Emmys: Ryan Murphy on the Role the Oscars Play Throughout 'Feud' (Q&A)

It’s not often that a major Emmy contender stars two Oscar winners as two other Oscar winners and largely revolves around the Oscars. That, however, is precisely the case with Ryan Murphy‘s acclaimed limited series Feud, which stars Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as arch-rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, respectively. FX will unveil the fifth of Feud‘s eight episodes at 10 p.m. on Sunday night, but Murphy, who knows how much I love the Oscars, gave me an early look at the episode and then chatted with me about the role that the Oscars play throughout his show and specifically in episode five, which takes place at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1963.

As you can read below, our conversation touches on the roots of Murphy’s personal fascination with the Oscars; how Murphy wound up interviewing Davis when he was just 21; the great effort and expense to which he and his backers went to recreate a 54-year-old Oscar night; and the list goes on.

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Are the Oscars something that you’ve always been interested in, or did they just happen to be a theme that runs throughout this story?

For me, growing up in Indiana with cornfields and churches, I was always very intrigued by the Academy Awards — they were a big event. That was the one night of the year when all of the glittering movie stars got together, and I used to love that night because, as a child, it was a way to dream for me. It was like, “Ok, well, maybe one day I can get out there. There is this exciting, glamorous world about things that I love — entertainment, movie stars, etc.” So I was always interested in it, and I was specifically really always interested in the ’63 Oscars, the year that Crawford was in collusion to take the Academy Award from Davis. I grew up reading this book called Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona that I’m sure you know of, and I later became friends with those guys, and that was always the chapter that I was drawn to the most, because I couldn’t believe the depths to which Crawford went to campaign against Davis, and to take over the green room and to walk on stage and get that Oscar and take it home — and also the fact that Crawford herself dressed up as a silver Oscar was just insane. When we got the green light to do the series, I knew that that was the halfway-point of the show, and indeed it was in their feud, because after that came [the 1964 film] Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte escapades and then the decline of Crawford in the seventies. It was always the episode I was looking forward to the most and wanted to put the most time and money into getting right. I thought it was a great opportunity to really take people into that Academy Awards and do it with a lot of love and affection. Sometimes in entertainment, when people have done the Academy Awards — like, for example, in The Bodyguard — I just didn’t believe it, it didn’t feel authentic. So for months and months and months before we started doing this episode, I knew that I wanted to write and direct it, so I knew that I wanted to start researching it right away, and we did so we could make all the stuff and get it right. I wrote that Steadicam shot where you go backstage and I never wanted to take it out, even though it was incredibly expensive, because, to me, that was the whole part of the fun of the show: showing people what it’s like when you win and you go backstage and you go into the press room and the green room, you know? I remember the first time I ever won an award, which I think was a Golden Globe back in 2004, that experience was like, “Oh, this is so bizarre to be backstage!” I’d never seen or felt this before, and I remember how jarring and exciting it was, and I kind of wanted to bring that feeling to the viewer through the episode. I just wanted to do a love letter to the Academy Awards and that whole joyous yet crippling idea of competition for awards that exists in Hollywood, which I’ve always been intrigued with.

You’ve been to the Golden Globes and Emmys. Have you ever been to the Oscars?

I went to the Oscars when I was a reporter. I was at the Oscars the year [1990] that Kim Basinger did the very famous “Why didn’t we vote for Do the Right Thing?” I was back in the press room, so I had the experience of that. But obviously I’ve always been very interested in them.

Other than Inside Oscar, what were the other resources that were most valuable to you in prepping episode five?

