Ryan Murphy is a man possessed.
The showrunner and producer has become one of the foremost storytellers in television because every project he creates is deeply rooted in his own personal passions, sometimes to the point of near tunnel vision fanaticism to materialize concepts onscreen exactly how he sees them in his head, come hell or high cost–to wit, episode five of Feud.
In the first installment of Murphy’s newest anthology, Feud depicts the storied rivalry of Hollywood legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis just before, during, and after co-starring in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Although his creative praxis is to operate from a point of direct interests, Feud hits on an even more emotional level than average for Murphy.
Back when he was a syndicated columnist for Knight Ridder, Murphy spent four hours getting to know Bette Davis not long before she passed away, an interview which planted the early seeds of what would become Feud.
“The first thing she said to me was, ‘do you want to hold my Oscar?’ So that scene [in episode five] where [Davis] gives that whole speech about how she holds [her Oscar] in bed when she watches TV, she actually told me that and I always wanted to use that reportage somewhere,” Murphy says. “I thought it was very moving and lovely.”
What was even more moving for Murphy, albeit unexpected, was what Feud evolved into.
“I learned that you can make a show for one reason but to be open to the idea that it can become about something else. The first half of it is about feminism and how women are not treated well in the industry, but the last half of the show, starting with episode five, is a meditation on loneliness and what it’s like to be dismissed or not treated well because you’re old–you become invisible,” Murphy says. “It reminded me a lot of how my grandparents felt when they got old. Suddenly the world slows down, people aren’t calling you on the phone, there’s no career, and your children are gone.”
As Murphy mentions, episode five of Feud is most definitely the flashpoint of the season. Not only does it shift the tone for the remaining episodes, it’s what Murphy claims as his “Holy Grail” in the scope, level of production, and least of all budget.
It’s 1963 and Bette Davis has received a best-actress Oscar nomination for her role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Her co-star and rival Joan Crawford? Zilch. For Davis, she’s on the precipice of becoming the first female actress with three Oscars. For Crawford, it’s yet another affront in a life that seems like nothing but disappointments. In the lead up to Hollywood’s biggest night, Crawford and her friend and entertainment columnist Hedda Hopper embark on a vicious campaign to persuade the voting members of the Academy to bypass Davis. What’s more, Crawford practically strong-arms the other actresses nominated in the same category to allow her to accept their award should one of them win.
“I grew up with this book that I was obsessed with called Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona. The Crawford vs. Davis Academy Awards chapter was always my favorite because when I first read it, I remember saying, ‘none of this happened, right?’ But it was all true,” Murphy says. “I was a huge fan of that story because it was so dramatic and had so much conflict. Once [Feud] was picked up, I wanted to direct [this episode] because I feel like all I really knew about it was what a bitch Joan Crawford was for doing that. But if somebody goes to that length, there must be so much pain involved.”
Out of Feud’s eight episodes, Murphy directs three with number five easily being his crown jewel.
“It was was one of the most important episodes because it was the height of the feud. You saw how far Joan Crawford would be willing to go to get back at Bette Davis for the slights that she thought she had committed,” Murphy says. “The thing that I was amazed by was that her act of revenge actually hurt herself as well because she was a profit participant in the movie. If Bette Davis had won the Oscar, Joan Crawford would have made more money, because when you win an Oscar your movie makes more money at the box office. But she didn’t care.”
Encapsulating the emotional weight of Davis and Crawford’s rift while trying to stay as faithful to that particular Hollywood era became an intense labor of love for Murphy. “I was a kid who grew up in Indiana with cornfields and churches, so the Academy Awards was the one night in the year that I could have this entrée into a dream which was Hollywood for me. It was important to me and I wanted to treat it reverently,” he says. “It really was a love letter to Hollywood.”
Below, Murphy breaks down the meticulous and obsessives lengths he went through in order to pull off the stunning achievement that is episode five of Feud.
Fabricating Authenticity And Burning Oscars
“We scouted in Santa Monica and found the real auditorium where the Oscars were held. I was so excited that they were going to let us shoot there and then you walk in and it’s plastic stadium seating now–it’s not what it was. We had to spend a lot of money, exterior and interior, recreating [the 1963 Oscars] because for me it became my Holy Grail. If we’re going to do this, we were going to do it right. We had a whole research team dedicated to bringing me photographs of every possible thing that we could find from that night in terms of the green room and the food and the color of the carnations.
