May 11, 2018
Bitchsploitation: Baby Jane and 5 other movies that prove nothing is scarier than an old lady
Ryan Murphy didn’t just give aging actress Jessica Lange (and Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett) some meaty (but bizarre) roles, in his American Horror Story anthology, he gave Lange a whole new career, which is ironically not unlike the late career of Bette Davis, who went from playing glamour girls, to monarchs, to nutjobs with a murderous streak. In season one of Feud, Murphy’s latest anthology series on FX, Jessica plays Davis’ rival Joan Crawford while Susan Sarandon plays Davis. The two were pitted against each other by Warner Brothers and competed for the same roles. In 1962, a desperate, aging Crawford found a novel called What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and convinced Warners to make it into a movie starring her and Davis, and Feud is based on the making of the film. Three episodes in, it’s tons of fun, and trivial as it sounds, there’s more to it than meets the eye. The behind the scenes scenario shows how the studio pitted the two against each other because nothing sell tickets like a catfight, and also how women disappear from the screen as they age while men become silver foxes who continue to get the girl, even when they’re old enough to be the girl’s grandpaw. It’s easy to watch and wonder: What’s changed?
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Crawford’s gambit paid off. Baby Jane was not only a smash, but it spawned a once-popular sub-genre of horror that’s been dubbed “granny guignol”, “grande dame guignol”, and “psycho-biddy”, though I’m partial to bitchspoiltation. After all, most of the heroines are not very nice, and the genre thrives on their exploitation. How low will granny go? Most of these movies are camp classics, easy to find in the usual places, so here are some choices (with a few others name-dropped) if you wish to delve further:
1. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Let’s start with the original and still the champion, as well as the inspiration for Feud. It’s based on a novel about the worst case of sibling rivalry since Cain and Abel.
In the film, Jane had been a child star in the 1920s, while her sister, Blanche, eventually became an actress and star in her own right as an adult. A car accident in the 1920s involving both sisters leaves Blanche in a wheelchair. By the 1960s, the sisters are reclusive and codependent in a Grey Gardens kind of way, but darker—so much darker. The documentary Grey Gardens itself contained many of the genre’s tropes: family codependency, aging women, and houses that have seen much better days. If only they’d bludgeoned their snooty cousin Jackie when she offered to help, it would have been a perfect real-life specimen.
Jane, convinced Blanche is going to sell the house out from under her, resorts to desperate measures, keeping her sister prisoner, and in one infamous scene offering Blanche her pet parakeet on a platter. (Could this have inspired the bunny boiling in Fatal Attraction?) But the real game-changer was Davis’ willingness to not only de-glamorize herself—something she’d done before in other roles—but to actually make herself grotesque. Jane’s cruel to Blanche, but also clearly deranged, scary but pathetic. As with many of these movies, there’s a twist at the end which causes us to rethink everything we’ve seen.
2. Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1962)
This movie wasn’t a sequel to Baby Jane, but close. Charlotte was supposed to have brought Davis and Crawford together again with Robert Aldrich directing once more, and Davis in the title role, but things went bad quickly.
Crawford was replaced by Olivia de Havilland, playing brilliantly against type as Charlotte’s manipulative cousin Miriam. Mary Astor was also taken out of mothballs and given a supporting role. Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, and Bruce Dern are featured. Many of the elements that made Baby Jane popular are repeated: a decaying mansion, a housekeeper who knows something, a mystery at the center, and Davis playing crazy. Charlotte is probably the better film, and some of it is genuinely scary, especially if you haven’t been spoiled.
3. Strait-Jacket (1964)
This movie is not very good, but it does offer Joan Crawford a solo shot.
Crawford plays a woman who spent 20 years in a psychiatric hospital for decapitating her husband and his mistress with an ax after catching them in flagrante. Allegedly reformed, she’s released and reunited with her now adult daughter, played by Diane Baker. Then a new cycle of murders begins. While critics at the time were kind in suggesting that Crawford rose above the material, in fact, she reveled in it rehashing over the top bits and pieces from her sex vixen period through her Mildred Pierce sacrificing mom shtick. Guess who plays her unfortunate husband in the flashback? Why yes, that is the future Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors.
4. Lady in a Cage (1964)
This vehicle for Olivia de Havilland breaks with the formula in some ways but is purest exploitation.
De Havilland, known for playing the sweet ones, once again breaks type as a “domineering” matriarch, who despite suffering from a crippling injury manages to gouge a man’s eyes out. Her tormentors are not an envious cousin or a jealous sister but some young thugs, including James Caan in an early screen role.
De Havilland’s character is stuck in an elevator which has been installed in her stately home because she’s nursing a broken hip. Like poor Blanche in Baby Jane, her physical condition makes her an easy target. This one is pure sadism. De Havilland is tortured by a number of passersby and home intruders before exacting her horrible revenge.
5. What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)
This film might be considered the next generation of granny guignol as it was made almost ten years after Baby Jane, and its stars, Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters, both began their careers in the 1940s.
While Reynolds and Winter aren’t playing siblings or former movie stars, and neither one of them is as obviously demented as Baby Jane, note the similar sounding title. This one is also set in Hollywoodland, although it doesn’t start there. The ladies don’t play stars or actresses but rather mothers of murderers who venture out west and open up a dance studio to get away from a vengeful hometown crowd. They dream of discovering the next Shirley Temple. It’s Winters who gets the showier role, and Reynolds who plays the mostly innocent victim. As with Baby Jane, the rivalry between the stars made headlines during filming, with Reynolds claiming that someone may have replaced the prop knife with a real one. That same year, Winters would also star in another horror film with a title that was in the form of a question: Who Slew Auntie Roo? costarring child actor and object of Michael Jackson’s obsession, Mark Lester.
6. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
And finally, there’s this verified must-see movie that’s not usually placed in this category.
The film is so influential, you know the story even if you’ve never seen it. Hollywood silent screen legend Norma Desmond’s career was killed by sound, but she’s been planning a comeback for decades. Holed up in her decaying mansion (the most common of granny guignol tropes, with bonus points if said mansion is in Hollywood), she’s been working on a a screenplay. When the handsome, much younger screenwriter Joe Gillis accidentally stops by, she convinces him to help her. He’s desperate enough to take her up on her offer and soon she’s buying him clothes and fancy cigarette lighters. It’s more noir than horror, with Joe as both the narrator and the true center, but there are many elements that make this a precursor—and perhaps the the true mother—of the bitchspoiltation genre. Like Baby Jane’s feud, behind the scenes is everything. It was a comeback film for Swanson, and even though she’d left on her own terms and had a successful post-movie theater career, people wondered how close to Norma she was. The filmmakers blurred the lines further by including scenes from Swanson’s old films. Swanson doesn’t go for the white face horror show make up, but Norma’s very over-the-topness is purest camp. Norma acts at all times as though the camera is on her and every gesture has to be big because sound hasn’t been invented yet. She’s been living in the past for decades, and sleepwalking through her life—a trait she has in common with other ladies of granny guignol. It’s that delusion, the horrible idea that a woman of a certain age could still be an object of desire, wanted by the public, or wanted by a man, that drives the action. Norma becomes dangerous when the world she’s created—to retreat from the world that’s rejected her—is threatened.
Ultimately, from Sunset Boulevard through Jessica Lange’s work on American Horror Story, things haven’t changed much. Maybe it’s always been this way. In fairy tales, young women and girls are princesses, old women are crones and witches. They’re at their most dangerous, and sometimes comical when they act as though the ravages of time never happened.