As a kid, Ryan Murphy was obsessed with the Academy Awards. Obsessed. And now this Sunday night the culmination of that obsession comes to life as Episode 5 of the eight-part limited FX series Feud: Bette and Joan offers up the most detailed, painstaking recreation of an Oscar show ever filmed.
Feud executive producer Murphy chose the famously difficult making of 1962’s horror classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the legendary feud between Golden Age stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis to be the first installment of a new anthology series set around famous feuds. This one was a doozy as the two aging icons tried to one-up each other before, during and after production of a movie that would turn out to be a major hit, giving a big shot of adrenaline to both after their careers had been flickering. The entire series, which airs Sundays through April 23, is must-see TV for fans of Crawford and Davis; Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, who play them, respectively; juicy feuds; and especially the Oscars.
Murphy wrote and directed Sunday’s episode, which was teased at the end of last week’s Episode 4 on the morning of the Oscar nominations announcement, when two-time winner Davis won her 10th Best Actress nom and became an odds-on favorite to take home her third statuette. But Crawford, with a less showy role than Davis’ Baby Jane, was overlooked. That primal scream you hear from Lange as Crawford upon hearing the news was the setup for a delicious hour of television.
When I spoke with Murphy on the phone recently, he recounted the extraordinary detail, the tiniest nuances and everything that went into re-staging the notorious 35th Annual Academy Awards show that took place April 8, 1963, and — at least until this year’s Best Picture debacle — was one of the most famously weird Oscar races ever. True, Crawford wasn’t nominated and Davis was, but in those days many stars were no-shows and had others accept for them (a practice the Academy no longer allows). Crawford actually contacted two of the other Best Actress nominees — Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Page — and arranged to pick up their Oscar for them should they win. In fact, she persuaded Page not to come. After that, with the urging of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, she made calls to Academy voter friends to slyly push them in the direction of casting a ballot for one of the nominees not named Davis.
She then arranged to be a presenter on the show for Best Director and shortly afterward was center stage again when Davis lost to Bancroft — and accepting the Best Actress trophy, she became the most photographed star of the night, even to the point of being in the official Academy photo taken with the three acting winners who were at the ceremony. All of this and much more has been re-created in lavish detail on a show that itself is worthy of awards consideration. (Are you listening, Emmy voters?) We have two Oscar-winning actresses playing two Oscar-winning actresses fighting over winning yet another Oscar. It just doesn’t get any juicier than this.
The remarkable thing is Murphy did this all without ever getting permission from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is notorious about controlling every aspect of its Oscar show and rarely gives its blessing to something like this. “Well, we didn’t get permission from the Academy,” Murphy confirmed, noting whenever he has tried in the past he was turned down. “They even refuse to ever release any clips, so we just decided that we were doing a historical piece and we were going to be very reverential and very cool about it, and very respectful about it, which we were.” Murphy shot much of it at the actual site of those Oscars, Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, even digitally re-creating the front awning — which no longer exists there — as well as disguising newer plastic stadium seats with the old folding chairs they used then believe it or not. They built the bleachers and also copied the arrivals as they had appeared in old documentary footage. He said they spent several million in this re-creation, everything down to the nail stud, and they spent several months researching all of it through official Academy and paparazzi photographs.
There is even a sequence where after Crawford presents the Best Director Oscar to David Lean she leads him through the various backstage area and different rooms, with Murphy’s DP, Nelson Cragg, shooting it in over a minute and a half Steadicam shot. “I did that shot because I wanted to get you into the process of once you leave the stage and you walk around back there, what is it like?” he said. “And of course Joan Crawford was the Mayor of the Academy Awards that year, so it was almost like her victory lap in some way.” He added that they spent many months building up that backstage area since only 20% of it is now the same as it was in 1963, and they spent many days choreographing that Steadicam shot with more than 100 extras. There were no cuts involved, and Cragg said they actually nailed it on the fourth take, even though it was enormously complex.
The costumes designed by Lou Eyrich were exact copies, down to people sitting in the audience. His production design team, led by Judy Becker, also copied the exact stage design, which that year had all the Oscars being presented in sort of a tiered-wedding-cake look onstage, where they would be giving them out one by one until there were none at the end. For this reason they had to exactly re-create about 50 Oscar statuettes that were so detailed they included the exact signage on the bottom. For a scene at Davis’ home, they re-created her two Oscars from the 1930s, which had something of a different look with a smaller base (Murphy had firsthand knowledge since he knew Davis and even interviewed her once in her West Hollywood apartment). Rest assured, Academy, no one kept them after the shoot. “We were very careful and respectful about destroying those and not letting them get out, and making sure that they looked exactly like the Oscars,” Murphy said. “We were very mindful that we had an obligation to re-create history in a respectful way but we didn’t try to get permission because they never would have given permission. They never have.” Oscar statuettes have appeared on TV and movies from time to time, but never on this scale. Murphy mentioned the last time he saw a movie try it was The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. “I remember watching the movie and thinking like, ‘This is not what the Academy Awards looks like. This is not what they even seem like,” he said.
Murphy said the idea for the episode began with his lifelong obsession with the Oscars, and especially a book called Inside Oscar written by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona (both now deceased), which goes into great juicy detail about each year’s race. Its subhead is “the unofficial history of the Oscars” because the Academy would never give them permission either. “This was always my favorite chapter of the book, which was the Joan and Bette year, because I just couldn’t believe that Joan Crawford did what she did. You know the idea that she would get permission from all those ladies to accept if they won and then would physically campaign against Bette Davis, even though it probably cost her a couple million dollars because they were profit participants in the film,” he said. It didn’t matter to her and she even showed up with Mamacita, the woman who worked for her and a lot of assistants who helped her turn the green room into her own private space, even installing a Pepsi machine because her husband had run the company and she was now on the board. “I literally had to look it up like three times to make sure that it was accurate when we started writing it, but she also literally dressed up as sort of a silver Oscar so that she could pull focus from the actual gold statuettes in case Bette Davis won,” he said incredulously.
Murphy loved the process of getting this all right. “It was a lot of fun and there was a slavish attention to detail, but you know it’s that pure love of craft, and love of the people, and down to what were the flower arrangements in (host) Frank Sinatra’s dressing room like, or what did the Dixie Cups look like in the bathrooms? We researched that. We had photographs. So it was really like a real research treasure hunt trying to find some of the stuff that they just don’t have anymore,” he said. I told Murphy I have the actual program from several older Oscar shows including that one in my collections, and in Feud there is a shot of the program that I recognized immediately. Oscar historians will note there is really nothing here that was left to a guess or speculation, at least in terms of the Oscar show itself.
One scene in which Crawford bursts into Academy President Wendell Corey’s office unannounced had me howling. After not getting nominated, she questions the trustworthiness of the Academy’s accountants, then and now, PriceWaterhouse, and Corey answers that they are above reproach. It’s ironic in the light of this year’s Best Picture disaster (or PriceWatergate, as Ilike to call it). “Thank God the people delivering the envelopes then weren’t backstage tweeting,” Murphy laughed. “I mixed the show after the Academy Awards and I am like, ‘Wow, this does take on completely new significance about poor PriceWaterhouse,’ which you know, growing up, the secrecy of it and the accuracy were sacrosanct and important. So yeah, it’s weird that there is that moment in the show, but I think it’s hilarious.”
For Murphy, this one is personal. “I really just wanted to do it right, because I think there’s so many people that are fans of the awards shows and Hollywood history,” he said. “We really researched this down to the last possible thing that could be right, and it was important to me that we do that. It was just a lot of my own personal love affair with those women and that period of time that I guess we tried to do it. I grew up loving the Oscars, and I still love it.”