‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ episode 5 recap: No winners in ‘And the Winner Is’

“The 1963 Oscars, I have to say, that’s when things took such an ugly turn,” says Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in the opening moments of the fifth episode of Ryan Murphy‘s “Feud: Bette and Joan.” She continues, “It was the Academy Awards that year when it became the point of no return for both Bette and Joan.” And like that contentious Best Actress race in 1963, every moment in FX’s anthology series has led to this monumental episode, titled “And the Winner Is… (The Oscars of 1963),” written and directed by Murphy.

We begin in the weeks leading up to the 1963 Oscars, and though Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) has been snubbed for a Best Actress nomination for “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” she has no intention of taking this slight lying down. Nor is she willing to let co-star Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) control the spotlight and make Academy history by being the first performer to win three Oscars. What follows is an engrossing and ultimately tragic look at one of the most talked-about moments in Oscar history. Below are the top 5 moments from “Feud: Bette and Joan” Season 1, Episode 5:

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Good Cop/Bad Cop — Crawford is convinced that Davis will win her third Oscar, but leave it to Hedda Hopper, the venomously sublime Judy Davis, to come up with an attack plan. Hedda will contact the voters and bad-mouth Davis, while Crawford talks up Davis’s competition. Soon both are on the phone with their friends: Chuck [Heston], Doris [Day] and Cary [Grant]. Crawford tells Hedda about the sense of competition she has always felt with Davis, and that despite her accomplishments, she has always been made to feel inferior. She admits that on the morning of the nominations, something inside her broke as she realized that her self-confidence had been “leeched” out of her. Hedda declares that it will be Joan, NOT Davis, that walks off the stage with the Best Actress Oscar, putting into motion a plan that will put both actresses at the center of one of the great Oscar legends. Lange is electric as Crawford grows more desperate and pathetic while still engendering our sympathies. And Davis continues to make Hedda more than just a one-note antagonist, instead showing us a woman who has finally found her place in Hollywood and will do whatever is necessary to keep her position.

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Crawford Pulls the Strings — Taking Hedda’s advice, Crawford contacts Geraldine Page, marking the first appearance of Sarah Paulson (now an Emmy winner for last year’s “The People vs. O.J. Simpson”). Crawford calls Page to congratulate her on her nomination (for “Sweet Bird of Youth”), but soon resorts to a series of not-so-subtle insinuations — the importance of a fancy gown, the harshness of television cameras — that the stage actress should stay home rather than attend the ceremony. Page immediately realizes that she is being manipulated and gives Crawford permission to accept the Oscar should Page win. After Crawford hangs up on her, Page remarks that “Hollywood should be forced to look at what they’ve done to [Crawford].” Joan then flies to New York to visit Anne Bancroft (Serinda Swan), whose resemblance to Bancroft is positively uncanny) backstage at her Broadway play. Joan attempts to use the same manipulations that she used on Page, but Bancroft instantly realizes what Joan wants and asks her point blank if Joan flew all the way to New York to ask if she could accept Bancroft’s Oscar. Joan initially denies it, but Bancroft presses her, asking if it would make her happy. Joan responds simply, “Desperately.” Anne accepts Joan’s offer, and says that despite Davis’s flashier role, it was Crawford that made “Baby Jane” work. These scenes, beautifully acted by Lange, highlight Joan’s powers of manipulation and her growing desperation, but only during her scenes with Bancroft do we get to see the insecure actress behind the glamour, longing for validation. The always stellar Paulson captures Page’s lilting speaking voice as well as the congenial intensity that was a signature of her stage and film roles, and Swan not only looks and sounds like Bancroft, but also perfectly recreates the Oscar winner’s no-nonsense attitude.

“You’re bigger than this” — It’s Oscar day, and Crawford is decked out head to toe in silver and diamonds, a look designed for Crawford by eight-time Oscar-winning designer Edith Head. Her date for the evening is her friend, Oscar-winning director George Cukor (John Rubinstein), who takes the opportunity to beg Joan not to try and make the evening about her. He says it will be seen as a “petty act of revenge from a woman scorned,” and argues that nobody will want to work with her again. He implores her, arguing that Crawford is bigger than this. She turns to Cukor, caresses his cheek, and says with a startling sense of both self-awareness and resignation, “No, I’m not.”

‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ is FX’s most watched new program premiere since ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’

And the winner is… — We arrive at Oscar night, a tour-de-force sequence in every sense. In what seems like a love letter to awards fans everywhere, Murphy has recreated the Oscars down to the last detail: the newsreel footage, the camera angles during the ceremony, the music, and of course, the statues. Crawford has taken control of the Oscars, first by strong-arming her way into presenting, then by turning the greenroom into her own private lounge. The move catches Davis off-guard, and leads to an icy stare between Davis and Crawford just prior to the presentation of Best Actress. Finally the moment arrives. Both Crawford and Davis are backstage, each anxiously awaiting the announcement. When the winner’s name is called — Anne Bancroft in “The Miracle Worker” — Davis’s breath stops, her shock turning to anger as she watches her rival waltz triumphantly to the stage to accept. Adding insult to injury, Crawford comes offstage and levels her eyes triumphantly at Davis as if to rub Davis’s nose in her loss. The entire Oscar sequence is the high point of the series thus far, with Sarandon and Lange delivering powerhouse performances.

The Agony of Defeat, and Victory — Davis is still reeling from her loss, believing that an Oscar win was her last chance to “be back in the game.” It’s one of Sarandon’s finest moments of the series thus far, combining seething rage with utter despair, and yet always maintaining the controlled essence of Davis. Meanwhile, Crawford returns home … still carrying Bancroft’s Oscar. She sets it down next to her own Best Actress Oscar — won in 1945 for “Mildred Pierce” — but instead of reveling in her victory over Davis, she sinks onto her bed with an expression that conveys a sense of emptiness and even loss, as though Crawford knows that she has indeed passed the point of no return.

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