If you haven’t been watching “Feud: Bette and Joan” on FX you’ve been missing out. And if you are looking for a must-see Sunday night show now that “Big Little Lies” is over take the time to catch up because there are only three episodes left. Granted, it’s hard to keep up with all the good Peak TV shows, but last night’s episode of “Feud” documented a real-life Oscar drama that was almost too over-the-top to be true.
Ryan Murphy’s serial series has chronicled the production and aftermath of Robert Aldrich’s “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” a 1962 film that is as well known own for its critical and box office success as much as the adversarial relationship between its two stars, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (fantastically played by Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, respectively). As “Feud” depicts over its eight episode run, the bond between the two legendary actresses was more complex than what was dished out in the tabloids at the time. Despite their fame and talent both women were victims of a business that was even more overtly ageist and sexist than it is today. And as fiery as Davis was when provoked, the series makes it clear it was Crawford’s painful insecurity that drove much of the drama. And with the film becoming an unlikely smash in the previous episode, viewers have now reached the history-making events at the 35th Academy Awards.
Somewhat surprisingly, ‘Baby Jane”s success led to the film earning five Oscar nominations including a nomination for Davis, her 10th, in the Best Actress category. Much to her horror, Crawford, who won for “Mildred Pierce,” wasn’t nominated for her performance. To say she didn’t take it lightly is an understatement. As the episode “And the Winner is… (The Oscars of 1963)” depicts Crawford not only campaigning against her co-star winning, but offering to accept the Oscar on behalf of two other nominees who were unable to attend.
One of those actresses was Geraldine Page who is played by Sarah Paulson in a short cameo with an impressive amount of tenderness and compassion. In a conversation over the phone, Crawford is shown manipulating the New York theater actress into not attending and to graciously allowing her to accept if she wins. The other nominee was Anne Bancroft who Crawford flew all the way to NY to meet with. Crawford saw Bancroft (beautifully portrayed by Serinda Swan) backstage after one of her performances of “Mother Courage and Her Children” on Broadway. Bancroft felt it unprofessional and unfair to the paid patrons to skip the three performances of “Mother Courage” necessary for her to attend the Oscars and knowing it meant more to Crawford than to herself, agreed to let the Hollywood icon accept it for her if she won. Murphy, who directed this episode, makes sure to include a moment where Bancroft not only sees Crawford’s emotional pain (you can debate whether it was a charade by Crawford or not) and to tell her she’d seen ‘Baby Jane’ and that she deserved just as much credit as Davis did for the film’s creative success (it’s actually a moment that makes you wonder whether Bancroft and Davis had ruffled feathers at some point in New York theater circles).
Davis, on the other hand, was focused on becoming the first woman to win three Oscars. She often publicly insisted awards didn’t matter, but in this case she let it be known she truly wanted it. It mattered to her. In one scene during the episode, Davis’ good friend Olivia de Havilland (a welcome Catherine Zeta Jones) asks why one of her statues appears to be peeling. Davis bluntly notes it’s because she sometimes takes it to bed with her to watch TV with as it’s more reliable than any other man. De Havilland flew from Paris to accompany Davis as her guest and it allows Zeta Jones to take the viewer’s gaze and give the ongoing ‘feud’ a new perspective.
Murphy has had his ups and downs as a director, but his depiction of the 1963 Academy Awards themselves is impeccable. It’s one thing to find actors to who resemble the stars of the time who attended the show to walk down a red carpet outside the show’s venue. It’s another to shoot the entire portion of the episode at the same venue where the events took place, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. In one wondrous and unexpected sequence, Murphy has the camera follow Crawford, who has just awarded the Best Director Oscar to David Lean, from the podium on the stage through the backstage hallways filled with other winners and famous faces to drop Lean off at the press room and then continue to the other side of the auditorium where she waits for the Best Actress Oscar to be announced. And that’s where the real life aspect of this story will seem like the byproduct of a writer’s overactive imagination even though it’s been confirmed by multiple sources over the years.
As noted in the books “Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud” and “Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards,” the telecast’s director Richard Dunlap knew that both Crawford and Davis were standing in the wings waiting for the previous Best Actor winner, Maximilian Schell, to announce the winner. Dunlap considered having a camera on hand for their reactions but admitted later, “I thought it would be cruel.”
What’s so impressive about both Murphy’s direction and Sarandon’s performance here is that history has already told us Davis lost. She remarked herself she must have “gone white” with the announcement that Bancroft took the statue, but there is still so much genuine tension at that moment in the episode. As noted by other sources, Crawford dropped her cigarette, put it out with her shoe and walked right by Davis to go on stage and accept on Bancroft’s behalf.
What made the entire affair even more incredible is that Crawford posed with the other winners in the press room (although it should be noted the show has her being asked to do so). So, not only did Davis lose what turned out to be her final nomination, she had to see a photo of her rival across the papers holding the Oscar in the winner’s circle she so desperately wanted to be a part of.
And you felt bad for the “Moonlight” and “La La Land” filmmakers and producers after February’s debacle? You could easily argue the Crawford and Davis situation was more emotionally devastating. So, if you consider yourself a student of Hollywood or Oscar history and have not watched this episode yet, watch it on iTunes, Amazon or the FX Now app. You won’t be disappointed.
With Emmy season approaching it should be noted the incredible contributions of cinematographer Nelson Cragg, production designer Judy Becker and costume designer Lou Eyrich for this episode in particular. It’s simply incredible work all around.
“Feud” airs on FX at 10 PM on Sunday.