The first thing we did was recreate the stage. It was a very weird set that year because it had kind of a cake-tiered display where all the Oscars were. We made all of those Oscars, and they’re different than the Oscars today–they weighed differently. Afterwards we burned them all out of respect to the Academy and we got rid of the molds. Outside of the civic center, we recreated the red carpet and all of those bleachers and scaffolding. All that early 60s ironwork had long been torn down, so we recreated that physically and digitally.”
Suffering For Art: Joan Crawford’s Back-Breaking Gown
“We recreated all of the dresses of the women including the dress that Jessica Lange wore that pulled her back out three times because it was literally 45 to 50 pounds. Jessica kept begging me to hurry up and get [the shot] because it hurt to wear it. But Joan Crawford wore it so we were like, ‘you know what Jessica, you can suck it up. If Joan could do it, so can you.’ So she laughed it off.”
The Fourth Time’s A Charm: Inside That Two-Minute Steadicam Shot
“I had always written in the script a steadicam shot: what it’s like to win and go backstage from that moment all the way into the pressroom. I found out that [Lawrence of Arabia director] David Lean was a little confused about where to go [after his Best Director win] but Crawford, who was like the mayor of Oscar world, knew her way around that auditorium in a way that I think only stagehands did. So we wrote that in the script.
I wrote all that scene based on the original architecture of the place, and then we showed up to scout it and almost all of it had been ripped down, removed, or enlarged. I was devastated but I wasn’t going to give up the ghost. So with our brilliant production designer Judy Becker, we rebuilt the back stage that was actually there that night. What you see, only 20 percent of that was real and the rest of it we built: the dressing rooms, pressroom, green room, hallways–we built everything. After it was built, we dedicated an entire day for that steadicam shot which was very difficult because it had anywhere from 100 to 150 extras. I would pretend to be Joan Crawford and the camera would follow behind me and we would walk it over and over and over again so that the extras knew when to be cued and where to turn. Sometimes they would have to hug a wall–there would be only a half an inch of space between them and the steadicam operator because hallways and rooms back then were much smaller than they are now.
On the fourth take, it was perfect and we only did one more [for safety]. What you see in [episode five] is the fourth take.
Jessica, Susan, and Catherine [Zeta-Jones] thought I was insane. They keep saying, ‘why are you so obsessed with the shot?’ And then when we ran it and they loved it because it really was a technical feat for them as actors and they had a lot of fun doing it–even though the dress was murder on poor Jessica Lange’s back!”
The Art of Crafting Suspense Around What’s Already Known
“Bette Davis was desperate to win, and more than desperate to win was convinced she had won. So the moment of her not winning and just having the wind knocked out of her was devastating. She actually spoke to me about how she had never gone through anything more painful than that and that her whole dream in life was to have three [Oscars]. It wasn’t just about the awards–she thought it was going to lead to better work. She told me that it actually did feel like a gut punch.
I was interested in giving viewers the experience of what it’s like to be waiting in the wings and to win, and what it’s like to lose. So that scene where [Davis] loses and leans forward and almost passes out, I started from an emotional place because I myself have been nominated for awards and won–and I’ve been nominated for awards and lost. I know that feeling of, they’re reading your name and the camera is on you and you can’t react because if you do you look like an asshole, so you’re in this sense of suspended animation. For the 10 seconds it takes to get through it, the reality is so bizarre.”
“So I tried to dramatize that. We carefully worked on the blocking and the editing, and we had a lot of camera angles, high and low, so that you could interconnect the moments. It really is just about creating the art of suspense. I had a great editor and we worked a long time on that cut: the music, having Susan and Jessica do ADR [automated dialogue replacement] with just exhaling and sighing, how the dropping of the cigarette sounds like a brick falling, the swish of the beads on Crawford’s dress–all of that to me was like my version of a boxing movie. I’m never going to make a boxing movie, but it had that ‘what’s going to happen?’ feeling.
It was really an emotional show. I just love the actresses in it and the actors–we had fun doing it and we cared so much about those two women. And I think that comes across.”