Feud: Bette and Joan: “And The Winner Is… (The Oscars of 1963)” Season 1 Episode 5 Review

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The 1963 Academy Awards provide the perfect setting to show just how much Hollywood has affected both Bette and Joan.

Any actor worth his or her salt today will tell you that they don’t make movies to win awards. But who are we really kidding here? In many ways, Hollywood is just like high school, and the Oscars are the year’s biggest popularity contest. It’s an honor just to be nominated, and getting left off the list completely can feel like a total slap in the face.

This is very much the case for Joan Crawford, who was hoping to at least secure a nomination in order to garner a few more years of good work. Instead, Bette is nominated, and she’s left out in the cold. “And The Winner Is” details Joan’s devious revenge scheme that she plots with Hedda. Still, Ryan Murphy—who both wrote and directed this episode—is smart not to play her as simply the conniving villain. She’s conniving, for sure, but this week’s narrative works well to pull back the curtain on each woman’s motivation for wanting another golden statuette so badly. It’s enough to make you sympathize with them, even when their behavior is horrible. It also illustrates another commonality the two shared, but were never able to bond over.

For Joan, her snub was more than just a career opportunity slipping away, it was a supreme insult. In a blisteringly honest scene, she reveals to Hedda just how much not getting a nomination had hurt her. She always played by the rules of the game in Hollywood, whereas Bette waltzed in and pretended she was above it all. This nomination proves a deep-seated fear of hers: that the town she’s been the queen of for so long has always favored Bette over her.

Bette, on the other hand, has been smart about not letting on how much she wanted an Oscar until now. Sure, there were times when she goaded Joan with the idea of winning a third one while they were on set, but again, she seemed to be above all the awards chatter. This turns out not to be the case, however, as the look upon Bette’s face when they announce that Anne Bancroft has won and Joan will be accepting on her behalf is one of abject shock. Susan Sarandon plays the moment in heartbreaking silence. She says nothing, but looks as though she’s just been stabbed. For Bette, the award would’ve meant that, after years of being away from Hollywood, she still had it.

Yet, Hedda’s and Joan’s orchestrated heist of her oscar ended up working perfectly. Hedda too had her reasons for hating Bette, mainly concerning the fact that Bette never played by the rules of her gossip column, which is something she gave up her own acting career—as well as her own husband and family—for. Their plan is simple: Hedda will bad-talk Bette to voters, while Joan will talk up the other nominees.

The most interesting thing about this plot, of course, is Hedda’s last-minute Hail Mary to ensure Joan walks offstage with the Oscar. She gets Joan to call up both Bancroft and fellow nominee Geraldine Page (the always lovely Sarah Paulson) and convince them to let her accept the award in their place, should they win. We only see Joan’s conversation with Geraldine, but it’s riveting to watch as the young up-and-comer—who would go on to be nominated for another four Oscars, and finally win one for The Trip to Bountiful in 1986—sadly concedes to letting Joan take her place. It’s clear that she wanted to be there herself, but she also doesn’t put up much of a fight. When her boyfriend asks why she’s letting Joan walk all over her, she simply says, “She needs this more than me. Besides, that town should have to look at what it’s done to her.”

What Geraldine is talking about doesn’t come into full picture until after the ceremony. For most of it, Joan walks around like she owns the place. In a thrilling, single-take shot, she shows Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean to the press suite with ease. She takes him through several rooms—including the men’s room, without batting an eyelash—and it’s clear that she’s in control. When she finally does go up onstage to collect Bancroft’s Oscar, it’s preceded by a totally badass stomping out of her cigarette with her bedazzled heel.

Yet, all of this boastful showmanship means nothing when she finally gets home in the wee hours of the morning. She sits at her bedside and puts the Oscar on her nightstand, next to the one she won for Mildred Pierce. It’s adamantly clear that this new award isn’t hers. And so Joan sits, head in her hands, after one of Hollywood’s most glamorous and social nights. Here, she succumbs to her biggest fear of all: loneliness.

“And The Winner Is” is a masterpiece of an episode, expertly delving into one of Hollywood’s most famed traditions, and showing just how fraught with complexities it really is. It’s hard to say who really was the bigger loser of the night: Bette, who came so close and then had to watch her rival walk out onstage in front of her, or Joan, who physically got the gold, but knew deep down that it was all for show. Winning isn’t everything, but for these two fading screen legends, it was the only thing they were clinging to.

Still, one of the bright spots of this episode comes in the form of Olivia de Havilland, who moves from the couch of the documentary interviews to the main action at-hand. She accompanies Bette to the Oscars as her friend, and is there to console her when she loses. Feud may focus on the bitter rivalry between Bette and Joan, but this glimpse at a positive female friendship is inspiring. Hollywood still had a long way to go—and still does—in terms of equality, but Olivia and Bette’s support of each other offered a glimmer of hope. Grade: A


Some Other Notes:

  • One of the main things that surprised me—and that I found hilarious—about this portrayal of the 1963 Oscars was how short all the acceptance speeches were. When Joan tells Geraldine that she should only thank three people in her speech, I audibly laughed. Hilary Swank should take notes.
  • Major props to the costume department, who totally nailed Joan’s “Silver Screen Star” look for the Oscars set pieces.
  • The 1963 Oscars were hosted by Frank Sinatra, and I’m kind of bummed they couldn’t get Toby Huss to come back.
  • This episode briefly touches on another famous feud: the one between Olivia and her sister Joan Fontaine. I doubt Ryan Murphy would return to the same world anytime soon, but I’m curious if this will ever resurface for a future season.

By Mike Papirmeister

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