Well, I got to meet and hang out with Davis for a four-hour period right before she died [in 1989]. The first thing she said to me when I walked into her house was, “Do you want to hold my Oscars?” and I said, “Yeah, I do.” So she took me to them and told me a story that I always wanted to use in a script, and I got to use it in this one: One of them was worn a little bit, and I said, “Why is the gold-leaf a little tarnished?” And she said, “Oh, I hold that one in bed at night, it’s like my pet.” And I didn’t know if she was kidding or not. But then she told me the story that she loved looking at those Oscars because it reminded her of a time and a night and a moment when she felt universally loved by the entire world, and I was very moved by that. Then we talked a lot about her life, and one of the things she talked about was Joan Crawford and how devastated she was when she lost [the best actress of 1962] Academy Award, because if she would have won she would have made history as the first person, up to that point, with three, but more than that she felt that it would have given her maybe another five years of opportunity, that she would have been seen as a modern, current actress, and not somebody who was an old-timer from the thirties and forties. And she told me that she thought for sure she was going to win it — that, as she went into the night, everybody told her she was going to win it — so when she was backstage she was just sort of preening, ready to go on, pleating her skirt, and then when she heard “Anne Bancroft” [the winner, for her performance in The Miracle Worker] she said it felt like she got punched in the gut, and then she looked over and there was Joan Crawford walking by her to go on stage and accept it, and she couldn’t believe it. It was one of the most devastating experiences of her life. She thought that if she would have won, she would have gotten a lot more prestige projects in the ’60s — for example, she thought that for sure she could have gotten [the female lead in the 1966 film] Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? instead of Elizabeth Taylor. And she felt that Crawford was insane for doing what she did, because if Davis had won — they were both profit-participants in the movie — then the movie would have made more money and Crawford would have been more rich. So I always thought about all of those things: what a bitch Crawford was, how could she do it, how stupid, and blah-blah-blah. But then I felt, from the writing perspective, that my job, along with capturing the spectacle of the show and the production value, was to really understand how badly somebody must be in pain to have campaigned and gone to the lengths that she did — to campaign against Davis, and to call people to accept on their behalf, and to take over the green room. There were a lot of very deep self-esteem issues going on there, and Jessica and I worked a lot on that and talked a lot about that.

What was it that led you to Davis’ house? Was that for a story that you were reporting?

I started writing her fan letters when I was 10 years old because she really reminded me of my grandmother. I only wrote two fan letters in my whole life — one was to Bette Davis and the other was to Ron Palillo, who played Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter — and Davis was the one who answered. [laughs] She and I had a very sweet correspondence, and then when I became a teenager and in my very early twenties when I was a journalist, I kept writing that I wanted to do an interview with her. She had a wonderful assistant named Kathryn Sermak who eventually wrote me and said, “I think Bette’s at the end and now would be a great time if you want to come out. I’ll give you 20 minutes with her.” So it was sort of a culmination of 10 or 11 years — and we got along so well, and her energy was good enough that afternoon, that we ended up talking for four hours!

This morning I watched on YouTube the clip of the actual best actress presentation at the Oscars in 1963, and I was amazed how much you guys nailed it in your version, from the costumes to the hair to the whole mise en scene. Most Feud viewers won’t remember those details, so why was it still important that they be accurate?

Well, to me, if you’re going to do it, do it right. So very early in the process, we contacted the auditorium in Santa Monica where it actually happened [the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium], and they graciously said, “Yes, we’ll give you a window to shoot it,” so we were overjoyed. And then we went there on a scout and my heart kinda sank because everything had been changed — the exterior, the trees, the grid, the building, the landscaping. And then we went inside and the auditorium was completely changed — all the seats had been changed out, the auditorium stage had been reconfigured a little bit. Then we thought, “Well, let’s do it somewhere else,” but I said, “No, I want to do it where it happened, and if that’s not here then we’re just gonna build it.” So what we did was we spent months and months with a research team brilliantly overseen by our AD Leo Bauer and my production heads — Nelson Cragg, the DP, Lou Eyrich, the costumer, and Judy Becker, the production designer. We pulled every possible photograph to answer every possible question — like, “What did the program look like?” “What direction were the toothpicks in the green room that Joan Crawford brought in?” “What were the dresses like? The hair? The extras? The people in the audience?” On and on and on. And then we just built it all — we brought in actual trees that matched. And what we couldn’t build? We CGI’d a lot of stuff so that it looked exactly like the newsreel photographs of the star arrivals, we rebuilt a lot of the auditorium and used special effects to make it look the same, we rebuilt all of the dresses that those actresses wore — Crawford wore a silver-beaded Edith Head dress that weighed 50 pounds, and we copied it, and Jessica pulled her back out three times wearing it, it was so unbelievably heavy! We copied Bette’s clothes, Olivia’s [Olivia de Havilland‘s] — that was important to us. We brought in hundreds of extras starting at three or four in the morning and we had like 30 makeup and hair and costume stations so that we could get the period look right even though you see them only fleetingly. We made all of those Academy Awards by hand —

