To re-create for television a scandalous night at the Oscars — as Sunday night’s episode of Feud does — may now seem redundant. But for series creator Ryan Murphy, the events of February 26, 2017, only amplified an existing legacy of surreal moments at Hollywood’s biggest event of the year. It wasn’t an innocent envelope snafu that made April 8, 1963, infamous. It was, says Murphy, “the tipping point” of one of the greatest rivalries ever in show business when Joan Crawford successfully upstaged her Oscar-nominated What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? co-star Bette Davis by accepting the Best Actress award on Anne Bancroft’s behalf when she beat Davis.
Murphy spoke to Vulture about the exhaustive measures required to execute his limited series’ most ambitious installment yet, airing Sunday night on FX, the emotional core of Jessica Lange (Crawford) and Susan Sarandon’s (Davis) performances, and why HBO’s Big Little Lies is the ideal Sunday-night accompaniment to Feud.
This episode “And the Winner Is … (The Oscars of 1963)” says so much about Hollywood’s longtime obsession with awards. But there is one scene I love for its particular resonance this year: When Joan Crawford shows up at the Academy after she is snubbed for a nomination, the president tells her, “The vote tally is beyond reproach. The people at Price Waterhouse are honest to a fault!” Watching this year’s Oscars must have been hilarious for you considering everything that happened at the end of the show.
[Laughs.] It was. We shot that scene in January, so it was already locked before this year’s Oscars happened. By the way, the Oscars have always been my Super Bowl. I’m really invested in it so I had a very big reaction to that crazy moment. I’m friends with all those people. I know [La La Land director] Damien [Chazelle]. And I felt terrible for Moonlight. Had the envelope actually said Moonlight, it would’ve meant so much to a lot of gay boys and girls around the world. But that moment was taken away from them. I also felt really bad for Warren Beatty, who’s a friend of mine. I don’t think they handled it well at all. It was a big stew of sadness! But I also felt ridiculous for caring so much. I stood up and was literally screaming at the TV. My husband David was like, “You really need to calm down.”
In researching and shooting this episode, what did you learn about what an Oscar meant in 1963? Did it have the same impact on an actor’s careers as it does today?
I think Oscars mean a lot to women’s careers, and it’s always been that way. Bette Davis, whom I interviewed before she died, told me as much. She really wanted to win that night for two reasons. She wanted to make history as the first person to win three. And she wanted to win so it would give her another five years of opportunity and not merely be a relic from the 1930s and ’40s. In her mind, had she won that Oscar [for Baby Jane], she would’ve gotten the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
It’s essentially an insurance policy for an acting career.
Yeah, it keeps you vital. But it’s mostly a perception thing. Like, you’re in the club! I guess it happens with the guys too, but for Joan and Bette — who were two women in their 50s — an Oscar would have given them an extension of job opportunities. Awards have done that for me in my career. If you win an Emmy, Golden Globe, or Peabody, it means a lot, and also to your employers. They say, “What do you want to do next?” Even if it’s something really bizarre that on paper doesn’t make sense, like American Horror Story, they may still say “Okay.” The more you become celebrated for artistry, the more willing they are to take chances.
You also directed this episode of Feud, which I’m guessing was an insane undertaking considering you essentially re-created the 1963 Oscars ceremony. Divorcing yourself from writing and producing, how did it specifically test you behind the camera?
It was the episode I was the most obsessed with, much to Susan and Jessica’s chagrin [Laughs.] They were like, “Shut the fuck up already about the Oscar episode!” It was the tipping point of their feud. I knew that it was going to be technically very challenging in the way that People v. O.J. was when we were re-creating famous courtroom scenes that people had seen on TV. But this was a whole other level. I grew up with the legend of the Bette Davis–Joan Crawford Oscar-night bloodbath. I could never believe how awful Joan was to Bette — and then I met Bette and she reiterated just how awful Joan was to her. But I decided that my obligation with the show, and Jessica felt this too, was to understand why Joan did things that were batshit crazy. Why did she want to dress up like a silver Oscar with silver flakes in her hair? How do we get inside that emotional pain? Then for Susan, the interesting thing was that Bette really thought she was going to win. So she had to go from that supreme confidence to — and Susan acted it so beautifully — being hit in the gut. But the most exquisite, wonderful thing for me was the technical research. I had a team pulling every photo, video clip, and document we could find, from the angle of the toothpicks to what the actual screws in the Oscars looked like to …
Patty Duke bringing her Chihuahua in her purse to the show.
