Jane is obsessed with her manufactured child image.
The uncanny image of her child self mesmerizes Jane.
Blanche is at least ostensibly presented as the rational, “normal” sister, concerned by the other’s behavior.
Jane performs her “Baby Jane” routine in the mirror.
Aldrich’s films with Davis focus on a perverse female Oedipus Complex: “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.”
The Baby Jane doll, symbolic of the dead past, maintains a hideous power over the living.
Victor Buono as Jane’s would-be co-star in her comeback.
Female on the beach: Jane is a stranger in the world of modernity.
Jane attempts to block out her dying sister’s truth.
Images from Strait-Jacket
Joan Crawford as Lucy Harbin, a captive of the image.
The heterosexual couple under clinical scrutiny.
Crawford in a parody of the spectacularization of femininity through the male gaze.
The young Carol: the child in a murderous primal scene blurs into image of female madness.
Crawford in Possessed.
In Strait-Jacket Crawford evokes her earlier scenes of madness in Possessed.
Strait-Jacket: the adult Carol (Diane Baker), a modern young woman.
Her fiancé represents bland middle-class stability.
The middle-class home and social conformity.
Lucy confronts her daughter’s would-be in-laws.
“I paid!” Lucy confronts suburban life with raw, socially disruptive pain.
One of the stalwart incarnations of the woman’s film is the gothic melodrama (Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock, 1940; Jane Eyre, Robert Stevenson, 1943; Gaslight, George Cukor, 1944.) An offshoot of gothic melodrama is the uncanny tale, set in the present day, of twin sisters, usually played by the same actress (Olivia De Havilland in The Dark Mirror, Bette Davis in A Stolen Life and Dead Ringer), one of whom is good, the other evil; the evil one kills the good one and tries to assume her identity. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? adds key aspects of the gothic—a dilapidated old house, an invalid in an upstairs bedroom, a villain whose madness intensifies into murderous rage—to the tale of uncanny sisters. Much like Hitchcock’s Psycho, Baby Jane is horrific yet shot through with black comedy, thus establishing a certain critical distance from its genre trappings. Perhaps it is this distance that allows Aldrich’s film to strive for a kind of realism, a strange authenticity, within the trappings of a mock-gothic. Black comedy self-consciously informs the film and qualifies its relationship to Camp, which depends on a lack of knowledge of its own effects on the part of the work. Black comedy works in tandem with, rather than in opposition to, Baby Jane’s structures of sympathetic feeling.
This story of two aging stars—former child star Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis), former movie star Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford), now in a wheelchair—played by aging stars finds a core of reality in the gothic melodrama as it capitalizes on two important trends. First, Psycho established, with great controversy at the time, a new explicitness in horror movie violence through onscreen depictions of murder. While Psycho’s murder scene is all done with montage and music, and is not explicit in the torture-porn manner of Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005), say, at the time its simulation/suggestion of its heroine’s horrific stabbing in the shower was unprecedented. [open endnotes in new window]
Second, the ‘60s horror movies with aging stars extended the meta-critique Hollywood had been inflicting upon itself since the 1950s: Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), The Star (Stuart Heisler, 1952, with Bette Davis in the lead), The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952), The Big Knife (directed by Aldrich, 1955), The Goddess (John Cromwell, 1958). The ‘60s horror films only deepen a pre-existing sense of Gothicism in these meta-Hollywood films, exemplified by the burial of former silent movie star Norma Desmond’s monkey at the start of Sunset Boulevard. (Moreover, the film begins with a shot of the protagonist, the screenwriter hired by Norma for her comeback, floating in a swimming pool after having been murdered by Norma; he narrates the film from the dead.)
Aldrich discovers a new level of realism in the remains of the woman’s film genre. Principally, this discovery lies in his depiction of class conflict and addiction. Coarse, ill-mannered Baby Jane’s cold contempt for a pleasant but prim next-door neighbor; her ghoulishly out-of-place appearance in the bland, conformist world of suburban banks and supermarkets; and her almost incessant drinking take the woman’s film to a new level of realism, in this manner following Psycho’s lead: horror lies not in outlandish settings and situations but in quotidian details and in the unspeakable isolation of the characters.
As I have argued elsewhere, the myth of Demeter and Persephone, in which the earth goddess mourns the abduction of her maiden goddess daughter by Hades, informs the depiction of mother-daughter relationships, usually fraught and marked by loss, especially on the part of the mother, in the woman’s film. The subgenre of the “uncanny sisters” film, in its depiction of the maternal “good” sister and the uncontrollable “evil” sister, is persephonal in that it allegorizes the fraught mother-daughter relationship in melodrama.
Usually, the evil sister goes rogue, taking narrative matters in her own hands and always threatening to abandon the good sister, who longs for some kind of reconciliation with her (or so it would seem). This is not in any way to diminish the specific importance of the sibling relationship. I would argue, however, that the uncanny sisters tale follows the pattern of maternal melodramas insofar as it foregrounds a rift between deeply interconnected women, one of whom mourns the rift, the other of whom instigates it.
Baby Jane uses an uncanny sisters-story and a ruined-Hollywood plot to explore female loss as well as rage. Baby Jane’s loss most keenly informs the film—of her former child-star fame, her abortive movie career, her attractive youth—but Blanche also embodies loss, submitting to the overpowering Jane’s will and sitting trapped in her wheelchair as images of her old movies play on the small screen. The aforementioned black-humor laughs pivot around the legendary feud between the stars. As has been well-known for decades, Davis and Crawford disliked one another; Davis was particularly vocal about her disdain for Crawford’s manner (regal, pious, precious, and so forth), Crawford about Davis’s ill-mannered behavior. Clearly, levels of competitiveness would appear to have shaped the stars’ interactions over the decades. Aldrich derives some genuinely perverse zing out of pitting these competitive fading stars against one another.
For all of the dark humor in the film, however, its levels of pain and the pathos are palpable. They emanate from the suffering of the socially cast-off characters as well as the real, genuine loss of the film’s stars’ own youth and marquee-power. I can think of no scene in 1960s film more heartbreaking than the shot of the aged, white-face-powder-plastered Jane staring at herself in the mirror with a shock of recognition at the disparity between her former child and haggard present-day older-woman self. The movie goes out of its way to make Davis-Jane hag-like. But the horror film genre does this—it takes personal fears and preoccupations to levels of extremity. The hideousness of Jane allegorizes the film’s themes of loss and fears of loneliness.
Davis made a conscious, theatrical decision to look as grotesque as possible—unkempt hair, ghoul-white face, saggy, ungainly housedresses. While some criticized her for her decision to appear in this extreme way, anyone familiar with the Davis oeuvre will recognize a sustained comfort level with such outré physical transformations with an emphasis on brazen ugliness. In Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon, 1937), Davis’s clip-joint “hostess” (read prostitute) Mary, avenging her younger sister’s death and defying the mob-boss who killed her, is brutally beaten by the boss’s henchman. Davis insisted on sporting realistic, grisly wounds, including the vengeful cross that is carved into her cheek. Davis’s version of Elizabeth the Queen or the aged, post-diphtheria Mrs. Skeffington are sketches for Jane’s strident, poignant ugliness, as is the initial, homely version of Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager. Davis’s insistence on physical ugliness as an expression of a character’s loss and rage has many implications, but one of them is the performer’s determined opposition to the Hollywood female beauty myth.
When Jane imprisons Blanche in her bedroom, tying her arms to an overhead notch, Blanche looks uncannily like a parody of the mother in the delivery room, in a suspended birth-giving scene. Deepening this metaphor, Jane cries out for Blanche at one point near the end of the film, desperately seeking her help; Blanche, starved, abused, near-death, can offer no maternal help to this deranged, pitiable daughter. Jane’s treatment of Blanche parodies the mother’s nurturing role; instead of offering food and solace, Jane gives Blanche hideously inedible food (her dead parakeet, a dead rat) and torments her further with verbal and physical abuse. At the end of the film, set on a beach, Blanche lies dying as Jane reverts to a child-like role, girlishly spinning around. In a grim parody of a mother-daughter beach outing, Jane, her mind flooding with images of happier days of herself as the child star Baby Jane playing with her family at the beach, procures an ice cream cone for Blanche and herself.
The black mammy or maid functions, as critics such as Mary Ann Doane and Molly Haskell point out, as a sign of the hyper-maternal in the woman’s film. The housekeeper Elvira, played by the African-American actress Maidie Norman, who cares for Blanche and whom Jane kills in a moment that was shocking during the film’s initial run, suggests a motherly role savagely excised by the film. It’s almost as if, in killing Elvira, Jane kills off her not only her own role as mother to Blanche but the function of mothering itself.
In her book The Monstrous-Feminine, Barbara Creed argues that the primary fear at the core of the horror film genre is that the subject will be re-engulfed by the terrifying figure of the archaic mother, whose maw-like threat hovers around the cultural narratives—such as Freudian psychoanalysis and Hollywood film—that repress her presence; exemplary films in this regard include The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) and Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and its sequels.
I argue, however, that an equally urgent desire for return to the mother also informs the genre. Creed’s exemplary archaic-mother-dread texts foreground a longing for return to origins as well as a dread of this return. Modern horror inherits longstanding anxieties over and conflictual wishes for return to the mother. Both the woman’s film and modern horror, in its female-centered form, thematize mother-daughter bonds and a simultaneous desire for and dread of return to the mother. The mythic narrative of Demeter and Persephone, which intermeshes themes of maternal loss and rage (in her grief over her daughter Persephone’s abduction, Demeter transforms the Earth into a bleak, endless winter), the daughter’s journey away from the mother and also highly qualified return to her (Persephone can return to her mother and to the earth, but only for half of the year; during the other half, she lives with her husband Hades and with him rules over their hellish realm, and of the woman’s violation at the hands of a brutal male figure (Hades’ abduction and rape of Persephone and his entrapment of her through the pomenegranate seed that forces her to return to him, a model for the grisly marriages in gothic melodrama in particular). In its weaving together of these proto-feminist themes, the Demeter-Persephone myth emerges as a resonant rubric—though, given the centrality of rape and violence, a volatile one as well—through which to understand reinterpret both female melodrama and female-centered horror. Key examples of the longing to return to the mother along with the desire to escape or reject her include Now, Voyager, in which Bette Davis’s Charlotte Vale maintains a relationship with a mother who is both deeply critical of her and intent on keeping her daughter by her side, and the two versions of Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl, 1934; Douglas Sirk, 1959), in which the light-skinned daughter of the black woman rejects her mother but desperately mourns her death in the end.
Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz’s great 1945 film (based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel), starring Joan Crawford in the title role and Ann Blyth as her manipulative daughter Veda, upends this pattern by obsessively detailing the mother’s push-pull relationship to her daughter, with the emphasis decidedly on pull. The mother’s incessant desire for connection with her daughter emerges as an almost pathological force in the film (and much more so in Cain’s novel, which hypnotically figures this relationship as incestuously charged). Mildred’s reconciliation with her first husband Bert at the end, presented as a cathartic escape from her miasmic bond with Veda, alters the pattern of female melodrama, in which the daughter usually escapes the controlling mother while maintaining an ambivalent attitude toward marriage.
In Baby Jane, the inability of either woman to return to a past state of perfection, signified here by stardom, allegorizes the desperate longing for return to the mother and the impossibility of any such return, which will be thematized by later horror films as distinct as De Palma’s Carrie and David Fincher’s 1992 Alien 3 (the scene in which the heroine Ripley performs an autopsy on the dead body of Newt, the little girl she saved in the previous film in the series). Somehow it seems harrowingly appropriate that both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had daughters who wrote tell-all memoirs about the ways in which their mothers failed them; Baby Jane seems to locate a particular trauma in these stars’ lives, allegorized by the plot of the film, as a simultaneous failure to mother and be mothered. Cast off by the studios that had made them great and which they helped to make successful, Davis and Crawford, in their careers, emerge as errant daughters never properly nurtured, albeit by the studio fathers who cast them off once their star power faded (Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, where Davis was the premier female star from the later 1930s to the mid-1940s, and where Joan Crawford enjoyed a mid-career resurgence with Mildred Pierce, directed by Michael Curtiz, released in 1945; Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, who fired Crawford for being “box-office poison” at the end of the ‘30s).
Baby Jane indexes the major themes of the woman’s film as it offers a deconstructive critique of it. In its fusion of woman’s film themes (transformation, avenging women, a longing for return); its simultaneously pitiless and empathetic critique of its stars’ careers and current status; and in its evocation of Psycho, Aldrich’s film is a liminal work situated at the crossroads between genres, woman’s film and horror, and between the studio system of Classic Hollywood and the new realism of the post-studio era leading into the New Hollywood of the 1970s.
Mother-daughter Psycho: Strait-Jacket
If Baby Jane has failed to attract proper critical attention, William Castle’s Strait-Jacket (1964) has been completely critically neglected. This is a shame, because it is a significant work in the female-centered horror film genre, and proved to be the most influential of the “grand dame guignol” films.
Joan Crawford plays Lucy Harbin, a sexy, tough woman who recalls Bette Davis, with long raven-black hair, as Rosa Moline, a “twelve o’clock girl in a nine o’clock town” in the similarly undervalued Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949). Lucy sports similar dramatic dark hair and baubles that hang from her ears and wrists. A Fury in a matter of minutes, Lucy savagely axe-murders her husband and the woman he’s having an affair with in the opening section of the film. Castle then evokes Crawford’s bravura performance as the mentally ill woman—driven to madness by her lover’s rejection of her—in Possessed.In lurid, grim shots of Crawford screaming in madness and despair, clad in the titular strait-jacket, Strait-Jacket suggests the incurability of Crawford’s character from the earlier film. Strait-Jacket’s premise is that, two decades later, Lucy is released from the sanatorium and goes back to live with her brother and his wife. Kindly folks, they have raised Lucy’s now adult daughter, Carol (Diane Baker), who witnessed the hideous axe-murders when she was a child. Written by Robert Bloch, whose novel Psycho provided the source material for Hitchcock’s film, Strait-Jacket plays out like a fusion of Hitchcock’s Psycho and Marnie (1964), another film about a young woman traumatized by a primal scene of murder. Strait-Jacket differs from Marnie in making the traumatized mother, not the daughter, the protagonist and the center of sympathetic identification; indeed, the daughter, far from being the heroine, emerges as the villain.
Strait-Jacket features some of Crawford’s most nuanced and realistic acting. The Camp response the film usually elicits emphasizes the scenes in which Crawford’s Lucy dons her old flashy garb and tries to look like her old, good time-gal self again, complete with black wig, wild eyebrows, garishly provocative dress, enormous earrings, and noisy bracelets. (Again, the parallels with Bette Davis’s Rosa Moline in Beyond the Forest are striking.) But in the quiet early scenes when Lucy, released from the hospital, makes her tentative way throughout her new home, Crawford’s acting is naturalistically unshowy, and precise: deglamorised, her hair gray and in a bun, she looks like an ordinary, vulnerable older woman, which makes her embrace of her daughter all the more affecting. Throughout the film, Crawford oscillates between this touching fragility and a vibrant coarseness that is itself shot through with a genuine vulnerability.
One of the signal achievements of these horror-woman’s films is their attentiveness to issues of class. What may be the true horror in Strait-Jacket is Lucy’s discomfort as she sits, dressed in her flashy, tacky clothes, with her daughter’s prospective in-laws in their deadly-bland middle-class parlor. Their stultifying normalcy contrasts sharply against both Lucy’s past and her present state. In one of the most startling scenes of the film, Lucy rails against her daughter’s would-be mother-in-law when she prods Lucy for details about her past. “I paid!” Crawford shrieks, in reference to the years she spent atoning for her crimes in the sanatorium. Crawford was always terrific in scenes in which she railed against class warfare. This scene recalls another righteous-anger Crawford moment in her fine melodrama Sadie McKee (Clarence Brown, 1934), in which her servant girl upbraids the lazy elites she works for because of their callous indifference to the plight of the working-class singer she loves.
Strait-Jacket continues and reimagines the trope of female transformation in the Crawford film. Morphing from her sex-dynamo younger (and axe-wielding) self to her frail, vulnerable hair-in-a-bun old woman self back to a recreated version of that coarsely alive younger self (which when initially presented as such is still the older Crawford’s attempt to appear to be that younger self; a younger actress was not cast in the Lucy role in the prologue), Crawford’s Lucy indexes a range of possible female identities. In the particularly arresting moment in which, in her “young” Lucy garb, Lucy flirts provocatively with her daughter’s stiff, handsome fiancé, Lucy and her daughter switch places, the daughter disciplining the mother who is acting like a teenage girl. (Bizarrely, just such a scenario would play out in real life, when Crawford filled in for her daughter Christina, unbeknownst to her, on the television soap opera The Secret Storm, the aged Crawford playing her daughter’s ingénue role in a 1968 episode.)
At the climax of the film, Lucy, an aggrieved Demeter in pursuit of her daughter, goes back to Hell: that stifling middle-class house of her daughter’s potential in-laws. What she discovers is the murderer whose rampage has been so intimately connected to her own trauma and capacity for violence: her own daughter Carol, dressed up as Lucy, wearing a mask of her own mother’s face. As the two struggle, Lucy preventing Carol from killing again, Lucy unmasks her daughter. In Carol’s version of the female masquerade, she impersonates her mother not as her current, older self but as the younger and violent Lucy who committed murders before the young Carol’s eyes. When Carol’s fiancé appears, Lucy sorrowfully raises the mask of her own face to him, as if this gesture could explain everything.
Beneath its exploitation-horror trappings is an exquisite study in the construction of femininity in a misogynistic culture. Freud and feminist psychoanalysis have both argued that women in culture have been able to derive some social satisfaction and wield phallic power through narcissism. Carol’s madness has its foundation in an obsessive narcissistic fascination with her mother. Moreover, the film’s interesting depiction of Carol as a sculptor (recalling female artists in Hawthorne’s 1860 novel The Marble Faun, another work obsessed with female sexual guilt and potential for violence) implicitly suggests that her obsessive mirroring of her mother stems from her awareness of the iconic nature of femininity in a culture dominated by the female beauty myth. Her need to inhabit a younger, sexually dynamic version of her mother suggests a fixation with her mother’s sexuality and vitality. By inhabiting her own fantasy of her mother’s narcissistic, gaudy sexual theatricality as well as her vengeful wrath, Lucy can simultaneously restore the lost mother and displace her, seizing her parent’s power for herself.
The film allegorizes, perhaps, the young “modern” actress’s feelings of rivalry with and potential inadequacy in the face of the great female stars of the classical Hollywood past. While the focus in critical analyses of these films is on the grasping, desperate nature of the aging female star clinging to any available vehicle, even one in which she will be made to look “wildly repulsive,” Strait-Jacket foregrounds the threatening appeal of the older female star, who galvanizes the rivalrous desires of the younger. In this manner, Strait-Jacket provides a more outwardly lurid but also resonant reflection on the themes that affectingly inform Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ s great 1950 film All About Eve, in which Bette Davis’s theater star Margo Channing is preyed upon by the younger Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an aspiring actress who craves Margo’s fame, skill, and life.
Joan Riviere’s argument in her influential 1929 essay “Woman and the Masquerade” intersects with Strait-Jacket. A British psychoanalyst who was Freud’s earliest translator into English, Riviere argued that being female is an act of mimicry, a sustained masquerade. Women must impersonate femaleness within a culture that constructs femininity as a series of masks, and this act of impersonation causes considerable pain for the woman. In Strait-Jacket, the daughter wears not only the mother’s face but also the painted, artificial face women must don in culture in order to have even the most partial of their needs met. The daughter inherits the mother’s own sexually and socially abnegated position, growing into an extrusion of the mother’s gendered mask. That this is an entirely arbitrary fate yet seems inevitable reveals a great deal, far too much, about the ways in which culture organizes gendered and sexual development and identity.
Handing her own face-mask to Carol’s bewildered, obtuse fiancé and walking away, Lucy appears to be handing him the history of constructions of femininity, a history she has unmasked. As Lucy grabs the mask and tears at it, she alternately sobs piteously and angrily fulminates: “I love her, I hate her”: her incommensurate emotions are the logical result of the brutal, haphazard socialization of woman, at least in a pre-feminist age, made simultaneously to reject their mothers and feel lifelong enmity towards them while identifying and transforming into them.
What is ultimately most fascinating about Strait-Jacket is its thorough up-ending of perhaps the central preoccupation in the woman’s film, the heroine’s marriage, a project into which her mother is intimately incorporated, as both overseer and rival, supporter and usurper. Here, the mother, usually in the supporting role, watching from the sidelines, is the main character, and the daughter’s relationship to the mother far outdistances her relationship to romance and her own imminent marriage. In addition to the mother-daughter relationship, the female horror films of the 1960s are linked to the woman’s film genre through a centrally maintained ambivalence towards heterosexual relations, which take the forms of masculinity (figured in Baby Jane by the hapless and corrupt image of Victor Buono as Jane’s would-be piano-accompanist, here by the absence of any possible mate for Lucy Harbin), and marriage.
What Carolyn Heilbrun called the female romance plot—as opposed to the male quest plot—drives the genre of the woman’s film. The pervasive, urgent presence of the romance plot raises the central question: will the singular, intelligent, lively heroine marry? And if she does marry, how will marriage affect her? These are not casually posed questions, since the heroine’s very personhood is shown to be at stake. In film after film, the choice is between a woman’s loyalty to her own distinctiveness—living a “life of single blessedness,” as Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) describes it in Now, Voyager—and to the marriage plot, as I rephrase Heilbrun’s paradigm.
Strait-Jacket resolves the marriage plot by having Carol comfortably enter into it, an attractive and eminently “marriageable” young woman who seems to be marrying up. It is the coarse and self-conscious Lucy falling apart and railing against propriety in the middle-class setting that is a much bigger obstacle for the young heroine. The biggest obstacle of all to the successful resolution of the marriage plot is Carol’s ongoing narcissistic parody of and preoccupation with her galvanizingly sexual but also unclassifiable mother. In his book The Moment of Psycho, David Thomson suggests that a much more resonant turn for the film’s second half would have been to have the murdered Marion Crane (Janet Leigh’s) mother search for her missing daughter, and therefore have Marion’s mother—as opposed to her sister, Lila Crane (Vera Miles), in the film—confront “Mrs. Bates,” the shadowy mother of the psychotic Norman Bates, who turns out to be a long-dead woman whose body has been preserved by her “psycho” son. Strait-Jacket is both William Castle’s and Robert Bloch’s version of such a scenario, in which the mother is not dead, but alive, altogether too much so for the narrative’s efforts to contain her.