|Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?|
In the late 1950s, American popular culture changed from mainstream productions to narrower audiences. The main focus was the adolescent public since teenagers were considered to be the ‘‘nation’s cultural diet’’(Doherty in Shary, McVittie, 77). In this context, low budget horror films became a trend, but the novelty now was that the main protagonists were middle-aged or old women who embodied a threat to the society they dwelled within. Even though this characteristic had already been illustrated in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), in which the two enchanting old aunts murder the men they lodged, the portraying of the crimes was comic.
In the 1960s, women’s crimes were bloody, with scenes of explicit violence. Aged women’s depiction was ‘‘misogynist and radically unsympathetic’’ (Morey, 103), and the terms ‘‘hagsploitation’’, ‘‘hag horror’’, ‘‘psycho-biddy’’ and ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ (which will be the one I will be using in my blog post), were created for this new subgenre. The latter name emphasises an unbalanced antagonist who ‘‘may pine for a lost youth and glory, or she may be trapped by idealized memories of childhood, with a trauma that haunts her past’’ (Shelley). This combined with the gruesome carnage derived from the plays from the Grand Guignol theatre in Paris[i] establishes this female horror subtype, which lasted from 1962 until the mid -1970s.
Former iconic actresses appear in these films, and, they even show some of their best performances. The viewer can compare their previous glamour with the present parody of themselves. The main actresses of this subgenre may be Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (the TV series Feud depicts their notorious relationship besides an illustration of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’), yet many other stars such as Olivia de Havilland, Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck or Shelley Winters participated in the subgenre.
This blog post will analyse the origins of the subgenre, paying attention to Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Psycho (1960). Later on, it will focus on the first film of the new style, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962), and, finally, it will explain how this type of film evolved and influenced current cinema. All the study will take into account the concept of ‘‘grotesque’’ by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin as well as Bulgarian-French Julia Kristeva’s idea of ‘‘abjection’’.
Sunset Boulevard and Psycho: The Precursors of the Subgenre
The image of the malevolent old woman emerges in Gothic literature in examples such as Countess Fosco in William Collin’s The Woman in White (1860), Mme de la Rougierre in Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864), or Mrs Danviers in du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) (Horner and Zlosnik, 186). Nevertheless, Charles Dicken’s Miss Havisham from his Great Expectations (1860-1) is Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s main influence in their creation of Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
When Joe Gillis (William Holden) arrives at Desmond’s neglected mansion and he is thought to be the undertaker for Norma’s dead monkey, his first thought is related to the lady in Dicken’s novel: ‘‘It was like that old woman in Great Expectations, that Miss Havisham and her rotting wedding dress and torn veil, taking it out on the world because she’d been given the go-by’’ (Minute 12:45-13:00). As Gillis maintains his first conversation with Norma, he realises she is living in the past like Havisham.
This film, alongside All About Eve (1950) and The Star (1952), deals with an actress who no longer interests Hollywood due to her age. Norma, a former star of the silent film era, embodies the ‘‘Othering’’ of a middle-aged woman in the film industry. Although she is not fit to work in the patriarchal standards of youth and beauty anymore, her name serves as gossip in this Hollywood-on-Hollywood cautionary tale. [ii]
The storyline depicts Norma as both a victim of the film business as well as a predatory diva, since she uses Gillis to better her disastrous script for Salome in her intentioned comeback in exchange of accommodation, expensive clothes and food. The ghost-writing, nonetheless, results in tragedy, as Gillis ends dead, and Norma insane. Even though Norma is presented from the beginning as a rich eccentric woman in leopard furs and satins, it is by her intense cosmetic treatments for her return in Hollywood that she becomes grotesque.
|Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard|
Anne Morey considers that Norma is ‘‘Mikhail Bakhtin’s pregnant crone, who represents the unity of life and death in a single figure’’ (Morey,109) and that a grotesque body ‘‘is a point of transition in a life eternally renewed, the inexhaustible vessel of death and conception’’( Bakhtin in Morey, 109). While Norma contrasts with Betty Schaefer, the hopeful young reader who desires to be a screenwriter, it is Desmond’s Salome the story that is finally ‘‘shot’’ in the actress’s final moment of insanity.
