Let’s Talk about “FEUD”, Part I: The Oscars

“And the winner is… Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker.”

The camera cuts to Susan Sarandon, standing in the wings, and for an infinite second she can sparely sputter a breath. Jessica Lange drops her cigarette, stamps it out beneath her silver sole—and proudly struts past Susan to collect that Oscar.

“And the Winner Is…” is the most Ryan Murphy TV episode Ryan Murphy’s ever directed. For those of us who obsessively track the Oscars all year long—and insist they don’t really matter much—Feud wants us to know this night mattered a great deal for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

I don’t write much about TV shows, but there’s a lot to cover in Feud‘s episode covering the 1963 Oscars. It was the year to fête David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, which took Best Picture and Director, and the year Lawrence himself—Peter O’Toole, on his first of eight unsuccessful noms—lost to Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck, an indelible performance in To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the best he ever gave). The glitterati must have suspected Lawrence would take the gold. Lean’s desert epic swept the technical awards all night, though it did lose Adapted Screenplay to Mockingbird. 1963 was also the year Angela Lansbury’s imperious work in The Manchurian Candidate lost to the young Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker. And 1963 was Bette Davis’s last chance.

In Feud, Olivia de Havilland comforts Davis after the show, telling her she’ll surely win again one day. “In what part? In what picture?” Davis lashes out. Though she didn’t have another shot at a nomination after this, her career didn’t abruptly end. She made fifteen more films, several in the Grand Guignol style of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?Dead Ringer; Hush, Hush… Sweet CharlotteThe Nanny. If none brought Academy attention, at least she continued to find roles. The work continued, including numerous TV appearances, right up to her death before filming wrapped on 1989’s Wicked Stepmother. Shocked, devastated at her loss, Bette Davis—indefatigable as always—desired to keep going and continue proving everyone wrong.

Joan Crawford, in comparison, only made six more movies over the next decade. Her career ended in 1972, ten years after Baby Jane, and she died in 1977. One wonders how she coped with the Oscars overlooking her, especially considering she never really had another movie like Baby Jane. I can’t find any record of it, whereas Davis—who always seemed authentic in interviews, never unwilling to be frank with viewers—was good-humored enough to discuss it. She had wanted to be the first lead actress to win three Oscars.

Walter Brennan had three supporting Oscars, but I’d sure Brennan’s name didn’t cross Davis’s mind. She was a star, and she yearned for the proper acknowledgment. She’d given excellent performances in many of her ten Oscar nominations: The Letter; The Little Foxes; Now, Voyager. All About Eve was another surprising loss in another highly competitive year. Even if two Oscars is no great shame, she won them in the first decade of her career. Since then—nothing. (She’d have to settle for a 1979 Emmy for a TV movie.)

At the 1963 Oscars, her competitor Katharine Hepburn only had one Oscar, also for an early movie (1933’s Morning Glory). It would’ve been a deserved win for Hepburn, too, for Long Day’s Journey into Night. Hepburn and Davis were virtually equals as actors, but after Davis’s loss, Hepburn would start racking up plum parts and would win three more times for Best Actress. How did she pull off such a strong late career? Bette Davis desperately wanted Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which I’d kill to see in a parallel universe, but the studio went with Elizabeth Taylor. Would an Oscar have changed that? Maybe, maybe not. But her incontestable wit and keen way with a cigarette and a bourbon would have made a feast of Edward Albee’s play.

I’m surprised Feud omits one scene from Oscars night. After Joan Crawford glamorously presented Best Director, Bette Davis herself walked onstage to present two screenplay Oscars. Frank Sinatra gave her a glowing introduction, saying, “They insisted that their awards be given by a past president of the Academy, and someone who had been nominated for an Oscar at least eight times and won at least twice… So, to cater to their ridiculous whim, here is the magnificently versatile Miss Bette Davis.”

And she received a standing ovation.

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