With 2016’s award-winning The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Ryan Murphy showcased his finesse for recreating history’s drama. And now he’s outdone himself in portraying the 1963 Academy Awards in episode 5 of Feud: Bette and Joan, “And the Winner Is…”
Lush sets, meticulous props, gripping cinematography, hundreds of extras all dressed in period gowns and tuxes — it was a transporting hour of television buoyed further by brilliant performances from Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, and the rest of the series’ stellar ensemble cast. Lucky for us, juicy behind-the-scenes bouts were also served up in spades when Crawford courted Davis’ best actress competition to allow her to accept the award on their behalf. The episode sets the stage for the season’s final three installments, which will show the making of the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? sequel and through to the ’70s.
Murphy, who’s long had an obsession with all things Oscars, directed the episode. Speaking with Rotten Tomatoes, he revealed the biggest challenges to filming; the importance of showing Crawford as a sympathetic character, despite her behavior; what feuds he’s interested in taking on in future seasons; and who Sarah Paulson will play in Feud season 2.
Benjamin Lindsay for Rotten Tomatoes: What was your favorite little detail that you got to add to this Oscar recreation? I think Jessica Lange covered in silver took the cake for me.
Ryan Murphy: It was a weird thing because when we were researching it, we always kept saying, “This couldn’t possibly be true.” I also agree that Joan Crawford and her decision to dress up as a silver Oscar to try and pull focus from the literal gold Oscar is one of my favorites. And we researched that look for months. Lou Eyrich, our costume designer, made that dress, copying the original Edith Head dress. We found the exact shade, down to the brand, of silver nail polish Joan Crawford used. And then the silver, weird, metallic spray in her hair, those silver flakes — we found all that, so I loved that.
I also loved recreating the set and the stage. We spent almost four months researching that. We had a whole research team and we shot it in the Santa Monica [Civic] Auditorium where the real Oscars ceremony in ’63 took place. So I was very excited about that, and then I showed up and much to my horror, everything had been ripped out. That façade, the seats. So then we had to spend many, many months rebuilding it. My favorite weird thing about that was building the Oscar cake tier. It looks like a really big wedding cake where they put all of the Oscars that were to be handed out. So we got to recreate all of the Oscar [trophies]. Of course, we built them, we had a mold made, [but] we would make little changes so they would never be confused with the real Oscars. And then when the episode was done, we ceremoniously burnt them all in a fire.
There’s a real sense of the attention to detail in this episode, which was the whole reason I wanted to do it — to take you inside the Academy Awards to make you feel and understand what it was like. And my other favorite thing about it — which we just spent so much time working on — was the tracking shot where David Lean wins and follows Joan Crawford backstage. When we got there, we realized that 70–80 percent of the backstage area had been gutted, so we rebuilt that backstage area, and we rehearsed that shot for a long time with all of the extras and Jessica and the camera operator — so that was a lot of fun. I love that shot, and I’m very proud of that shot.
And then, also, I think we had between 300 and 350 extras that day in 1963 period hair and makeup and costume who were in the audience. And that group of people would come in, I think, at 3 in the morning, start getting made up so they all would be camera-ready by when we started shooting that week at 9 or 10. So I really loved the detail in that episode, and I think you can tell that all of us working on it had a great deal of affection for the Academy Awards and Hollywood history, and we put all of our love into this show. I think people can feel that when they watch it.
RT: Another case that was a little stranger than fiction was Crawford speaking with Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Page about representing them at the ceremony. You made it very clear that these actresses knew that Crawford’s intention was coming from a place of desperation. I didn’t get the sense they were being manipulated into doing it, it was more them doing her a favor. Why was it important to you for them to know that?
Murphy: Well, that’s what I think really happened in real life. Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft were smart women, and I think in no way would it have been possible for them to be manipulated by Joan Crawford. I think Joan thought she was manipulating them in some way, but she wasn’t. And what I found interesting about that was I had grown up being obsessed with the book called Inside Oscar written by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona who later became friends of mine, and the Joan Crawford–Bette Davis takedown was always my favorite because I just couldn’t believe that Joan Crawford would do that. It was even more insane to me because then I realized she was a profit participant in the movie, and if she would have campaigned for Bette Davis and if Bette Davis had won that Oscar, she would have made money.
So growing up, I thought she was really nasty and mean to have done that to Bette Davis, that was my gut. But then when we got working on the scripts and the show, I realized she was just in so much pain and she had [such] low self-esteem issues about the fact Bette was seen as the better actress, and she was just a glamour-girl movie star. She was obviously in a lot of pain. So I thought, OK, dramatically, let’s lean into that. Just like we’re showing people backstage at the Academy Awards, let’s lean into the fact and show people why she did it and how much pain she was in.
I actually thought it was beautiful that Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft said, “OK, if I win, you can accept for me.” It was sad, but I thought that they were two actresses, Bancroft and Page, who had compassion and understood the pain and competitive nature of Hollywood and how awful it was to be shut out and be not included and not seen as talented. I love that moment where Anne Bancroft tells Joan in an exchange that really supposedly happened, “You were the thing that held that picture together. I really admired what you did.” She was probably the only person who told Joan Crawford that she was good. And I found that very moving. I like the community of women, I like the coming together to support each other. I also love how Olivia supports Bette. I thought that was all of a piece. I was very interested in the emotional stakes of that.
RT: It’s interesting — and I’m sure this is on your radar — but similar Feud-esque dialogues are cropping up between Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon about who has the better performance, who’s doing more justice to the women they’re portraying. Going into this, were you kind of bracing yourself for that meta-commentary?
Murphy: I knew that that was probably going to happen. I don’t know, I kind of find it sad and disturbing — a sport, in a weird way, with women against women, which is sort of one of our commentaries [on the show]. You know, when True Detective was out, were people writing articles about, “Is Woody [Harrelson] going to take down Matthew [McConaughey]?” No. In Behind the Candelabra was out, were people pitting Matt Damon and Michael Douglas against each other? No. They’re not writing that. But that’s just — people aren’t interested in that. So we knew that going in, but I will tell you that Jessica and Susan are good friends, and we’re always in it together as a team. In our eyes, there had never been a competition. But, that being said, I understand why people are fascinated by it, and I do think that it is sort of a meta idea. Anytime you have movie stars playing movie stars, I suppose things like that will happen.
RT: It does speak to the larger social commentary of Feud, and same can be said for Alison Wright and Pauline and her difficulty in breaking into the film industry as a female director. These are things that happened back then and to this day are on main stage in an unfortunate way.
Murphy: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. It’s like really nothing has changed. I mean, that’s why I was interested in making this show because it’s a period piece, but the themes of it are very modern. Why are women pitted against each other in business? Why are women not directing more movies or TV shows? Why do women not make as much money as men? Nothing has changed in the years since Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? So I thought it was a really interesting vehicle to discuss those modern themes.
RT: And now that the Oscars are over on the series, looking to these final episodes, I imagine that that conversation is going to continue. But in what ways? Did Bette and Joan continue to have a “feud” after the ’63 Oscars?
Murphy: The Oscar thing is just the middle of their feud. It actually got much worse and much more personal and devastating. The next two episodes, episode 6 and episode 7, are about the making of the sequel to Baby Jane, called Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. And again, all three of our heroes were down on their luck: Bette, Joan, and Robert Aldrich. They get the band back together, and nobody wants to be working with one another because their experience was so terrible. But this time around, they all got more money and better star billing and more participation, and Bette Davis gets made a producer, and then all hell breaks loose when they get on set in Louisiana, and Joan suspects that the director is again throwing the film to Bette Davis and she can’t deal with it and she leaves the production, which is all true, and checks herself into a deluxe suite at Cedars-Sinai and tries to shut the picture down. So that’s episodes six and seven. Of course, Joan was famously replaced by Olivia de Havilland, so Catherine [Zeta-Jones] has a lot to do.
Then the finale takes place in the ’70s. It really looks at that decade in these women’s lives. The show goes from being a meditation on sexism and it becomes a really beautiful, tender story about what it’s like to age and aging and how joyful and difficult that can be and how at the end of both of these women’s lives they realized they probably should have been kinder to each other and should have become friends and allies. But by that point, it’s too late. So it’s a real sad warning episode. I think the finale’s fantastic.
RT: You’re in the process of working on the second season of Feud, about Princess Diana. At PaleyFest, Kathy Bates was coyly calling Sarah Paulson the “people’s princess.” Is that at all to intimate the way casting is going?
Murphy: No. You know, I’ve just begun the casting process. We’re writing the scripts now to shoot in the fall. I haven’t really decided with laser-like focus yet who I’m interested in. I’m meeting with people, and a lot of people want to do it. There’s a lot of women who are throwing their hat into the ring, as you could guess, because Princess Diana is sort of like a Scarlet O’Hara part. I obviously love Sarah, but Sarah and I have not even spoken about it, to be honest. I’m sure we will, but I haven’t seriously decided on anybody.
RT: You’ve had a few other big casting announcements with Billy Eichner in American Horror Story and Penélope Cruz in American Crime Story. Do you enjoy casting to the unexpected? Do you ever feel like you’re taking a risk?
Murphy: No, it’s never a risk. It’s the most fun thing I do! Because I’m friends with Billy Eichner, and I’m friends with Penélope Cruz, and for years, we’ve always been saying, “Oh, let’s do something together!” “OK, keep me in mind for something.” And I think and think and think and think and then finally, I come up with something not that’s just interesting for them, but is challenging for them. I know Penélope wanted to be challenged as an actor. Billy did. The greatest part about my job is: I love actors, and I get to be friends with them, and I get to write for my friends. Both Penélope and Billy can kind of do anything, and I want to show them off. I think they’re both tremendously talented, and I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to write challenging material for them, which I am, so that’s what’s fun about it.
RT: Lastly, you’ve said with Feud that this Bette and Joan story is going to be your final take on a Hollywood feud. Past Princess Diana, are there any other feuds that are particularly of interest to you?
Murphy: Well, there’s many, but I don’t think we’ll ever do a Hollywood one again, because I feel like we did the best one, and there’s nothing left to say about that. Feud is one of those shows that I have to find the feud that I’m burning to tell. I’m very obviously obsessed with Bette and Joan and I’m obsessed Diana and Charles, and I just have to find another one — and I will — that I’m obsessed with when I have time because I don’t have to begin work on season 3 for another year and a half, so I’ll have to think about it. But I would like to do something unexpected. We did a woman and a woman with Bette and Joan; we did a woman and a man with Charles and Diana; so I think I’m interested in trying to find a feud between two men. The costumes won’t be as great.
Feud airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX