‘Feud’ at the Oscars: Ryan Murphy on Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Recreating Academy History

The fifth episode of FX’s “Feud,” titled “And the Winner is… (The Oscars of 1963),” is perhaps the most delicious installment of Ryan Murphy’s limited series yet. Airing Sunday night, it recounts all of the skullduggery that went down in the lead-up to, and at, the 35th annual Academy Awards, as all-too-human actress Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) desperately clamors for a piece of the spotlight she ceded when she lost out on a nomination to “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” co-star Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon).

The detail is meticulous, right down to the nail polish and the hors d’oeuvres toothpicks, which Murphy — a self-confessed Oscar junkie — delighted in. But while the episode was an opportunity for him to share a bit of that passion in his own work, it also afforded a chance to dig in deeper on his characters.

Murphy talked to Variety about the process of bringing history back to life, the spirit that drives artists to crave adulation like Hollywood’s golden idol, and the heartbreak of this year’s own Oscars drama.

(SPOILERS of tonight’s episode of “Feud” follow.)

***

There’s a moment in the episode when someone asks Bette Davis what she thought of Joan Crawford’s Oscar snub. “Define snub,” she says. It was funny to me because of how that word is handled in today’s awards coverage, and it made me wonder, in general, if you wanted to make any kind of commentary about the modern awards landscape.

I guess so, just because I’ve always loved awards season, even when I was a little kid. It is a competitive spectator sport and I’ve always been obsessed with it. I used to throw Academy Awards parties and back then that was the one night — this was long before social media — where stars were all together and accessible and it was always a big dream for me growing up in Indiana. It was a way out, I suppose. This was sort of a commentary on that world and how fortunes rise and fall and there’s always shock-a-roos. The thing I found hilarious is we had already locked it after this year’s Academy Awards. I have that scene with Pricewaterhouse saying that they were honest and above reproach and absolutely all is correct. That is now irony in some weird way. I think it means a lot to a lot of people because it’s drama, it’s conflict, all of those things that I think anybody who comes to Hollywood or writes about Hollywood is naturally drawn to.

Speaking of this year’s Oscars fiasco, I saw the episode before that happened. So I immediately sort of flashed to this episode when things hit the fan. As an awards junkie, what did you think of that whole scenario when it unfolded at the Dolby Theatre in February?

You know, I really had a very strong reaction to it because I am friends with a lot of those people. Like I’m friendly with Damien [Chazelle]. I’m very good friends with Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner. Dede is one of the producers on “Feud” and did “The Normal Heart” with me and “Running with Scissors” and “Eat Pray Love” and a couple of other TV things. And I’m friends with Warren Beatty. So I just thought it was really, really upsetting. I mean I was first of all sad for the “La La Land” guys, and then I really felt that it took away from the power and drama of “Moonlight” winning. And I thought that Warren was unfairly treated by the press; I think Warren did everything 100 percent correct. I think that it really just came down to a person who was not paying attention and made a mistake. I think obviously the rules will change and there will be stopgaps and there should be. But I was emotional when I was watching it because I thought of all the gay boys and girls across the world who would have had a very different experience and a very different celebratory moment of inclusion if “Moonlight” had been read as the best picture and had that victory moment as it should have. It was all such a cluster f— of sadness to me.

Happily we were able to get both Chazelle and Barry Jenkins on the record the next day and show another side of this, that these guys were friends and rooted for each other throughout the season, and while it was an unfortunate moment, this wasn’t warfare for them.

Yes, I loved your piece. Look, it’s not nuclear war. It’s just the Academy Awards. But still I think a lot of people are invested in that and invested in that sort of mythical race, all of those races, you know?

Are people too invested, though? And I mean those in the thick of it. Speaking to your “fortunes rising and falling” point, I mean look, I’ve done this 15 years now and seeing how the sausage is made, I don’t think an Oscar is something I would covet. But it is so coveted. The practical, professional stakes are understandable. Davis deals with that in the show, yearning for another leading actress Oscar because the lead roles for women her age have dried up. It might mean more work for her. But do you think the industry worship of this golden idol gets out of hand?

To me it is all folly to some degree. I don’t think it’s any different than the fanaticism that follows people who really root for baseball teams and are obsessed with the World Series and the Super Bowl. I just feel like it’s an outlet for some sort of competitive spirit. The thing that I do find sad about it is with all artists you kind of feel icky when you’re in competition with each other. But you’re right, there are rewards. And I’ve seen it with people. I’ve seen it with my own career, like being able to be honored gives you license to maybe the next time do a riskier project, something that if you didn’t have that success, you wouldn’t be able to do. So I do think that as Bette says, there are great rewards and payoffs, but there’s also great sadness by being excluded, as demonstrated by Joan Crawford’s story.

Dare I ask, do you think Davis and Crawford had anything approaching that “icky” sense of being in competition with a fellow artist?

I think a part of everybody feels that, but I also think nobody comes to Hollywood and gets into this business because they’re well loved and well adjusted. You just don’t. Usually there is a part of you that is seeking a universal love and acceptance that perhaps you didn’t get in your childhood. So the Academy Awards is just one more way to get that love and acceptance and to maybe fill up the bottomless pit. There’s that speech that Susan gives as Bette and she’s looking at her two Academy Awards. That scene is plucked from my four-hour interview that I had with Bette Davis right before she died, and the first thing she said to me was, “Do you want to see my Oscars and hold them?” I was like 20 and fresh off the boat from Indiana. I said, “Sure,” and I did notice that one seemed a little bit more tarnished than the other. She told me that she would hold it when she was watching television and it was almost like a pet and it means a lot to her because it reminded her of one night when she was just universally acclaimed and loved, accepted by the world. What she said never really left my memory. I was trying to figure out maybe a way to write something about that or that idea, because I thought that was a very moving thing. So finally when I did the show I was like, “Hot damn, I get to use that moment that I had with her.”

Who were you writing for at that time?

I had a syndicated column for Knight Ridder and I had been writing to Bette Davis for years. She had a wonderful assistant named Kathryn Sermak, who now is in charge, I think, along with Bette’s son, of her estate or something. But anyway Kathryn said, “Look, now is the time, I think, for you to come out and if you want to do an interview with her we’ll do it.” I had never been to L.A. before so I flew out here and showed up and I was only supposed to get 20 minutes because she was so ill. She had just had a double mastectomy and a stroke and she wasn’t doing well. But I think she got a kick out of me because I knew so much about her. I think that my love of her energized her. So we sat and chain-smoked cigarettes for four hours and we just talked and talked and talked and talked all about her career and her life and everything, and a lot of that made it into the show.

Let’s talk about the recreation of the 1963 Academy Awards. This is what made me really want to talk to you because the details are extraordinary. Were you able to shoot at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, where the Oscars were held that year?

Yes, and we were overjoyed because we got to shoot that stuff on the real stage where it was handed out. What I wanted to do with this episode was really make it a love letter to the Academy Awards, particularly of that bygone era. There was a book called “Inside Oscar” by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona that I used to read and I got to be friends with those guys. The chapter that I was the most obsessed with was this year because I couldn’t believe that Joan Crawford did all that bat sh— crazy stuff. So I thought if we’re going to do it let’s try and understand why she did all that, and then let’s really go to town and do the Academy Awards right. Because it doesn’t happen often but sometimes when TV shows or movies like “The Bodyguard” do the Academy Awards, they resemble no Academy Awards I’ve ever been to. They just don’t have that authentic look, smell, feel. So for I would say months and months and months we had a research team and we pulled every available photograph trying to get everything right, down to what color were the carnations? What did the green room look like?

One moment I love is that tracking shot with Jessica Lange after David Lean wins best director. He follows her through the bowels of the building and she’s clearly been around the block.

I really wanted to take you backstage at the Academy Awards, so I wrote that two-minute tracking shot because I thought that would be a cool way to show people what it’s like from when you win to when you went to the press room. I had read that David Lean was a little lost and right after he won, Joan Crawford was the mayor of Oscarville that year, she said, “I’ll show you what to do,” so he just followed her. I was so excited that we got to use the real Santa Monica location, but when we showed up, my heart sank, because it looked completely different, as you would expect. All of that outdoor facade and the bleachers area and all that have been torn down. The trees had been torn down. The interior there was new, like, plastic stadium seating that didn’t exist then. The backstage area, only 20 percent of it remained. So we decided, you know what, we’re just going to rebuild it, and if we can’t rebuild it, we’re going to CGI it in, and that’s what we did.

I tried to be as slavish to detail as I could, down to the way the toothpicks were arranged in photographs, because Joan Crawford really did take over the green room and did bring her own refreshments and food. All of those dresses that you see Susan and Jessica and Catherine [Zeta-Jones] wear, Lee Remick’s outfit, Patty Duke’s outfit, all of that we built. Joan Crawford’s dress that year, she had the idea to show up to the Oscars — which nobody understood, but I did — she wanted to go as a silver Oscar, because she thought that would pull focus from the gold Oscar. So we re-created that heavy dress. It was 50 pounds. It pulled Jessica Lange’s back out like three times. We copied the jewelry or we got the real jewelry if we could. We really went all out, down to the exact nail polish that Joan Crawford wore. My brilliant production designer Judy Becker did such a great job and then my DP Nelson Craig and my camera operator Andrew and I just mapped it out the tracking shot several weeks if not months in advance. It was really complicated.

You re-created all of the Oscars that were handed out that year, too. Did you have much interfacing with the Academy on that? They’re so particular about their image and how the image of the Oscar is used.

No. We had all of those Oscars guarded by security guards and once we were finished shooting we destroyed them all and wanted to be respectful. The Academy — I really do understand it — has never been cooperative with releasing film clips, any music cues, nothing. For example, in the eighth episode we re-create the Oscars of 1978, where Joan Crawford died in ’77 and in the Oscars of ’78 there was an “in memoriam” section. That was the year where Sammy Davis Jr. came onstage and sang an original song that was written by Marvin Hamlisch, of all people. So we tried, for example, to license that clip. They always declined everything. That’s just what they do. And I guess that’s their prerogative. They’re very protective of that. But we made sure that the Oscars were tweaked a little bit. There was always something that was off with them, from the plating to the nameplate at the bottom to the little podium that it sits on, so that they’re not 100 percent. You do have to be aware that the Academy does not want their precious trademarks infringed on.

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