Moreover, the term ‘‘grotesque’’, which ‘‘derives from the Italian grotte (caves) and entered English as a descriptor of imaginative and incongruous human and animal shapes and unnatural physical and sexual images in sculpture’’ (Encyclopedia, 166), is embodied in Desmond. The aforementioned scenes of her furs identify her with an animal-like woman. Besides, her hand movements, apart from echoing the acting of the silent era, recall the paws of a predator (Mazur).
While Sunset Boulevard introduces a former grande dame and identifies the woman with the grotesque, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), celebrates the grotesque in its maximum. Hitchcock’s motion picture, based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Blotch, can be considered as a precursor of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ genre not only due to its introduction of an evil woman, but also because this female (Mrs. Bates) is not even ‘‘played by a woman’’ (Morey, 103).
The cross-dressing in Psycho is relevant, as it identifies Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) [iii] with his mother. According to Julia Kristeva, ‘‘the child can serve its mother as token of her own authentication; there is however, hardly any reason for her to serve as go-between for it to become autonomous and authentic in its turn’’ (13). In Psycho, not only Norman cannot separate from his mother, but he becomes his mother. When his mother begins a relationship with a man, the young boy feels threatened and murders them. By the end of the film, Norman disappears so that Mother is his only personality: ‘‘Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all, most unbearable to the son that commits it… He stole her corpse…She was there, but she was just a corpse, so began to think and speak for her…and because he was so pathologically jealous of her (his mother), he assumed that she was as jealous of him’’ (Psychiatrist in the film, Minutes 1:44:02- 1:45:10). Therefore, when Norman feels attracted to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), he stops his impulses by murdering her as he feels intimidated by his own sexual drive thinking his mother will not approve it. Consequently, Norman’s killing of Marion is, in fact, a woman’s crime against another one, as Norman believes he is his mother. The aforementioned antagonism seen in Sunset Boulevard between the Norma and Betty is echoed here as Norman murders Marion, an example of beauty and youth.
Nevertheless, the employment of the grotesque is not the only connection Psycho maintains with the still-to-come genre of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’. Peter Shelley claims that Sunset Boulevard and The Star influenced What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, yet Psycho, apart from creating a new style which will develop into the slasher film genre, introduced gruesome images and a low-budget creation in a film with huge success. This helped push the ‘‘horror genre into the mainstream and making it a more acceptable genre for actors and directors to be involved with’’.
The second section of the blog post will focus on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, considered to be the first picture of the subgenre and with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as co-stars. Both actresses will perform in subsequent films of the genre as both the villain and the victim. The grotesque in the studying of aged women will also be scrutinised in the following fragment.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: The Creation of a Subgenre
Peter Shelley considers that the style of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ was produced with Robert Aldrich’s influential film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford What Ever Happened to Baby Jane since ‘‘nothing quite like it had been made prior’’. The story of these two former actresses, the child star Jane Hudson and her sister Blanche, results to be a psychologically disturbing motion picture. The process by which Jane tortures, starves and humiliates her crippled sibling contrasts with the pity the audience feels towards both characters as they recall their glorious days back in the late 1910s and 1930s. Aging again is emphasised by the isolation and loneliness these two women live in. Like the abovementioned Norma Desmond, Jane uses a man for her apparent comeback, in this case a musician to perform with her. This return to the stage also underlines her desire of economic independence from Blanche, who intends to purchase a new house with her assistant and institutionalize Jane in a mental hospital. Jane’s insanity is accentuated by her grotesque and camp features, as it can be seen in this scene:
Timothy Shary and Nancy McVittie explain that the ‘‘Othering’’ of an aged woman was common in the 1960s: ‘‘Beyond a general anxiety about women, a perennial undercurrent of the horror genre throughout its history, this subgenre reveals anxieties specific to the culture of the period and its shifting social environment’’ (80). They add that the monsters changed from being external (with creatures such as werewolves or vampires) to the everyday person who turned out to be unbalanced (80).These new ‘‘monsters’ , the old women presented in the film, are the attraction and grotesque for the viewers, as Lorena Russell states: ‘‘The conflicted dynamics of desire and repulsion through which the film engages its audience reflects back on the ambivalences of the Gothic and the processes of abjection, described by Julia Kristeva’’ (220).
Jane embodies the idea of abjection that Russell analyses, in which ‘‘subjects are produced in large part with what they reject, what they deem as exterior or threatening to the integrity of their borders’’ (220). The threat Jane feels triggers her cruelty towards her sister as well as her delusion.
|Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) with her doll|
Baby Jane’s doll seen by the viewer from the beginning of the film embodies Jane’s process into insanity. When a drunk Jane hears the song she played as a child from the doll sitting near her, she recalls the music number she performed with her father:
‘‘Now when I’m very good
And do as I am told
I’m Mama’s little angel
And Papa says I’m good as gold
But when I’m very bad
And answer back and sass
Then I’m Mama’s little devil
And Papa says I’ve got the brass
Now I wish that you would tell me
‘Cause I’m too young to know…’’ (Minutes 34:56-35:28)
As Jane says the last line she observes herself in the mirror, yet the scene is shot as if Jane’s childish self was witnessing what she has become in her fifties and she screams in panic. As Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Jane (as well as Blanche in previous scenes of the film) cannot accept the passing of time and her nostalgia overwhelms her. Jane’s doubling between her would-be star versus her reality is emphasised when Blanche uses the buzzer to call her. Jane’s duality is depicted all throughout the film, as she exemplifies both the greatest cruelties alongside the purest naivety. Her final demonstration of innocence is when Blanche confesses that the accident which crippled her was not Jane’s fault, but hers, as she wanted to run over Jane and she spanned her spine.
Besides the Gothic atmosphere and the insanity of the main character which relates to Edgar Allan Poe, the film emphasises a feature which will be constant in the future similar films to arrive in the 1960s and 1970s: the camp aesthetic. As Susan Sontag highlights, Camp ‘‘is the love for the exaggerated, the ‘‘off’’ of things-being-what-they-are-not’’ (3), and ‘‘as a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and the strongly exaggerated’’ (4), being one of the film stars she mentions Bette Davis. In What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, while Jane’s appearance becomes more and more childish, Blanche’s transformation goes from a serene diva to a cadaver-like prisoner. At the end of the film, under the extreme circumstances they experience, both characters reveal their true selves as it can be perceived when Jane dances like her former self on the beach, and the till-then victim Blanche confesses her attempted crime against Jane.
|Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the film|
The portrayal of Jane in the film can be identified with Mary Russo’s explanation of the grotesque body: ‘‘The images of the grotesque body are precisely those which are abjected from the bodily canons of classical aesthetics… The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple, and changing; it is identified with non-official ‘‘low’’ culture or the carnivalesque, and with social transformation’’(8).
The permanence of the abovementioned grotesque body continued in a lot of ‘‘low’’ horror films during the 1960s and 1970s with old women as protagonists. The newly created subgenre which focused on formerly glamorous and now deranged women, and the potential risks they create in the patriarchal society the dwelled in. The last section of the blog post will analyse some of the films created during these years and how some of the current films involving women still maintain echoes of this subgenre.
Grande Dame Guignol: Representations of Mature Women in Film
After the unexpected success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the formula of aged woman either unbalanced or at stake was copied several times even with the same actresses. Several of the films to come even imitated the abovementioned title with questions such as What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? (1964) (later named Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte, again directed by Robert Aldrich and with Bette Davis), Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), with Geraldine Page as a ruined widow who kills her housekeepers to steal their savings from them, or What’s the Matter with Helen (1971), with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters, in which Winters has hallucinations and commits several murders. [iv]
The first film mentioned in this section, Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte, stars Olivia de Havilland (who also played in Lady in a Cage (1964)) alongside Bette Davis, since Joan Crawford, the initial actress for her role, did not shoot the motion picture. De Havilland plays the evil woman here, while Davis is the insane victim who thinks she murdered her married lover when she young and has been traumatised for it since then. The following scene depicts de Havilland’s dark character Miriam:
‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ names a lost glamour and youth not to be found again, yet two of the other terms employed for the subgenre, ‘‘hag horror’’ and ‘‘hagsploitation’’ echo an ancient fear towards old females.
Angela Stukator introduces a quote by Joanna Frueh in her essay which explains this anxiety: ‘‘if the feminine is other, marginal and chaos, and, therefore, socially disruptive, then the old(er) woman in her obscene and ugly wretched excess, is even more threatening’’ (52). Stukator also develops how Greer links ‘‘aging to menopause, which occurs around age 50; since the mid-19th century menopause was perceived as a tragedy because it marked the ‘‘death of the womb’’’’(52). Where a young woman symbolises life as she can give birth, an old woman is the ‘‘manager of death’’ when she becomes aged. The term ‘‘anophobia’’, Stutakor explains, is ‘‘the irrational fear of the old woman’’ (52), and it is emphasised by ‘‘‘‘stereotypical grotesques,’’ notably hags, nags, witches, and crones’’ (52). The fear to hags, besides, stems from folklore, as what we nowadays name ‘‘sleep paralysis’’ was once called the ‘‘Old Hag Syndrome’’, in which the ‘‘‘‘Mare’’ or ‘‘Old Hag’’ type of nightmare, characterised by terror’’, an impression of being awake but powerless to move or speak, and sensations of weight on the chest’’ (Oates, 205). The women of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ subgenre suffocate the characters around them until they obtain their death or they are stopped.
|Illustration depicting the ''Old Hag Syndrome''|
In order to face with their ‘‘anophobia’’, Stukator claims that some women experience the so-called ‘‘passing’’, that is, they try to maintain their juvenile appearance by means of surgery, makeup, fashion, hair style, etc., just as Norma Desmond does in the aforementioned Sunset Boulevard.
With the illusion of maintaining a long-gone youth or not, the women portrayed in this genre depict the idea of female characters who fight for their own interests, whether they are evil or not. The characters range, among others, from housewives, as in the case of Joan Crawford in Strait- Jacket (1964), who kills her husband and his lover with an axe; nannies, as the scary housekeeper Bette Davis in The Nanny (1965), or actresses, such as Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling! (also known with the title of Fanatic) (1965), where she plays a religious zealot who tortures her dead son’s ex-fiancé. Nevertheless, the subgenre of the old women became so camp, that there were parodies of the films as it can be seen in the January 1966 issue of the magazine MAD 100[v]:
Although the subgenre itself disappeared in the mid-70s, current cinema depicts influences of the anxieties aged women can illustrate. Later films such as Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name (1974), resurrects the concept of fanatically religious evil mother, embodied by actress Piper Laurie. Furthermore, the motion picture Flowers in the Attic (1987), with Louise Fletcher and Victoria Tennant, and based on the Gothic novel with the same name by V. C. Andrews, narrates how an evil mother attempts to murder her own children in order to obtain an inheritance. The story in this case depicts both an evil grandmother as well as a criminal mother. With a stereotypical setting of a Gothic manor, the female characters represent a threat to the youngest generation. The adaptation of the film in 2014 with Ellen Burstyn and Heather Graham maintains these malicious women.
The portrayal of malevolent mothers is recurrent in other recent films, as for example, Mommie Dearest (1981), in which Faye Dunaway plays the role of Joan Crawford, one of the main actresses of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ genre, and which gave Crawford a notorious reputation as a mother; or Barbara Hershey’s asphyxiating mother in Black Swan (2010), again another Miss Havisham dreaming of her youth and suffocating her daughter.
There are other depictions of unbalanced aged women who are not mothers, such as Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Misery (1990), again based on a novel by Stephen King (1987), a psychopathic nurse who tortures famous novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) in her remote house.
As it has been explained before, all these women represent a threat to the society they dwell in, they are not an external monster which murders, but the alleged aged woman living nearby who assassinates to obtain what she wants. Even though in the films from 1980s onwards the camp features of the female characters disappear, the characteristic of vileness is emphasised.
This blog post has analysed the development of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ subgenre from its precursors Sunset Boulevard and Psycho, to its complete creation with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to the motion pictures that came after the unexpected success the latter film achieved. Besides, it has explained some of the films which appeared once the subgenre was considered to be finished. Within the study of the ‘‘Grande Dame Guignol’’ films, the concepts of ‘‘grotesque’’, ‘‘camp’’ and ‘‘abject’’ have been considered as they are present in the description of the aged women in these films.
[i] For further information about the theatre, I recommend this website: http://www.grandguignol.com/history.htm
[ii] For further reading on the film, check out this excellent article: https://icsfilm.org/essays/the-devil-is-a-woman-sunset-boulevard-norma-desmond-and-actress-noir/
[iii] For more information on Psycho, this essay is really interesting: http://www.aspeers.com/sites/default/files/pdf/Martins.pdf
[iv] There are more titles explained in this essay: http://www.terrortrap.com/specialfeatures/grandguignol/
[v] Further reading here: http://monsterfanclub.com/2017/04/hack-hack-sweet-has-been-or-what-ever-happened-to-good-taste/
Aldrich, Robert, Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte, 1964, motion picture, 20th Century Fox, Los Angeles.
---, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962, motion picture, Warner Bros. Pictures, Los Angeles.
GrandGuignol.com http://www.grandguignol.com/history.htm (Accessed 28th June 2019)
Hitchcock, Alfred, Psycho, 1960, motion picture, Shamley Productions, Paramount Pictures, Los Angeles.
Horner, Avril, Zlosnik, Sue in Women and the Gothic (ed. by Horner, Avril and Zlosnik, Sue) (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)
Klein Martins, David, ‘‘‘‘We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes. Haven’t You?’’ Psycho and the Postmodern Rise of Gender Queerness’’ http://www.aspeers.com/sites/default/files/pdf/Martins.pdf (Accessed 25th June)
Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) http://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/touchyfeelingsmaliciousobjects/Kristevapowersofhorrorabjection.pdf (Accessed 27th May 2019)
Mazur, Matt, ‘‘The Devil is a Woman: Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond, and Actress Noir’’ https://icsfilm.org/essays/the-devil-is-a-woman-sunset-boulevard-norma-desmond-and-actress-noir/ (Accessed 8th June 2019)
Monster Fan Club, ‘‘‘‘Hack, Hack, Sweet Has-Been’’ or ‘‘What Ever Happened to Good Taste?’’ http://monsterfanclub.com/2017/04/hack-hack-sweet-has-been-or-what-ever-happened-to-good-taste/ (Accessed 27th June 2019)
Morey, Ann, ‘‘Grotesquerie as Marker of Success in Aging Female Stars’’ in In the Limelight and Under the Microscope: Forms and Functions of Female Celebrity (ed. by Negra, Diane and Holmes, Su) ( New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011)- via Google Books
Oates, Caroline, ‘‘Cheese Gives You Nightmares: Old Hags and Heatburn’’ in Folklore, Vol. 114, No.2 (Aug., 2003), pp. 205-225 https://www.jstor.org/stable/30035100?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (Accessed 26th June 2019)
Russell, Lorena, ‘‘Queering Consumption and Production in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’’ in Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear (ed. by Hantke, Steffen) (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2004)-via Google Books
Russo, Mary, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012)- via Google Books
Shary, Timothy, McVittie, Nancy, Fade to Gray: Aging in American Cinema (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2016)- via Google Books
Shelley, Peter, Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009)- Kindle Edition
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2014)-via Google Books
Sontag, Susan, ‘‘Notes on ‘‘Camp’’’’ (1964) https://monoskop.org/images/5/59/Sontag_Susan_1964_Notes_on_Camp.pdf (Accessed 20th June 2019)
Stukator, Angela, ‘‘Hags, Nags, Witches and Crones: Reframing Age in ‘‘The Company of Strangers’’’’ , Revue Canadienne d´Études cinématographiques/Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Vol. 5, No.2, Special Issue: Centenary of Cinema in Canada ( Fall/automne 1996), pp. 51-66 https://www.jstor.org/stable/24402135?read-now=1&seq=5#page_scan_tab_contents (Accessed 15th June 2019)
The Terror Trap, ‘‘Ladies of the Grand Guignol: An Essay on Actress Exploitation Films of the 1960s and 1970s’’ http://www.terrortrap.com/specialfeatures/grandguignol/ (Accessed 20th June 2019)
Wilder, Billy, Sunset Boulevard, 1950, motion picture, Paramount/MPTV, Los Angeles.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/what-ever-happened-baby-jane-1962-review-983202
Norma Desmond: https://classicalreception.org/lloyd-llewellyn-jones-the-epic-world-of-norma-desmond-an-alternative-guide-to-watching-hollywood-epics-part-2/
Norman Bates. https://sexualdevianceorder.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/alfred-hitchcock-why-is-norman-bates-so-psycho/
Jane Hudson with her doll: https://www.caracaschronicles.com/2011/08/17/the-birdcage/
Jane and Blanche Hudson: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1386485/Greta-Scacchi-reveals-shes-perfect-play-Bette-Davis.html
Hag syndrome: https://thespiritseekers.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/old-hag-syndrome-the-terrifying-experience-of-sleep-paralysis/
Parodies of the subgenre : http://monsterfanclub.com/2017/04/hack-hack-sweet-has-been-or-what-ever-happened-to-good-taste/