five was always the middle of the story for me. The Baby Jane Oscar thing was the middle of their feud, at least in terms of the 1960s when they’re telling it. Making Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte was always going to be a two-part episode because it’s very complicated: what happened and why they did it and why they agreed to do it even though they disliked each other. And then I knew after that, the last episode was going to be about their lives and Crawford’s eventual death in the 1970s. That’s just always the way I wanted to do it. But I do think the Oscars episode is the culmination of the sort of vicious, emotionally drama that they both threw at each other.

How did you go about recreating the Oscars themselves on a visual level?

That was my love letter to the Academy Awards. As a boy growing up in the Midwest in a very religious household in the '60s and '70s before social media, it was always the night of the year I looked forward to along with Christmas. Because to me it was just a night when all the movie stars were together and I could see them and they would do interviews before the show and all that stuff. I always loved it. So I approached this episode from a real fan base. I found out we could actually use the auditorium where the real Oscars were at so that was exciting. But then we found out that a lot of the period stuff had been torn out and removed so I was devastated. So then we just decided to spend a lot of time and money rebuilding it. We spent months researching it and copying it, from the scaffolding outside the auditorium to the seats inside and the stage and that tier where all of the Oscars sat to the gowns that all the women wore. We had hundreds of extras that we brought in at three in the morning when we shot that stuff. We spent a lot of time on their hair and their makeup and their clothes to get it right.

What went into getting the steady-cam shot of Joan Crawford taking a full backstage lap between presenting the award for Best Director and then accepting on Anne Bancroft’s behalf?

I knew I wanted to do the steady-cam shot and built that into the script. One of the things that I wanted to do with that episode was to show people backstage. You could watch the Academy Awards and sometimes you could get a tiny peek backstage, but usually the camera cuts right as the winner walks off with the Oscar and you go to commercial. So one of the goals creatively was to show somebody what it felt like to have an Oscar in your hand and walk backstage. What does that look like and smell like? We did a lot of research and we found that only 20 percent of the original backstage area was the same.  So when we started scouting it all that stuff was gone. Based on the photographs that we could find we rebuilt it. And we spent a lot of time… weeks, rebuilding those rooms that had been taken down. It was a very complicated process where we scheduled a whole day for it and rehearsed several days before with the extras and the camera operator and stand-ins so that we could get the lighting cues correctly when Joan would turn the corner with David Lean following her. It was very carefully choreographed and it meant a lot to me to get it right. The actors loved doing it; Catherine and Susan and Jessica loved doing it because it was sort of like a play and you couldn’t make once misstep or it was over.

Everybody was so committed to getting it right and concentrating and working hard and we had prepared so well that by the fourth take it was perfect and that’s the take that you see in the show. We did one more after that but we had it so we moved on to something else that day. I loved showing what that would have been like, to see Frank Sinatra’s dressing room, and the press room, and Joan Crawford brought in all that stuff to the green room and we have photos of that. And you see backstage Olivia De Havilland giving interviews and Joan Crawford landing and taking a cigarette off the prop master’s desk. It was all just fun and thrilling to do and it was for me a celebration of a bygone era. That’s why I wanted to do it. It was super complicated but I think it was worth it.

Watch the full scene here:

The fact that Joan Crawford picked up that cigarette felt like a very Bette Davis thing to do. Was that intentional?

That is a moment that we really researched. She was really smoking and dropped the cigarette. Joan Crawford did smoke cigarettes, everybody did then, but she really did walk past Bette Davis and look at her with a smile and walk into the press room. All of those moments that we played in that sequence actually happened so it was fun to recreate them and figure out where to put them.

Heading into the final three episodes, does the documentary format and interviews kind of represent your voice and thoughts on the feud?

Some of it is my voice but a lot of it is based on interviews that these actors did at the time too, where they were talking about Joan Crawford or they were talking about what it was like to be an actress coming through the studio system. I would say both. We’re obviously doing a work of drama; it’s not a documentary. But I thought the device was interesting because it let the women speak freely about what it was like to be a woman at the time. I like that device. It comes back really big. It’s barely used in episodes five, six or seven, but it pops up in a major way and is paid off in the finale.

Could that include Bette Davis giving her own interview?

You’ll have to see.

Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX. Thoughts? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling