Posts Tagged ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’

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!

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“Poor Bogie.” Those were my first thoughts on that gloomy Tuesday afternoon when the Hollywood sign must have lost its balance, if just for a moment. The great Lauren Bacall has died at the age of 89, and despite my love for and devotion to this hypnotic talent and beauty of a woman, I felt immediate heartache for her husband, who died 57 years ago. My benevolent concern for Mr. Humphrey Bogart and his new status as a widower was momentary, and as I realized Bogie was probably okay with the situation, I was able to smile on an afternoon when, frankly, I feared I was about to break my “no crying at work” rule. I’ve trained myself pretty well – the dam was up and held steadily as I gathered together my meager belongings and took off a few minutes early to . . . oh, I don’t know . . . bake a cake for Bogart. I had some leftover matzo ball soup in the fridge that’s always better the next day; maybe he would enjoy that.

A dinner night with me is a surefire way to go home with at least one old movie recommendation. I’m delighted when the next dinner comes around and friends admit to me that they never knew so many lines came from Casablanca (1942). Other text messages arrive during their first viewing of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), shocked and disturbed that a black-and-white film could go to such dark and evil levels of the human psyche. Some are tickled more by “As Time Goes By” than by dead rats on a silver platter; others just the opposite, and I’m grateful for all the schmaltzy saps and sickos who invite me to dine with them.

On many a dinner I’ve made the pitch for Dark Passage (1947) as much I have for The Lion in Winter (1968) or All About Eve (1950), but I don’t believe I’ve succeeded yet in making a sale. I remember watching an interview with someone who described Bogie and Bacall’s third movie together as, “not a great film but a good film.” Perhaps one of the first times a movie audience witnessed a woman rescuing a man (who else but Lauren Bacall?), Dark Passage follows the journey of an escaped convict and those who help him on his odyssey out of San Francisco. True, I’m not holding a grudge against the Academy for ignoring this one, and it’s not a film you want to watch with that person in your life who moans “Oh, yeah right!” (you just thought of a name, didn’t you?). But trust me, a classic doesn’t have to be an upturned nose of a “Claaaaassic,” and if DVDs wear out from being overplayed, soon I’ll have to buy a new copy of this one.

A treacherous little filming technique at the time, the first hour of Dark Passage is shot almost completely from Humphrey Bogart’s point of view, allowing us to see Lauren Bacall just as he sees her. His hands become ours, as we light her cigarette from across the table; we hide behind her in an elevator, just a few inches from her face; when we all wake up after hiking the hills and staircases of the San Francisco streets, her masterpiece of a face is the first to come into focus. Here we enjoy Bacall as we always have and always will, but we’re also granted the privilege of seeing her through Bogie’s eyes, and, if only for a moment, loving her with Bogie’s love. As the fog of sadness began to lift last night, Dark Passage became the very cake and soup that I felt Bogie so desperately needed.

Thank you, Betty Perske. Thank you, Lauren Bacall. We’re so grateful that the two of you met.

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Add Lauren Bacall to your queue.

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While working her way through the novel for the first time, my dear friend advocated strongly to host a little To Kill a Mockingbird evening. She would provide dinner for me and a few others; in exchange I would provide one life’s practically perfect pairings – a bottle of wine and Gregory Peck on DVD. Although I had seen the film years ago but remember enjoying it, my memory of the Finch family wasn’t as sharp as I’d have liked. Regardless of their quality, once again I’m guilty of remembering very little when it comes to the books I was forced to read. Stubborn little bugger, I was.

I was well aware of Mr. Peck’s Academy Award-winning performance of Atticus Finch, every film list’s number-one hero, but when it came to the 1963 Oscar race, I was more familiar with the ladies of 1962. From the Coke versus Pepsi battles on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? blossomed equally enticing rumors about Joan Crawford’s “Anybody but Bette Davis” Oscar campaign. As a morphine-addicted matriarch withstanding the judgments of her alcoholic husbands and sons, Katharine Hepburn reached unbelievably new highs and lows in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Eventually on Oscar night Anne Bancroft’s name was announced for The Miracle Worker, an award that Miss Crawford graciously accepted on her behalf while those famous Bette Davis eyes threw daggers. While the world celebrated Mr. Peck and Mrs. Bancroft-Brooks, toasting the good-hearted lawyer Atticus Finch and Anne Sullivan, the strong-willed tutor of Helen Keller, the remaining drug addicts and alcoholics on the Oscar ballot gathered together their empty bottles and went home with nothing.

According to a few sources, Gregory Peck did not expect to win for his performance in To Kill a Mockingbird. His money was on his good friend Jack Lemmon for his chillingly stunning performance of an alcoholic in Days of Wine and Roses. Always the shrinking violet, Bette “Baby Jane” Davis expected to be the first woman ever to win three Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role but admitted, “Miss Remick’s performance astonished me, and I thought, if I lose the Oscar, it will be to her.” Lee Remick joined the above women on the list of nominees for Best Actress for her portrayal of Jack Lemmon’s wife; a woman who matches and eventually surpasses her husband’s drinking habits. Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer were awarded golden statues for their song of the same name, but the Days of Wine and Roses couple, who gave two exhausting performances that caused me to reflect on more than I cared to, were forced to drown their Oscar sorrows.

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Do we all have the capacity for alcoholism?  Is there a “potato chip factor” we should factor in during a first round of happy hour cocktails? Along with scrunchies, slap bracelets, and eventually flannel shirts, my Thanksgiving tables were made up of mostly passive drinkers who passed out on the couch after dessert every year. You can only sell that “turkey makes them sleepy” jazz to a kid for so long, but truthfully I was relieved to see some of the more unpleasant members of the extended family settle into unconsciousness. Perhaps they weren’t particularly kind people, but as far as I remember, they weren’t angry drunks. Anger, it seemed, was reserved for the sober; the drinkers just figured out how to get away from it. Watching Lemmon and Remick dive into the roles of two alcoholics who spiral out of control, together and separately, implored me to consider my own youthful days of adulthood when life’s vices were everywhere, our bodies were indestructible, and no one gave a second thought to opening another bottle. Physical and emotional consequences were for old people who had lost some sort of battle with life’s hourglass, a battle we were winning during our days of wine of roses.

Strolling through North Beach with a bottle of Coppola Chardonnay and Gregory Peck in my bag, I made a point to walk by an old theatre where I used to work as an usher. Often I’m able to catch a few old friends between or after shows for a quick hi-there-and-hello hug and a few drinks. I ran into one old buddy that evening and bragged about the fact that I was on my way up the hill for a To Kill a Mockingbird party. His face lit up (at first I wondered if he thought I said “Tequila Mockingbird”), but then he started asking if I remembered “this part” or “that part” of that glorious film. Unfortunately I was running a bit behind schedule and still had three uphill blocks of North Beach to conquer, so I had to leave behind what may have been a wonderful chit-chat. Next time, my friend. Yes, I was on my way up that hill to a dignified, adult dinner party followed by a relaxed viewing of a classic black-and-white film. I continued down the block, and before I started hoofing it up that hill, I had a quick glimpse into my own days of wine and roses and beer and Jägermeister – a blessed little bar next to the theatre was a clubhouse to us all, and yes, there was wine. Lots of wine. And Rose was servin’ it.

When she wasn’t swamped with customers who were crazed with thirst, Rose and I had some pretty gratifying discussions. The two of us had a little five-minute book club that would meet immediately after my shift but before the bar filled up with audience members, cast, and crew from the show. Although we never had the same book on our nightstands at the same time, we were able to catch each other up quickly on what each of us was reading. When Rose was working, magically a glass of Sangiovese would appear on the bar without my ordering it . . . and when I say “glass,” I mean that thing was filled to the brim. If I hadn’t been such a gentleman, I’d have leaned down on the bar and slurped up the first few sips just to keep from spilling. Eventually the bar would fill up with new and old friends, we’d all drink until we fell off our stools and before anyone had time to pass out, we’d hop in cabs and go dancing. It was splendid; it was simple; it was a wonderful year in the toddler years of adulthood . . . and if I hadn’t left when I did, I think I may have died in the bathroom of that bar.

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Days of Wine and Roses is a dark and emotionally draining view into the world of alcoholics, addiction, love, and survival. When Joe Clay (Lemmon) meets Kirsten Arnesen (Remick) at the beginning of Days of Wine and Roses, he’s as boozy as they come, while the only addiction she reveals is one of the chocolate variety. A harmless Brandy Alexander ushers Kirsten into more and more binge drinking with her new husband, and the two begin to create a life free from the perils of sobriety. If that one cocktail could unleash a beast of an alcoholic in Kirsten, is it possible we all go through an alcoholic phase in life, a time when we could all benefit from a Step or Twelve? The dangerous edge of that cliff – Mount Mid-20s, let’s call it – was treacherous, and I was eager to peer(-pressure) over it. When you’re a happy drunk and choose to drink yourself up to that edge, nothing can touch you, nothing can hurt you, and everyone loves you, whether they do or not. Somewhere in my mind, the immortality that I felt I had been promised would allow me to fly if ever I did leap off that blasted edge. But poor Kirsten . . . she hadn’t been promised a thing, and it turns out, neither had I.

Like Dad always says, everything in moderation. I loved my time at the bottom of that hill, and I had a wonderful evening when finally I made it up those three steep San Francisco blocks with Gregory Peck in tow. Last time I checked, Rose was still going strong, pouring generous glasses only to those who deserved them. My days of wine and Rose and roses may not be behind me completely, but they have certainly mellowed out over the years. My edge was at the bottom of that hill, not the top, but today I’m able to look both down and back without regret. Cheers!

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Academy Award for Days of Wine and Roses (1963): Best Music, Original Song

Add Days of Wine and Roses to your queue.


A pinch of powder and a touch lipstick can go a very long way . . .

Some family members were amused by the creative little boy who never waited for Halloween to sport his magnificent costumes; others looked down and sneered at those of any age who behaved even slightly outside the tedious norm. I dreaded those family functions at which I knew I’d be asked, “So, who are you today?” I never understood it — I couldn’t wait to pull out of my hat all these fabulously fascinating personalities and try them all on, and yet somehow those around me were content simply to be themselves. Very confusing to a curious young mind, especially when I didn’t find particularly likable the one personality each of these adults were choosing to keep. If indeed any judgment was thrown at my childhood self, I can only assume it was wrapped in a layer of jealousy . . . hey, at least I was having a good time!

A happy Halloween to all, particularly to that little boy out there who’s having an absolutely wonderful time in his first witch costume. But take it from me, buddy: next year just ask for some green makeup — magic marker is a bitch to scrub off.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.