Was there cooperation from the Academy?

No. I’ve tried to get stuff before from the Academy — film clips, et cetera — and they’re never cooperative. They shouldn’t be, it’s their trademark. They didn’t say “yes” and they didn’t say “no.” You know, Dede Gardner, one of our executive producers, has two Academy Awards, so I think they knew that we were going to be fair and respectful, which we were. But when we made all of the Academy Awards, we obviously switched them up and made tiny little changes so that they weren’t authentic Oscars, and then when we were done we destroyed them all, so we were very respectful of that. The big heartbreak for me was that after I wrote that Steadicam shot, we went backstage and found that only 20 percent of what used to be there was remaining — it had all been ripped out and reconfigured and we were like, “Fuck! What are we gonna do?” We rebuilt all of that backstage stuff — a great portion of it, 80 percent of it, I think — for that Steadicam shot. And then we worked and rehearsed for days and weeks. Our ADs broke their backs hiring the right extras so that everybody knew when to move; that shot was very choreographed by Nelson Cragg, our DP, so that when Joan would turn a corner there would be a lighting change. We slavishly found original photographs, copied them when we could. And then we rehearsed it and then we thought, “Okay, we’re gonna give a whole day to doing this, even if Jessica is probably going to have to have a chiropractor standing by because of that dress. We thought we would have 15 runs at it and hopefully it would work out; then when we shot it, take four was perfect when we looked at it on the playback — everybody in the auditorium cheered because it was so perfect — and I was like, “Well, we kind of have it, but let’s just do one more,” and we did one more, and somebody bumped into something, so I was like, “We have it. It’s perfect. Let’s use take four.” And that’s what we have in the cut.

Is that tracking shot actually a continuous shot, or is it somehow stitched together?

No, it’s one shot. Two critics wrote that there’s a hidden cut in there, and it’s like, there is no hidden cut in there — there’s not — and I don’t know why somebody would say that. It’s one continuous take and it was always designed to be one continuous take. There’s no buried cut in there. There’s no optical trick. It’s all one take. It’s all purely caught on camera. Nothing was maneuvered. I’m proud of it because we didn’t have to do any special effects work at all. Sometimes you’ll do a shot like that and one of the extras will look into the lens and then you’ll have to correct the eyeball or something. With this, everybody approached it with so much love and care that we didn’t change a frame with special effects. What you see is what you get. There is no cut. It’s all one continuous move.

To what degree did you allow yourself to just imagine how people would have handled certain situations? Like, is there actually any reason to believe that Crawford colluded with Hedda Hopper to lobby Academy members against Davis, or is that just a fairly safe assumption?

