Posts Tagged ‘Joan Crawford’

The night after this welcomed itself into my house and found a spot on my bookshelf, I had a dream that Bette Davis came to a family gathering (perhaps posing as my grandmother; that part is still fuzzy) and autographed my copy of her book. Instead of a see-you-next-fall yearbook type of signature, Davis went to town and filled the front page with kind words, bringing a bit of sass at the end by telling me that she loves me almost as much as I love her.

I’ll take it!

babyj2

“I don’t wanna talk about it! Every time I think about something nice, you remind me of all the bad things! I only wanna talk about the nice things.”

Nearing the climax of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Bette Davis (Jane) covers her ears and shrieks these words at Blanche, played by a suffering, bound and gagged but nevertheless buxom Joan Crawford. Let it be known here and now that on this, the last day of the last month of 2016, I agree with Jane completely, and not just because I will always favor Davis over Crawford. We have already seen lists of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad crises that occurred in the last 365 days. If you have Internet in any of its forms, likely you will see photos and captions capturing the year’s events and bundling them into a neat little list that makes us believe, just for a second, that these events are still within our control. The phenomenally awful and the terribly wonderful experiences would strike within hours of one another, forming a year that is now rusted in deep inside the vaults of our memory.

In September, I saw Mom dance and laugh and jump around when we both saw Dolly Parton perform live for the first time. Dedicating “Coat of Many Colors” to all the good mothers out there, Dolly knew that Mom needed some love around that time. In early December, I took a mini road trip with one of my best friends, on which we discovered what we know to be the world’s largest crane – apparently they’re building a second Grand Canyon near Corpus Christi. Barbra Streisand sang “Happy Days Are Here Again” live just for me, and I bought tickets to see her only because of the fear that was telling me not to right after the Orlando nightclub shooting. And that other shooting. And the other one. And the other one. Trying desperately not to live in fear of performance venues, I was singled out of the audience not once but twice by the main stars of different musicals (Cabaret and Hedwig) for a few seconds of special treatment and attention. Jennifer Saunders delivered Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie and providing me with enough confidence to continue my search for the perfect job that involves heavy drinking and very little work. Those and other interviews went extremely well, all to be followed either by radio silence or rejection. The Nice truck attack intensified the disgusting threesome that Fear, Anger, and Sadness seem to be having this year, another news story that left before it arrived. The Stanley Kubrick Exhibition brought me face to face with the fifth Oscar that I’ve ever seen in person. The year gave me clients whose books made it on to New York Times bestseller lists, a new parent company with better benefits, accurate drug tests, and new databases that helped to automate manual work, improve efficiency, and eliminate jobs.

A devastating fire in Oakland took the lives of those who were trying perhaps to deal with the devastation that they felt over the election, leaving the rest of us speechless, guilty for surviving, frightened, and once again out of control. For the first time in history, we had a presidential election that actually affected every single person on the planet, and for first time in history, I permitted and even considered crying at work the next day. Like the T-word that I can’t bring myself to write, the word “hope” has become almost as painful to hear. And yet a breathtaking walk through Muir Woods followed a Thanksgiving dinner that, due to a turkey snafu, was completely refunded by Whole Foods, bless its gizzard.

nj

Springtime brought me to the front door of KitTea, a cat café where I have volunteered and gathered enough love on the weekends to disperse like fairy dust on those around me. During the week, I rub the itty-bitty cat scratches and bite marks on my arms as a form of meditation, trusting that the cat gods will provide me with the strength to get through the week and its horrid news cycle. I had a biopsy that turned out to be a common, no-need-to-worry form of skin cancer, and in a few weeks, I’ll have a manly scar on my left arm where that ugly little scab is right now. When she sang “Islands in the Stream” for us, I held hands with one of my best friends when I saw Dolly for the second time this year, a cherished friend who knew without my telling her exactly what happened in my brain after I heard the nurse use the word “biopsy.” My birthday brought me a second Dolly pillow, solidifying the choice for “Woman of the Year” in my book and paving the way for every single dirty joke one could make about two Dolly pillows.

Another perfect December trip to Seattle brought me to the fireplace at my B&B in Capitol Hill, a few seconds of snow, a wine bar around the corner where I scored oodles of free drinks due to my Christmas Eve birthday, a drag show called “Homo for the Holidays,” and beautiful walks through Volunteer Park but no sight of Dan Savage or his delicious husband. Too many to count . . . we lost Elie Wiesel, Edward Albee, Gene, Leonard, Merle, Ali, Carrie, Debbie, George, Prince, and Bowie. Not enough to bless . . . the planet still has claim to Carol Channing and Betty White. Heklina’s Golden Girls drag show kicked off my vacation with its annual Christmas performance. The book A Little Life changed mine, and I have 12-Stepped my way through a scarf addition, only to realize that it was a gateway drug to jackets, and now the closet doors won’t close. Despite what the country’s political climate tries to sell or tell us, my closet door WILL STAY OPEN.

I only want to talk about the nice things, too, which is why I haven’t watched any of the regular news shows since November 9th. We’re all exhausted, and I keep thinking of a line from President Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing: “[It] reminds me of that old joke about the optimist and the pessimist – the pessimist says ‘everything’s terrible, it can’t get any worse.’ The optimist says ‘oh, yes it can.’”

So when we need them, we hug our Dolly pillows and find a lost smile, holding dear those people who loved us enough to make sure that we go through the next year with a full set.

img_0664

bogart9

Hello again!

A binding contract of lifelong friendship forges when the person across the dinner table chuckles after you say, “Good God; that’s a Hello Again-sized piece of chicken.” Frightfully large chicken brings to mind the frightfully good-bad film Hello Again (1987), featuring Shelley Long as a woman summoned back from the dead after choking to death on a South Korean chicken ball. I didn’t know how else to break the ice and find a way to say hello. You know, again.

The “Closed” sign has been up at The Ticket Booth for some time now; other meddling voices have filled both my head and pen, pulling me in some new and exciting directions. But I began thinking about the booth and missing it, acknowledging the mental nudge that I wanted to open it up again and see how much dust had collected inside. Either sentimental or just a reaction to that dust, I found myself getting a little choked up trying to figure out why I had stayed away for long, and how, or where, I should start?

Shall we jump back in with the last Joan Crawford movie that I watched last week? Familiar butterflies began to flutter during Sadie McKee (1934) when I realized that it was the same film featured decades later in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), another Joan Crawford picture that paired her with Bette Davis. As an actress without any recent successes to her name, both Crawford and her character in Jane sit in front of the television utterly mesmerized by Sadie, a towering and bouncy young lady almost 30 years her junior. T’was a powerful moment on the couch that night – life had all came full circle for me.

joansadie

 

Not in the mood for big JC? I could brag about the trip we took to the San Francisco Symphony, where my family and I did not, in fact, get kicked out of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) for rambunctious sobbing. The evening was a crowning achievement in my family’s history, as the Academy Award-winning score by John Williams generates a flood of nose hair-plucking tears for most of us.

sfsyet

 

Maybe you’d like to hear about the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition where Michelle and I saw an Oscar statuette, props and costumes from The Shining (1980), and pleasant letters from religious groups scolding Mr. Kubrick for turning the filthy Lolita (1962) into a film. If I were to steal one thing from a museum, I’d sneak out with one of those letters under my shirt. Read more about the exhibition on Little Magazine.

lolita2

 

Not in a Kubrick mood? I get it; he’s a treat but not for every day. How about the time when I saw Cabaret: The Musical performed on stage, and the Emcee (played by Randy Harrison from Queer as Folk) pulled me up out of the audience to dance with him in front the entire theatre? “Do you have a little German in you?” he asked, and when I told him no, he hissed with smile, “Would you liiiiiiiike some?”

 

Too early for das Kit Kat Club? When I went to visit Dad for a boys’ weekend, I brought him two DVDs – Network (1976) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) – so he would never again have to worry about downloading them from those streaming services that tend to stall every three minutes. We ate; we drank; we swam; we barbecued; we teased Mom via text that we picked up KFC and without a coupon.

dunaway1

 

Oh, and a few weeks ago, Barbra started her concert with “The Way We Were.” I was there; I heard it; I saw Barbra Streisand perform live . . . no biggie.

barb3

 

The magic of film illuminates my life (the way your spirit illuminates my soul), but it just hasn’t appeared anywhere in my journals. And why? Because I’ve been sad. Hatred and fear surround us, and the two have joined forces to become what some have led us to believe is a constant threat that bursts into our nightclubs where we used to dance until dawn. It’s driving down promenades where we celebrate with our friends and friendly strangers. It’s shooting out of the guns controlled by law enforcement, and hours later it’s shooting out of the guns controlled by protesters. Hatred and fear surge from the mouths of men and women who are or want to become our elected leaders, and it’s being absorbed, magnified, and projected by their followers. For those of us who worry too much and insist on being in control of all things at all times, an overwhelming hodgepodge of sadness, anger, frustration and all the other googly–eyed emoticons was inescapable, but naturally I added one more fear to the pile – maybe writing about old movies just didn’t do it for me anymore.

Eventually the moment came when I could just about feel Cher’s palm meet the side of my face (we should all be so lucky), and I heard a firm but loving “Snap out of it!” It wasn’t a “snap out of it” advising me to ignore this world that frightened me so, but the time had come to tally up of all of those indestructible new memories and experiences that I just listed above. We have plenty to talk about and will, but before we chat about that new Ingrid Bergman documentary, the upcoming Dolly Parton concert, or the adorable little cat café where I started volunteering, first I just wanted to a quick little hello.

And it is time – it’s time first to acknowledge that sadness, anger, or fear and then release it all like you’re supposed to release a ghost. After that, grab your best (or, in my case, only) Dolce & Gabbana, find a theatre that serves champagne, and go see the new AbFab movie. We’ll talk more soon, because when you finally do snap out of it, you find that chicken balls are quite delicious.

abfab16

 

ch8

When a friend invited me to guest host on her radio show and discuss the great mothers of TV, in my mind a fierce battle erupted between the leading ladies of television and the grand mothers of film. Place your bets, anyone? Roseanne versus Mo’Nique from Precious? For every television mother I chose as a potential topic of discussion, at least five from the silver screen appeared in my head, each one drowning me in guilt as only a movie mother can for not mentioning her. On this Mother’s Day we offer a bit of advice, a few pearls of wisdom, and perhaps gardening tips for your rose gardens from the most beloved mothers (and a few mother figures) of film.

 

10) Mrs. Flax – Mermaids (1990), played by Cher

“Charlotte, I know you’re planning a celibate life, but with half my chromosomes, I think that might be tough.”

merm1

 

 

9) Carolyn Burnham – American Beauty (1999), played by Annette Bening

“Honey, I’m so proud of you. You know, I watched you very closely; you didn’t screw up once!”

ab1

 

 

8) Joan Crawford – Mommie Dearest (1981), played by Faye Dunaway

“When I told you to call me that, I wanted you to mean it.”

 

 

7) Mame Dennis – Auntie Mame (1958), played by Rosalind Russell

“A divine man, such talented fingers . . . oh, what he did to my bust. That’s the head, you know.”

 

 

6) Mildred Pierce – Mildred Pierce (1945), played by Joan Crawford

“I never used to drink at all . . . just a little habit I picked up from men.”

mp1

 

 

5) Regina Giddens – The Little Foxes (1941), played by Bette Davis

“Why, Alexandra! You have spirit after all. I used to think you were all sugar water.”

lf2

 

 

4) Rose Castorini – Moonstruck (1987), played by Olympia Dukakis

“When you love ‘em, they drive you crazy, ‘cause they know they can.”

moon3

 

 

3) Mrs. Robinson – The Graduate (1967), played by Anne Bancroft

“I’m getting pretty tired of all this suspicion. Now if you won’t do me a simple favor, I don’t know what!”

0019518.JPG

 

 

2) Eleanor of Aquitaine – The Lion in Winter (1968), played by Katharine Hepburn

“Henry, I have a confession . . . I don’t much like our children.”

lion2

 

 

1) Mrs. Bates – Psycho (1960)

She had no lines – more often than not, mothers gave us only a single look that could communicate their feelings of love and devotion. Either that, or “watch it, Buster; the ice under your feet is beginning to crack.”

psy1

 

When you love her, she drives you crazy, ‘cause she knows she can. Thanks for everything, Mom . . . Happy Mother’s Day!

johnnyguitar8

Have they always been there, or I’m just beginning to notice them? Tons of people reading the Bible in public have caught my eye lately. The first impulse was to roll my eyes at these coffee shop Bible readers (mostly because I find highlighting those unusually thin pages to be a little bizarre), but then I thought maybe, just maybe, it’s possible that some of these folks are finding true comfort in the chapters and verses they’re reading. How could I possibly know what their intentions are as newly curious or long-time devoted readers? There must be some good in that text that the good are able to find; it can’t simply be a piece of evidence that the fearful use to justify fear. So I made a decision: as long as the members of this specific book club refrain from running towards me hell-bent on saving my rainbow soul, I vow to stop judging The Book by its reader.

Maybe I’m jumping the gun (that Jesus wants me to own), but as the years fly by and my laugh lines hang around longer than they used to, I feel less of an attachment to religion. The venom that some of the so-called good folks are able to spit at the nonbelievers continues to fascinate and frustrate those of us who . . . well . . . tend to lean heathen. When a writer has to come up with an entertaining tale of “the good townspeople versus the alleged tramp who runs the saloon on the gusty wind side of town,” that writer knows he needs to come up with more than a simple, cookie-cutter battle of morals. To add a decent helping of fuel to the hellfire, the audience needs a personal conflict between two characters on opposing sides, and a selfish competition over money is never to be neglected. Hmm, the high and mighty religious types determined to bring down the little guy over money, but disguising it as a righteous battle of morals? How do these writers come up with such preposterous plots? The world is full of folks “with itchy fingers and a coil of rope around their saddle horns, lookin’ for somebody to hang. And after riding a few hours they don’t care much who they hang.”

Who doesn’t love Joan Crawford with a gun? Mercedes McCambridge, apparently. In Johnny Guitar (1954), the former is our saloon-running railroad tramp, while the latter leads the group of upstanding men determined to bring her down. Oh yes, and there’s a character named Johnny who plays a guitar, but trust me, he’s hardly worth mentioning. Never one to dismiss rumors, I began searching furiously for any truth to the story that a jealous Crawford slashed all of McCambridge’s clothes to shreds (or at the very least flung them from her costar’s trailer on to the street). Labeling Crawford “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady,” McCambridge started a rival that I imagine outlasted both women’s careers. It may pale in comparison to the snarky feuds Crawford had with Miss Bette Davis, but according to my cookbook, a juicy rumor or two always brings out the flavor of any film. A talented radio star, McCambridge would later go on to provide the voice of Pazuzu, the demon in The Exorcist (1973), a vocal performance that redefined the word “terror” for its audience.

There are two sounds that can lighten the worst of moods. One is the song “Islands in the Stream,” which gratifyingly pairs Dolly Parton with Kenny Rogers, and possesses the power to end to all things evil in this world. The second is the sound of Peggy Lee’s voice. It was an embarrassing moment when I reached the end of Johnny Guitar and heard that sugar-coated, velvety voice of Peg’s purr a song that was not available in my vault. The last time I checked, I had about 90 tunes of hers in my collection, and I’m proud to report now that the title song is moving up swiftly on my list of top-played tracks. The song “Johnny Guitar” also launches one of the greatest playlists I have ever created; a soothing list that goes from Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Dusty Springfield to B. B. King, Barbra, Dolly, and Katey Sagal (seriously, if you haven’t heard Katey Sagal sing, put her name through the Internet machine and give her a try. The songs she recorded for the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack give me chills ‘n’ things).

Indeed, Peggy Lee is the cherry on top of this campy western, but even she knows not to steal the spotlight from Miss Joan Crawford. Hell, if the righteous Pazuzu couldn’t gun her down . . . Heaven help us.

joancrawford_jg2

Add Johnny Guitar to your queue.

mpierce3

Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea – they eat their young.

Attempting to absorb today’s various choices and upgrades and revamps and remakes is only one of many reasons why I retreat into the world of old movies. A few months ago my office decided to go the way of Bay Area coffee shops and add, oh I don’t know, six or seven different versions of what we used to know as “trash cans” and “recycling bins.” Above each slot is mile-long list of items that should only be placed lovingly and earth-huggingly into its designated bin. Somehow the item in my hand fails to appear on any list, and I am convinced my environment unfriendly action will destroy the universe forever . . . I’m going to the greenest circle of Hell. Options, options everywhere, but not a slot for my Styrofoam cup.

Now the label from my lunch must be peeled off the take-away food box (a box made of old newspapers, I imagine) and put into the special bin reserved for sticky labels, coffee stirrers, brown (never white) napkins, and about a million other items that stare at me accusingly as I run back to the boring desk job for which, in this recovering economy, I am allegedly grateful. Too many distractions; too many alternatives; too many mistakes; too many ways to ruin the ruined world . . . feh, it’s all going in the trash. Being a good person makes me too angry, and I soothe that frustration by disappearing again into my world of black-and-white films. And yet, I hear the footsteps of HBO creeping up behind me, carrying a bucket of paint . . .

mpierce2

HBO’s miniseries of Mildred Piece was all over the place. Their advertising team seemed to have Mildred everywhere, and those wonderful people out there who know me very well (I’m a lucky kid) were sure I had heard nothing about the project. A few messages started trickling in . . . did you hear they’re remaking Mildred Pierce? I had hoped to enjoy life without ever hearing such a stomach-churning question, and inevitably I had a few of my own. Who were “they” and precisely how was this to be a remake? Was it a full-length feature that would remain true to the original script or novel? Had there been a séance to contact Joan Crawford and solicit her approval for such an undertaking? And how on God’s green-if-we-keep-recycling earth is an actress going to fill the saucy supporting shoes of one Miss Eve Arden? Yes, I had heard the news.

It’s not that I want “now” to be “then.” I just want “now” to be better.

The story of a woman whose husband leaves her with two daughters to raise during the Depression brought Joan Crawford her first and only Oscar win in 1946, and it remains one of my favorite films. To support her family and please her repulsively spoiled daughter Veda, Mildred works as a waitress and later opens up her own chain of restaurants. The more Mildred provides for Veda, the less satisfied the young lady becomes, and some wickedly entertaining fights result between mother and daughter.

The name “Kate Winslet” put me in a mental state not unlike the times I approach the Whac-A-Mole display of waste bins at work. I feel slightly overwhelmed, unsure if I wanted to put in the time to understand what was behind it, worried about taking a chance on disliking something (or someone) of quality and good intentions, and a nagging, ever-present fear of change. On top of that add, of course, the fact every day we men must face the impossible task of trying to forget about Joan Crawford for a few hours. Is it this difficult for everyone out there, and if yes, why aren’t the rest of you speaking out?

mpierce4

Easily persuaded by shiny objects (eventually an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Winslet), sometimes audience members feel pressured into loving a film. Heck, the Oscar icon can be just as influential on how I go into a first viewing. Gold is pretty – along with a fancy new dress and a red carpet, it sets a status for a couple of news cycles, and certainly Veda Pierce would be impressed with an Emmy statuette. But in this case, I had to judge . . . um, I mean, go in with an open mind and see for myself what HBO and Miss Winslet had done with Mildred Dearest. A pack of people with whom I tend to agree when it comes to such important matters cautioned me against watching the miniseries. The headcount in the group that warned me was fairly equal to the number of those who recommended it (provided I accept it for what it is and make an effort not to compare it to the good old days, like the cranky old man I am). A third group advised watching just the first three episodes, while group number four insisted I watch only episodes four and five.

Clearly I was forced to run the entire Pierce marathon, start to finish. I have always liked Kate Winslet, and while she is enjoyable as Mildred, I expect this one was doomed for me. As I did with a recent revisit to Oz, I went into HBO’s Mildred Pierce with an open-minded, “c’mon now, this may surprise you” attitude; I have come to believe that judging a movie before seeing it is the only sin greater than that of poorly remaking a classic. Ultimately, there is one woman who is impossible to throw away, recycle, compost, reuse, reduce, conserve . . . director Michael Curtiz may as well have been standing in my living room with a bullhorn: “Don’t think about Crawford; don’t think about Crawford; for the love of wire hangers, DON’T think about Crawford!”

mpierce1

Add Mildred Pierce (1945) to your queue.

Add Mildred Pierce (2011) to your queue.


When a writer finds for himself a formula that works, miles beyond difficult is the process of trying something new. When Mom told me I was born three weeks past my expected due date, she added “Well you know how you are once you get comfortable.” It’s possible that from the start I’ve been able to ease, settle, and cement myself promptly into comfort zones, so the idea of zone expansion is hardly without its terror. “New” and “fear” tend to grasp hands before they enter a room, but my pen and I are gathering strength to tell “fear” to go sit in the corner while we propose a toast to the “new.”

Months ago I assigned myself the task of writing about a film that failed to charm the ink out of me, but the blessed problem with older movies is that I could always find something to enjoy, even in the most atrocious. In the process I discovered a new, telling formula . . . when I don’t enjoy a movie, I tend to write about my writing. Meta-writing has become my first clue that the film in question will not be floating over to the shelf of favorites (hmm, please see above). There’s a certain movie I own that appears on every single list of “Greatest Films Ever Made,” and I’ll admit it’s one of the dustiest DVDs in the house. I have yet to tackle what many consider to be a masterpiece, mostly because I have no desire to be a good citizen and sit through it again . . . but never say never; it could come to pass! Until then, tonight I must give my respectful apologies to Miss Crawford, for the first sentence I wrote about The Damned Don’t Cry was “Hmm I don’t know about this one.”

Formulas are important surely, but because this one stuck so closely not only to the Crawford formula but also to that of Warner Bros., it failed to hook me. When I’m too aware of the effort, I know the experience is doomed. Crawford’s character is down and out, works her way into high society, Warner throws in a few mobsters, and suddenly we have a collage of many films that I enjoyed much more than this one. I always find it a treat to watch Joan Crawford play Joan Crawford, but in this one at times it seemed like she couldn’t decide which “Crawford” she wanted to give us. Her character’s ascensions and plummets on the social ladder don’t flow smoothly for me, and I think the awkward pace is what does this one in. When they threw in some random (and surprisingly brutal) violence, I perked up for a moment, but soon I found myself looking at my poor neglected nails . . . another clue.

I must give Crawford credit for her crackerjack delivery of some venomous one-liners. When she crosses a fellow “lady of the evening” early in the film, Crawford’s angry coworker tells her, “I’m gettin’ myself a new partner.” Leave it to Joan to eye this dame up and down before suggesting “While you’re at it you better get yourself a couple of other new items, if you’ll excuse the expression.”

Of course we’ll excuse it . . . when it comes to Joan Crawford, what won’t we excuse?


Why not add it to your queue . . . maybe you’ll like it!

longdaysj3

Be Drunk

by Charles Baudelaire

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it — it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking . . . ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

(c. 1869)

The film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play, which was published after his death, is one of the most challenging for me to recommend. Despite how amazing I find it, it’s not one that I return to on a regular basis — Long Day’s Journey Into Night is one of the most exhausting movies I’ve ever seen. While the film’s length (just under three hours) sounds tiring in itself, for me it is (you’ll never guess!) the intensity of Katharine Hepburn that is magnificently draining. The story is precisely what its title advertises: an intensely long day in life of the Tyrones, a family plagued with alcoholism, drug addiction, illness, and good, old-fashioned self-hatred. As the sun descends, so do the characters and their audience along with them, all of us graciously kicking and screaming.

I do love an ensemble cast that can produce amazing chemistry with any pairing of two actors — I’m sure that relates back to my childhood evenings spent with the cast of the television show Soap. This emotional marathon of a film is another perfect example; aside from my love for Katharine Hepburn, who absolutely floors me as the morphine-addicted matriarch of the family, my other favorite part of the film is the above poem by Charles Baudelaire. Edmund Tyrone (played by the charmingly handsome Dean Stockwell) recites it perfectly to his aging, alcoholic father (Sir Ralph Richardson), who responds gracefully by refreshing both of their drinks. As I struggled a bit beginning this piece, finally it hit me to let M. Baudelaire invite you into such a fascinating home. Rounding out such a home is a member the original 1956 Broadway cast — the great Jason Robards steps back into the role Jamie Tyrone, the older son who shares his father’s gifts of acting and drinking. His intensity is almost as hypnotic as Katharine Hepburn’s, but sorry folks, for me there’s no scene that the Queen can’t help but dominate.

longdaysj1

When this film brought Katharine Hepburn her ninth Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role, she was certainly in good company. To name a few, the list of nominees in 1963 placed her against Anne Bancroft (for The Miracle Worker) and Bette Davis (for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). As the rumors go, one Miss Joan Crawford campaigned any which way to make sure Bette Davis (her Baby Jane costar) did not walk away with gold that evening. To rub it in Bette Davis’s face even further, Miss Crawford accepted the award on behalf of 1963’s Oscar winner, Anne Bancroft, who was not present at the ceremony. Now, before I came to know Miss Hepburn in one of her greatest roles, I was sure that if I ran the world, I’d split the award between Bette Davis and Anne Bancroft. But after another introduction to Mary Tyrone, it turns out that dear little Oscar would be divided into three, possibly with his head and shoulders going home with Miss Hepburn.

I’m trying to figure out why I’m coming up with so little to say about a film interlaced with complexity. While I want to include it in this little blog project I’ve begun, the best I can come up with is “Wow, just watch it!” The degree to which this family is able to rattle me feels a bit masochistic on my part; I’ll admit there’s a sliver of pleasure I get while each character’s descent through the fog and into of the night rips me apart. A craving for this type of pleasure can hit me like the strong, silent type, and it is satisfied only by the darkness of film. If you’re familiar with such a collage of emotions, I recommend highly and drunkenly that you spend a rainy evening with James, Mary, Jamie, and Edmund Tyrone. That’s all there is to it — it’s the only way.

longdaysj2

Add it to your queue.

While the monsters and slashers of the 1980s could always pop out and surprise me, they never got under my skin enough for me to say they “scared” me. My fears were not that simple, no… for me, there were two characters that terrorized my dreams as a youngin’, much more than any Krueger-type monster ever could. The first was Miss Carol Burnett’s frightening portrayal of Miss Hannigan in Annie (1982), a performance that still makes my leg shake a bit when I think about it. Tears of terror came to me easily in those days, brought on by the unhinged laughter that erupted from Miss Hannigan as she “paddled” through her bathtub gin and sang about the prohibition of little girls.

As I moved on and backwards into film, it was during my first introduction to Miss Bette Davis that I met the other monster who doled out the goose bumps of my childhood. As the title character in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Miss Davis piles on the clown makeup, layers of lipstick, a beauty mark that resembles a witch’s wart, and terrorizes her wheelchair-bound sister, played by Miss Joan Crawford. Living forever in her head on her childhood stage, Jane (Davis) is a former vaudeville child star now caring for her sister Blanche (Crawford), an actress who found success as an adult before a car accident. Watching Miss Davis gnaw the scenery and spit it at me (and at Miss Crawford) is spectacular — even campy-comical to today’s audience.

However, to a young lad already petrified of evil caregivers thanks to Miss Burnett, Baby Jane could instill fear in me with the raise of an eyebrow. As Jane insults and torments Blanche, she also gives us some of the most quotable lines in movie history . . . well, my movie history. The line “Oh Blanche, y’know we got rats in the cellar,” which is given in reference to possible contents of a dinner tray, still gives me a slight shiver that I’m now able to cover with laughter. So terrified was I of the film that, when it was remade for 1990s television with the Redgrave sisters, I left the room when I saw the commercials for it. (An eerie side note that happens to me all the time — I just flipped over to IMDB.com to check the date of the remake, and on the day I decided to reference the remake on my blog, Lynn Redgrave died.)

Apparently I was not the only terror-stricken member of the family when it came to Baby Jane Hudson. My father always laughs about how he frightened his younger brother by simply mentioning the title of the film in his spookiest voice. If he were a gambling man today, my dad would put money on the chance that my uncle’s face would turn to angered fear, should he relive one of childhood’s many traumas. I guess I see both of their sides . . .

Much of Baby Jane’s greatness lies not only in the performances but also in the incredibly blurry lines between film and reality. For over 50 years now, rumors have flown back and forth about the hatred Miss Davis and Miss Crawford had for each other — despite their truth, kernels of truth, or complete fabrication, I think these stories make the picture even more enjoyable. We’ll never know how it really was, so let’s enjoy what we think we know! In defense of her failed pictures, Jane tells her sister “They were too busy giving a big buildup to that CRAP you were turning out!” Did Miss Davis have to stretch her actress muscles to deliver such a highlighted use of the word “crap,” or was she just getting some of her and Jane’s anger out? What versions of “truth” am I seeing here, and was that the intended version, or just a marvelous accident? Did they fool the whole world into thinking they hated each other more than they did? Those little questions I ask myself during the film fascinate me and are partially why I return to it so often.

To paraphrase something I once read, Joan lit her cigarette like a lady with the fanciest of silver lighters; Bette struck a match on the bottom of her boot like a cowboy . . . what a pair! Ahhh the rumors of fights, bruises, sprained backs, and dirty tricks make Baby Jane all the more sweet for me. The more I learned about the film and about both actresses, the closer attention I paid to every movement, every facial expression, and every slice of truth that I thought I saw slip out. Let’s start with the less “battle scarry” tales . . . I love the story that Bette Davis tells of how the character Jane finally came to her. She says that she wasn’t sure how to play Jane until the moment she saw the wardrobe — understandably, the costume design resulted in the film’s one Oscar win. Miss Davis also claims to have done her own makeup —  she was sure that no makeup technician in Hollywood would have the guts to make her as beastly as she could make herself. I’m not sure she saw it as “gutsy” so much as she saw it simply as “her job.” Miss Davis began to define Jane for herself, realizing that Jane was the type of woman who always added more makeup in lieu of washing her face. It worked!

bbjan1

And then there are the tales of Davis versus Crawford, some of which resulted, accidentally of course, in physical injuries. Since Miss Crawford was married to the president of Pepsi Cola at the time, she insisted on product placement in a number of her films. The day after she tried to pull this on the set of Baby Jane, Miss Davis arrived at work with Coke for everyone. When Jane discovers her paralyzed sister on the phone calling for help, she punishes her prisoner by kicking her across the room. As some reports go, Miss Davis actually kicked Miss Crawford one time in the head, causing a gash to appear on Crawford’s near-perfect visage. In retaliation, Crawford lined her costume with weights on the day Davis had to drag her out of bed and across the floor . . . rumors have it that this sprained Davis’s back.

I would never discourage a newcomer to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? from sitting down and enjoying it for the first time. While it is marvelous for so many reasons, I would like to offer one suggestion — before watching Baby Jane for the first time (or again), see if you can get a hold of a movie or two from the 1930s or 40s with each actress. Knowing that Baby Jane revived both of their careers for a few seconds, I think again, it really adds to this particular movie when you enter into it with a bit of background (even if the background is through the grapevine). Is Baby Jane an enjoyable ride without? Of course! But going into it with the memory of a young, glamorous Joan Crawford or a 30-year-old Bette Davis and her tiny waistline brings out a bit more truth to Jane and Blanche Hudson . . . and their cellar full of rats.

 

Academy Award (1963) for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: Best Costume Design, Black-and-White.

My Oscar Time Machine: I go back and forth whether I would call it a tie between Bette Davis and Miss Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker. Miss Bancroft, who won, was not at the awards ceremony that year, and of all people, Joan Crawford graciously offered to accept it for her. So Bette Davis had to watch Joan Crawford, who was not nominated, accept what would have been Miss Davis’s record-breaking third Oscar. Oh sod it; I would have given it to Hepburn.

Add it to your queue.

Ajax and wire hangers aside, I do have a special love for Miss Joan Crawford. One of the actresses I came to know backwards, my first introduction to her was the “Rodan versus Godzilla” that was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Young enough to be beyond terrified of the film’s title star, I had a child’s sympathy for Miss Crawford that somehow remains with me today. Despite what kind of mother she was offscreen, and regardless of what her diabolically-eyebrowed character is doing on-screen, I can’t help but delight in watching Crawford play Crawford.

As members of the Hollywood royal family were before her, apparently Miss Crawford was labeled “box office poison” prior to Mildred Pierce. This exact label has been shawled over so many great stars, that sometimes I wonder how much salt I should sprinkle on film history. In any event, the tale of a newly divorced housewife and her transition into a successful businesswoman grandly suited Miss Crawford and her shoulder pads, said to have revitalized a career that was losing its steam. Mildred does anything in her power to earn enough money to satisfy her spoiled daughter, played by a stealthily vicious Ann Blyth. The two actresses develop mesmerizing chemistry as mother and daughter, and you wire hanger fans out there will get a kick out Miss Crawford playing the all-concerned mother.  Fear not, my friends — there’s a slap or two in this one…

After the first shadowy shot of Miss Crawford, I was ready to buy the DVD the following day… luckily a birthday and a “tell-me-what-you-want” friend came in handy. As Mildred walks through the shadows of a Southern California pier wearing her fur coat and hat, I think of a glorious time when all forms of “correctness” weren’t crammed down my throat… and I was born 35 years later! Don’t get me wrong; I love our furry friends and absolutely do not wish them any harm — a fur coat is just one of many decorations in the world of old movies; a world that feels less angry than the politically correct one surrounding me.

Judging from the look and tears on her face in this early scene, Mildred’s black-and-white world is perhaps not as pleasant as I see it… we know something has gone down, and before we have too much time to wonder, Jack Carson pops into the scene with a free drink — once again there’s that lovely drink and its sidekick the cigarette, making their cameos in so many beloved old movies. The Crawford face combined with the shadows that probably moved when she told them to (and of course that little ol’ dead body in the film’s opening scene), made me fall — and fall hard — for Mildred Pierce.

Dead bodies lead to cops, and oh, how I love the policemen in old movies. Guns that produce enormous amounts of smoke always provoke a call to headquarters, typically on a car radio the size of a bullhorn. And when we finally get down to headquarters or the station, the “cop classics” just keep on coming — detectives with fedoras, overalls, and a “drink-cigarette” combo that has become more of a “newspaper-cigarette” pairing… these ARE policemen, after all.

The police bring in Mildred for questioning about the dead body, and she cooperates fully, insisting that her daughter stays at home. As Mildred walks into the station and sits down, mimicking our own confusion about where all of this is going, my eyebrows unfurrow immediately when I see Eve Arden sitting in one of the chairs behind her. As Ida (Arden) roughly shakes off the cop holding her arm and tells him “Look, I bruise easy,” that deliciously brusque voice sets off an alarm in my childhood memory bank.

During my first time through Mildred Pierce, it took me an agonizing 20 seconds to place Miss Arden — fans of the movie Grease (1978) will remember her as Principal McGee of Rydell High. “If you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter.” Yup, that’s Eve Arden. Unwilling to limit myself to a witch’s hat and cape, I also dove wig-first into Grease as a kid, brilliantly transforming a small blanket into the wig that Stockard Channing sports during “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” And trust me, our harmony together (Miss Channing’s and mine) was nothing to sneeze at. In Mildred Pierce, Miss Arden’s sassiness provides the film with some needed humor, and although she has the potential to steal scenes from the star, it seems like she was smart enough not to do so. As Jack Carson’s character gives her a lusty eye in one scene, she shoots back with “Leave SOMETHING on me; I might catch cold!” It was just enough to earn her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, up against costar Ann Blyth… neither went home with Oscar that night.

I can leave my Oscar Time Machine in the garage, as you Mommie Dearest fans may recall Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Miss Crawford winning Best Actress in a Leading Role from her bedroom. Too ill to attend the ceremony, her symptoms subsided as soon as her name was announced over the radio, and she ran to address her beloved fans. And she deserved it; Mildred Pierce is a classic that gives us not only the Crawford eyes, eyebrows, and shoulders but also the Crawford who holds our hand while we ride her roller coaster of emotions. As the mother who will stop at nothing to please a daughter incapable of being satisfied, Miss Crawford elegantly blazes through Mildred Pierce and encouraged me to explore a number of her other films.

So where do we go from here? Unavoidably for me, there’s only one direction in which to head after paying my respects to Miss Joan Crawford — I thought about saving it for later, but it’s best not to keep the crazies waiting…

 

Academy Award (1946) for Mildred Pierce: Best Actress in a Leading Role

Add it to your queue.