Feud: Bette And Joan Takes Oscar Buzz To The Next Level
It's the 1963 (ahem) Academy Awards, and Joan Crawford has a crazy plan to snatch Bette Davis's Oscar. Spoiler: it totally worked.
While it's been very enjoyable watching Joan and Bette spar over the course of this miniseries, "And The Winner Is (The Oscars Of 1963)" feels like the episode Ryan Murphy has been waiting all season to make, if not for much, much longer than that. As is typical of Murphy's style, some of it feels oddly paced and awkward; I understand that the target audience for this show is the Thursday afternoon crowd at Julius in the West Village, but assuming the viewer knows all about the Olivia DeHavilland/Joan Fontaine enmity is still probably an error. But everything about Bette and Joan's rivalry, all the insecurity and career struggles and harsh Hollywood manipulations, comes to a head here.
To set the stage, Bette Davis has been nominated for Best Actress for her Baby Jane performance, while Crawford was snubbed. Instead, Davis is up against Lee Remick for The Days Of Wine And Roses; Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker; Geraldine Page for Sweet Bird Of Youth; and Katharine Hepburn for Long Day's Journey Into Night. As Murphy's newsreel establishes, Hepburn had always ignored the Oscars, even when she won (the shot of the gated mansion with "Do Not Disturb" signs is an excellent sight gag). Remick was seen as a TV actress, and Page and Bancroft were more closely associated with the New York stage. So it appeared as though Bette had the inside track for the victory. Until Joan Crawford made it her business to see that she lost.
Ryan Murphy writes and directs this episode with an obsession for the Academy Awards that is entirely befitting his status as a queer of a certain age. Which is why it is bizarre that he lets everybody refer to this as the 1963 Oscars, even though people didn't start (incorrectly) referring to the Oscars by the year they were awarded, rather than the year of the films they honored, since well into the SEO era. It's honestly disappointing to see Murphy on the wrong side of history here. But that's really the only slip-up in an episode that gets the details exactly right. (He even knows that the nominees for Best Director, unlike the acting awards, are read in alphabetical order by film.) How exactly right? The moment Joan Crawford comes out to accept Anne Bancroft's Best Actress Oscar is a perfect re-enactment from the minute Frank Sinatra introduces Maximillian Schell.
Let's count down the players from biggest loser to ultimate victor.
- Bette Davis
It pains me to rank her last, but there's no one else I could slot at the bottom. Not only did Bette lose the Oscar, but the whole world got to see her enemy Joan Crawford walk away with that statue instead. What's worse is that this week we see that rather than being a blasé Katharine Hepburn about it, Davis truly loves and believes in that Oscar. There's no pretense of humility here: she's got two Oscars, and she really wants #3. "Wait up for me, boys," she tells her statues for Dangerous and Jezebel. "Tonight I'm bringing you home a baby brother." If only.
- Olivia de Havilland
Finally, Catherine Zeta-Jones gets to step out of those tedious exposition interludes. In this episode, we see that Olivia and Bette are great friends, with Olivia joining Bette as her date to the Oscars. Both women get to grouse about the respective Joans who are bugging them (though, as previously noted, Murphy probably leans a bit too heavily on the assumption that his audience knows all about de Havilland's famously bitter relationship with her actress sister Joan Fontaine).
- Geraldine Page
With Hepburn essentially removing herself from contention and Remick a non-factor, it's down to either Page or Bancroft to spoil Bette's big night. So Joan Crawford sets out to get her hooks into the both of them. Back in the early '60s, not attending the Oscars wasn't that big a deal, so it wouldn't be too hard to convince two New York actresses to save themselves the cross-country travel. But, as played by Sarah Paulson in a typically wonderful turn, Page experiences a rollercoaster of emotions when she receives Crawford's phone call. There's the way her eyes light up when her husband (Rip Torn!) tells her who's on the phone. The way her hopes get up when Crawford raises the possibility that she might win. And then the utter disillusionment at the realization that this legend of Hollywood is only calling her so she can weasel her way onto the stage to accept on her behalf. The moment is heartbreaking. Her rationalization to Torn after she hangs up -- "Hollywood should be forced to look at what they've done to her" -- says it all.
- Patty Duke
Sure, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but she gets shamed by Crawford for bringing her little purse dog to the Academy Awards. Crawford's right, too.
- George Cukor
The legendary director is Joan's date to the Oscars, though at this point in his career he was 0-for-4 when it comes to Best Director nominations. (He'd end up winning a few years later for My Fair Lady.) And while you'd expect Murphy to have a bit of winky fun with the famously gay-as-blazes director, instead Cukor gets to be Joan's conscience, warning her that if she goes through with her plot to accept the Oscar, she'll look petty af. He's absolutely right.
- Anne Bancroft
Of all the actresses Crawford messes with on the way to that podium, Bancroft fares the best. It helps that she goes into the history books as the Best Actress of 1962. But even when Crawford visits her in her Broadway dressing room, Bancroft plays it cool, poised, and even a step ahead of the grand dame. Bancroft seems genuinely decent and unfussy, but also wise to Crawford's game. But where Page was disillusioned, Bancroft simply raises a knowing eyebrow. It's easily the most complimentary portrait of a famous person this show has delivered.
While there's nothing as dynamic as her work last week, we do get to see Mamasita directing the massive crush of people attending to Joan on Oscar day. It took a village to put together that frosted-hair-and-fringe-dress look, and Mamasita was the mayor. All that AND she tended bar at Joan's green-room soiree.
- Hedda Hopper
Credit Hedda with running the whisper campaign that got Oscar voters to shift away from Bette Davis and toward Anne Bancroft in the first place. Hedda's enmity for Bette gets laid bare in this episode, as Hedda calls Bette a "vulgar" woman who thinks the rest of them hypocrites. "Hypocrisy is the tribute vice must pay to virtue," Hedda quotes. She also calls Hepburn a buzzard in slacks. She's really having a time of it.
- Joan Crawford
For once, everything goes Joan's way. Her plan to overcome her Best Actress snub to take the stage and ruin the night for her rival Bette goes off exactly the way she (and Hedda) planned. She even managed to snag a gig presenting Best Director. And yet still, she ends up at home, along, staring at "her" two Oscars and wondering what it was all for. To your victory, Joan. As hollow as an empty bottle of PepsiCola.