Well, there’s research about it. At that point in her life, Hedda Hopper really was not that big of a fan of Davis. I think she always thought that Davis was an outsider, an East Coast snob who sort of looked down upon the town, and Hedda was a company town kind of gal. Hedda, very famously, would lobby for people to win Academy Awards. She really lobbied for Crawford to win for Mildred Pierce, and she famously wrote articles defending Crawford after the “box-office poison” label, which almost single-handedly helped pull her up from that bad public relations thing. But I know that they were friends at that time. And Davis actually told me that, years later, she found out a lot of the stuff was true — people would tell her, “You know that Hedda and Joan called me, right? And you know that they were actively working against you?” Davis had no idea at all that this was happening until later. I think what they [Hopper and Crawford] did, from what Bette told me, was very much a good-cop/bad-cop thing: Crawford would never say anything bad about her, but she would always sort of fluff up Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Page, the obvious choices if not Bette; and then Hedda would say bad things behind the scenes. So a lot of that came from my interview with Bette — that was what she heard and what was always in her mind, that those two were in cahoots against her. And then other things were also interesting. Crawford supposedly wrote letters to Bancroft and Page thanking them for them agreeing to let her come see them. It’s in several books that Crawford would say how much Bancroft meant to her because Bancroft told her that she thought her performance in Baby Jane was good and that it is hard to be the straight-man and that she held that movie together. I liked the kindness of Page and Bancroft, you know? The studio system was over, that sort of way of being an actor or an actress in town was over, these [Page and Bancroft] were stage-trained professionals, and I liked their approach to it. Instead of those women — and Olivia de Havilland — saying, “Oh, my God, you’re so awful for doing this,” they understood, as only an actress could, that this person was reacting out of pain and sadness and feeling excluded. But we did research all that stuff, and some of it was from what Bette told me — which, of course, I ate up. I couldn’t get enough of that.

Of all of the principal characters, the only one who’s still around is Olivia de Havilland, who, if you can believe it, I occasionally email with. Did you consult her or anyone else who actually lived through this?

No. I didn’t write Olivia because I didn’t want to be disrespectful and ask her, “Did this happen? Did that happen? What was your take on that?” I tried to base a lot of that stuff on what Davis had told me, which was that Olivia was presenting best picture that year, and Olivia was a friend — a friend she would later tear into in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte — and if you look at the Olivia scenes, she’s always supportive, always like Switzerland, not saying bad things about Joan, not saying good things about Bette’s ambition other than, “I think you’re going to win,” which she did say on the red carpet: “Bette Davis is the best and she should be the first to win three. The industry owes her this.” Those real-life things that she said were our jumping-off points and we would use them verbatim in the show when we had them, the actual quotes that de Havilland gave to the press that evening. But no, I relied much more on my own Davis reporting. I didn’t want to intrude on Ms. de Havilland.

Lastly, did the subtextual stuff ever get weird on this one, in the sense that Jessica, like Bette, has two Oscars and Susan, like Joan, has one, and they’re now both in the running for an Emmy nomination. I mean, what would happen if, in a very crowded year of great stuff, one of them got nominated and the other didn’t, as happened in 1963?

Well, I think it is a very meta thing that’s happening with these shows — you know, Feud, particularly, since you have movie stars playing movie stars. We never talked about it on the set — we never talked about it, period — because I don’t think Jessica and Susan are that kind of women; they were very supportive of each other during the shoot and they spent a lot of time helping each other and, you know, they’re both producers of the show. So I think that their viewpoint would be very different than Joan and Bette’s. I understand it’s human nature to say, “Oh, it’s a replay of that scenario,” but I don’t know, I think there’s room for everybody. Jessica and Susan are such pros that I think if both of them got nominated they’d feel great, and if one of them won and the other one didn’t they would look at it as a mutual victory — and that, to me, is the most important thing, and that is why I’m so proud to be doing the show, because I don’t think that Bette and Joan would have ever gotten there, but I’m glad that Susan and Jessica can, if that makes any sense? I think there’s been so much progress, in terms of that idea of women in Hollywood, and I think all of us in Hollywood who are doing female-driven material that, as you know, is so hard to get on the air, are just always fans of each other and root for any success we can get so that more pieces of female-driven material can get made.

Will there be additional Oscars references after episode five?

Our show ends at the Academy Awards in 1978, where they did the Crawford “In Memoriam” segment. So this is a show that loves the Academy Awards, I’ll tell you that.

SOURCE: awards holly