The 1963 Oscars are nearly upon us, and the Best Actress category is stacked: Lee Remick, Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Page (played by — it wouldn’t be a Ryan Murphy series without her — Sarah Paulson!), and perennial awards-show no-show Katherine Hepburn. But Bette Davis is the odds-on favorite to win, to Joan Crawford’s deep and profound dismay.
Joan may not have been nominated, but that doesn’t mean she’s about to let Oscar night be about anyone but her. She marches directly into the office of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, demanding to see their president. He assures her that the people of Price Waterhouse have tallied the votes accurately (lol). She volunteers — well, demands — to present either the Oscar for Best Picture or Best Director, and requests — well, demands — hair, makeup, and a chauffeur on the Academy’s tab. Thanks in advance!
In a 1978 documentary interview, Olivia de Havilland speculates that if Bette had even once publicly expressed her regret that Joan didn’t get nominated, that gesture might have alleviated some of the tension between the Baby Jane stars. But she didn’t. She just couldn’t — as Davis explains to De Havilland herself back in 1963, she wants to be kinder, but she has a knee-jerk negative response to all things Crawford.
Bette enlists Olivia (who she affectionately, adorably calls Livvy) to fly in from Paris to serve as her Oscar date. Not only are the two iconic actresses great pals, but each is at war with her own Joan. Davis of course has The Co-Star Who Must Not Be Named, and De Havilland has her estranged sister, actress Joan Fontaine. Plus, observes the Gone with the Wind star of her friendship with Bette, “I was already Melanie Wilkes to her Scarlett O’Hara — of course, I really was Melanie Wilkes.” One thousand applause emojis for you, Olivia de Havilland.
Lest we forget, Joan has an ally of her own. She and Hedda Hopper deduce that, of the 655 Academy members in the acting peer group, they’ll only need to swing 100 votes to effectively sabotage Davis. The devious duo — Crawford in a majestic silken purple caftan, and the gossip maven in three necklaces plus a peacock feather fascinator — focus their energies on supporting Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft. They start a two-woman phonebank to whisper sweet nothings in the ears of Hollywood heavyweights.
But this is only phase one of their plan to ensure that Joan Crawford will take home the Best Actress Oscar, if only in the most literal sense. She reaches out to the category’s frontrunners, Page and Bancroft, both of whom are starring in Broadway plays on the opposite coast. Crawford calls up Page at her apartment and passive-aggressively bullies her into staying home on Oscar night. Page explains to her live-in gentleman friend (actor Rip Torn, to whom she was married till she died) why she agreed to allow Crawford to accept the award on her behalf, should she win: “She needs it.” Besides, Page argues, Hollywood should be forced to witness what they’ve done to this woman.
Crawford personally visits the dressing room of Anne Bancroft, who at first can’t believe that the legendary star came to see her perform. (“To a half-empty house, that really is dedication,” Joan snipes with a smile.) Bancroft, who’s already announced that she won't be attending the Oscars out of reluctance to miss performances of her play, correctly guesses what Joan has flown all the way to New York ask her. “Would it make you happy?” Bancroft asks. “Desperately,” Joan answers. Bancroft, who praises Crawford’s performance as the heart of Baby Jane, obliges.
On Oscar morning, Mamasita marshals a glamsquad army into the Crawford house — they are not to speak unless spoken to, and they are to hurry the hell up. With their assistance, Joan transforms herself into a human counterpoint to the Little Gold Man she’s determined to get her hands on by any means: silver manicure, silver eyeshadow, and even a dusting of silver powder on her coiffed hair. It is quite a lewk.
Over at Bette’s, we learn that the gold plating has already rubbed off one of her two Oscars, because she holds him in bed every night as she watches television. Davis promises to bring the pair home “a baby brother.” She’s more excited by the prospect of an unprecedented, career-reinvigorating third Oscar than she’d care to admit.
The absolute highlight of Feud’s version of the Oscar ceremony is a nod to Goodfellas: An unbroken shot follows Joan, leading Best Director winner David Lean to the press room, all the way from the podium past starlets and producers backstage, through a bathroom where a man is peeing in an urinal (Joan pats him on the back), through a kitchen, through the green room she’s hijacked for her own private party, and back to the opposite side of the stage. This is old-school glamour queen Crawford back on the throne in her kingdom, if only for one night.
Finally, it’s time for actor Maximilian Schell to present the Oscar for Best Actress. Waiting in the wings, Bette and Joan anxiously await the opening of the envelope. Anne Bancroft wins. The wind is visibly knocked out of Davis as Joan triumphantly strides across the stage to collect her prize. Crawford delightedly poses for photos with Bancroft’s statuette and “the other winners.”
A boozy Bette mourns her loss at her house. “Could’ve made history,” she growls. Olivia reassures her that she still can, but Davis won’t have any of that well-intentioned nonsense: “In what part? In what picture?”
All of Joan’s sinister maneuvering has gone exactly as she planned, but even her award-night glow (the figurative one and the literal silver one) has worn off. She places Anne Bancroft’s borrowed Oscar on her bedside table next to her own, but it’s just not the same.
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