Yes! And the color of the purse, the direction the bow in her hair was facing.
Did you film all of this at your studios on the Fox lot?
No, it was all at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium where the 1963 Oscars took place. We re-created the exterior, and then interior-wise, we re-created the stage, we built the staircases, and we re-created all the gowns. I think Jessica’s dress weighed 50 pounds. She was like, “Get me out of this!”
Are you trying to kill your lead actors?
[Laughs.] I know. Then we had hundreds of extras come in at three in the morning with literally 30 hair and makeup teams to get everyone ready in the period-look of the day. Then it was, “Okay, let’s talk about the steady-cam shots.” We looked at old photographs and realized that 70 percent of the backstage area had been torn down or changed so we rebuilt it specifically for the long steady-cam shot [where we see the backstage area from Crawford’s perspective]. It took months. We rehearsed the hell out of that shot for days. I would be Jessica and the camera operator would be behind me as we turned corners and followed the lighting cues. We figured if we spent a whole day shooting it, we could probably do the shot 20 times? But then a miracle happened on take four: Everybody got it right. Every moving piece worked — it was perfect. Hundreds of people applauded. Then we did it one more time just for shits and giggles. [Laughs.]
This episode was simultaneously its own separate parallel production alongside the rest of the show.
It was. I really wanted it to be a love letter to the Academy, to show business, and to that night I’d always been so obsessed with in my childhood.
The episode shows gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played by Judy Davis, pulling strings for Joan behind the scenes. How involved was she really in all this?
Well, she was on Team Joan for sure. She hated Bette Davis at that point. She thought she was a vulgarian and a hypocrite. She hated that Bette lived in New York and Connecticut; that she was an East Coast snob and not part of “the town.” So she and Joan, from our research, really were in cahoots.
Did you have direct access or contact with anyone who was actually there that night?
We did talk to some of the Joan people who worked with her at her home and some of her makeup people. We found the actual silver nail polish that she used that night! We were able to re-create that night from her perspective down to a T. I think she’s the only person in history to accept an Academy Award that wasn’t their own and get more coverage than the real winners. She was on the cover of every newspaper in the world the next day holding Anne Bancroft’s Oscar. It was an international scandal. I loved the whole thing.
At this point in your Fox tenure, when you have an ambitious idea, do you call your bosses Gary Neuman and Dana Walden and say, “Okay, I’m going to need some extra money for this one,” or do they just trust you to spend as you see fit?
It’s a little of both. From a financial perspective, I do pretty well. My shows are pretty lavish, but we always usually end up making money back. But I specifically made sure this script wasn’t extravagantly long because that’s where it kills you — all those extra shooting days. I tried to be a good partner about that. I never come from a place of, “This is what I’m going to do and that’s it.” It’s all about planning and communication. In every series I’ve done, particularly in the past five years, there’s always been one special episode.
In People v. O.J., it was “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”
Yes. We took a lot of time to shoot that one and get the performances just right. The extra days were for the acting as opposed to production design. For Feud, it was the opposite. The tipping point of the Baby Jane drama was the 1963 Oscars. It was the affair that they could never get over, like in a marriage.
And ultimately all the cruelty between them was for nothing.
Yeah. That’s the tragedy of the show. We actually just locked the finale, which I think is really beautiful; it’s a great tearjerker, directed and written by women. It’s very upsetting! It’s called, “You Mean All This Time, We Could Have Been Friends?” It really reminded me of my grandmother when she was that age; what happens when suddenly life gets really quiet and not a lot of people are interested in you anymore. The show has become a meditation about aging in our society, and I’m proud of that. I’ve also loved that on Sundays, Big Little Lies is on at 9 p.m. on HBO and we are on at 10 on FX. It’s great these two shows have taken off among so many.
It’s also very cool that two such powerful, female-centric stories can coexist on a Sunday night and not be feuding — that is, until the Emmys where you’ll be competing against each other in the limited series category.
[Laughs.] Well, I write to them about how much I love their show, and then they write me back about how much they love our show. I just love those ladies. I feel like we’ve all become a mutual admiration society.