“It’s October,” they said.
“Watch something scary,” they said.
So, I thought what could be scarier than an old woman?
Answer – two old women.
And that is the crux of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). We are asked to look at old age as a decaying, vengeful, terrifying spectacle.
It’s a film that takes two great stars of the 1930s and 1940s and looks upon them unfavourably in the 1960s. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who Jean Basinger (Historian) described as playing “exaggerated women,” now get to exaggerate the obsolescence of old age. All shot in the old technology of black and white.
Some quick plot points – but not too many spoilers.
The film opens in 1917. Baby Jane Hudson is a precocious child princess of Vaudeville. From off-stage, Blanche her sister, looks at the ingratitude and attention-seeking that makes a star.
Swing forward to 1935, Blanche is a film star, while the studio struggles to find a place for the hammy over-acting of her sister.
And then there is a car-crash against the gates of a Hollywood mansion.
The first twelve minutes of the film, before the credits, are set in a past, that we asked to compare with the decay and decrepit present of 1962.
The two sisters now have an eerily co-dependent relationship based on vengeance and duty.
Baby Jane (Bette Davis) is dressed in the frills of childhood with white powder and curls, a Miss Haversham of wasted youth and squandered opportunities. She is a slouching drudge, frayed at the edges, slurring and soppy.
Blanche (Joan Crawford) is in a wheelchair. She has false eyelashes and a heavy-made up brow. Her appearance still matters, but is shot without the forgiving soft focus on the lens. In the 1950s she would have had her neck covered by scarves or dark shadows. But now her forehead and neck are uncovered, wrinkles on display.
This is a Hollywood movie about Hollywood’s ageist beauty standards.
I call this a horror movie, because we are supposed to recoil at their appearances. Old women rarely make it onto our screens and now we know why.
Horror movies can be particularly harsh on women. Let’s face it under the Production Code, normal women were punished for ambition, leaving husbands, having sex, getting pregnant. Now imagine how much harsher the punishment would be if she were a zombie or a vampire… or worse … old.
It is better that old women are invisible because when they are visible, they are mad and dangerous.
But horror movies are supposed to make us flinch, tense up and scream. And this is not a movie for thirsty bloody-lusters.
I flinched when Jane kicked Blanche, but I only saw Jane's face.
The murder that disentangles Jane’s fragile reality is not shown, but reflected in Blanche’s face.
The scream is Jane’s at the sight of her own reflection.
Molly Haskell (feminist film critic) claimed that Joan and Bette “were turned into travesties of themselves”.
It is easy to rail against the awful trajectory for female stars.
Clark Gable, James Stewart, Cary Grant can continue to be leading men with younger actresses, but the evolution for female stars is different. By the 1940s they were too old to be considered sexual spectacle (and Bette Davis probably never was), so they evolved into hard-edged career women and by the time that stage was over they became spectacles of horror.
And of course, I could be angry about the double standards of ageing. I could be furious about the lack of stories that women are allowed to tell. But here’s the flip side.
It looks like fun.
Who wouldn’t love to slam down a tray and say:
I didn't bring your breakfast, because you didn't eat your din-din!
Baby Jane’s accent, the cackle, the screaming, the plotting, the manipultation, being let loose to get mad and angry.
And it is a compelling performance, because being grotesque requires an excellent consistency of attack and risk-taking exuberance.
It’s a performance that is more likely to win awards, to be remembered, and it has a political point. It gives voice to the problems of female stardom in a creative, forceful rant.
I love this exchange:
Blanche: Jane, do you remember when I first came back after the accident?
Jane: You promised you wouldn't ever talk about that again.
Blanche: I know I did. But I'm still in this chair. After all those years, I'm still in this chair. Doesn't that give you some kind of responsibility? Jane, I'm just trying to explain to you how things really are. You wouldn't be able to do these awful things to me if I weren't still in this chair.
Jane: But you *are*, Blanche! You *are* in that chair!
The finger pointing, the camp, the fury. It is delicious.
But here’s the kicker. I’ve been talking about old women. But for me the real horror was finding out the age of the actors at the time of the performance. Bette Davis was born in 1908 and Joan Crawford also claimed that as her year of birth (although it is widely believe she was a couple of years older). So, in 1962, they were both 54. That is the age I am now.
In the words of Janice from Friends – Oh My God! Is that how young people see me? (Don’t answer that).
It has been a tough week for 54 year olds. I woke up yesterday to discover Matthew Perry had died. He was 54.
I remember Chandler Bing saying to Jon Favreau’s character, Pete Becker – Monica’s millionaire boyfriend – “You’re our age. You’re our age.”
Matthew Perry was my age. He was a funny guy. He changed the cadences of the way my generation spoke. Nobody should write off what else he might have achieved. It hurts to know we will never know.
And nobody knows what else I might achieve. Don't write me off yet. And just so you know, I’m prepared to be gloriously camp and extravagant to get it.
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About the Creator
Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.
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