Images from Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

John Mayhew (Bruce Dern) being savagely murdered by axe.

Onscreen violence reflected a shift in the times, post-Psycho.

Charlotte’s father represents the corruptions of Southern patriarchy.

Charlotte’s blood-stained white dress, symbolic of violated female sexuality.

The two sides of Miriam’s (Olivia de Havilland’s) face: prim socialite and …

… cold, calm terror.

Agnes Moorehead as the loyal domestic (coded as lesbian), attempting to save “Miss Charlotte!”

The masked ball as a ghost of institutionalized heterosexuality.

Charlotte (Bette Davis) in abject despair.

The terrifying scene in the car …

… in which seething Miriam slaps distraught Charlotte.

Davis’s portrait of sheer, wordless fear.

Miriam, sleekly triumphant.

The hystericized woman can see through her own victimization.

Charlotte sends the huge flower pot crashing down on the villains.

Charlotte pauses at the door with John’s musicbox.

Charlotte puts down the musicbox, and leaves heterosexual romance behind.

The chorus of sympathetic black women from earlier in the film.

Charlotte’s sympathetic friend (a coded gay man) who knows the truth.

The shock of recognition.


The silencing of Bette Davis

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Robert Aldrich’s 1964 follow-up to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, is as fascinating a work in its own right as its more famous predecessor.[36] [open endnotes in new window] With a story and a co-written screenplay by Henry Farrell, who wrote the novel on which Baby Jane was based, Hush…Hush was supposed to reteam archrivals Davis and Crawford, but—for reasons officially connected to Crawford’s sudden illness—she was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. While it would have been sublime to see Davis and Crawford reteamed, especially in a reversal of their power roles in the previous work, the latter is unthinkable without the cool, brittle menace de Havilland brings to it.[37]

Davis stars as the aged Charlotte Hollis, a former Southern belle who lives as a recluse in her father’s sprawling mansion, attended only by the slovenly, witchlike housekeeper Velma Carruther (Agnes Moorehead, a gay icon in her own right). Thirty-seven years earlier, her married lover John Mayhew (Bruce Dern) was axe-murdered by someone whose real identity will not be revealed until late in the film (his wife Jewell Mayhew, played by Mary Astor). Beheaded and mutilated, his hand chopped off, John continues to haunt the moody, at times hysterical Charlotte. Her emotional turbulence stems from having had to endure being falsely accused all of these years of killing John.

At the start of the narrative proper, Charlotte is being threatened off of her property by “the damned county commissioner.” She asks her enigmatic, Northern cousin Miriam (de Havilland), who once lived with Charlotte’s family but is now a “career” woman who works in public relations, to come and help her. Unbeknownst to increasingly agitated Charlotte, Miriam, far from helping her cousin out, is actually in cahoots with the courtly Southern doctor and Hollis family friend, Drew (Joseph Cotten), who broke off his engagement to Miriam when the murder-scandal broke. When Velma discovers and threatens to expose Miriam and Drew’s perfidy, Miriam kills her. Keeping Charlotte nearly comatose on pills, Miriam and Drew also proceed to stage elaborate set-pieces designed to terrify her into madness. In the culminating moment of their elaborate ruse, Drew masquerades as the dead, dismembered John before the distraught and apparently helpless Charlotte. Having shot the apparition, Charlotte discovers the “murdered” Drew instead (Drew pretends that Charlotte has killed him). Miriam, keeping her involvement in the plot to drive Charlotte mad hidden, helps her hysterical cousin to bury Drew in the river. When Drew, grotesque and oozy, seemingly returns from the grave, Charlotte sinks into a terrified insanity from which there is no return. Charlotte, however, has not been rendered entirely helpless. She discovers Miriam and Drew’s nefarious scheme and, hurling an immense potted vase from a high balcony on the lovers, kills Miriam and Drew as they dance, almost literally, on her grave.

In the florid theatricality of these climactic sections, the film exudes a meta-critical awareness of its Grand Guignol underpinnings. Baroque though it is, Hush…Hush is a significant film for its intertextual relationship to the woman’s film and its role as a precursor to modern horror. It plays like a pastiche-remake of Davis’s great 1938 Southern melodrama Jezebel, directed by William Wyler. In its evocation of Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables, it continues a tradition of American gothic that reached a cinematic explosion in the Roger Corman-produced horror films of the 1960s. Moreover, it engages with the Southern queer-feminist gothic-lyrical style and themes of Tennessee Williams plays as well as of his recurring theme of the aging-woman-protagonist.

The casting of Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film version of Williams’ most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, recalls her famous performance in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), deepening the associations with Southern femininity.[38]  Williams’ novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and its 1961 Jose Quintero film adaptation, which also stars Leigh, further develop the theme of the aging-woman protagonist, but this time in a manner that approaches the horror genre. Quintero’s film plays out very much like a horror movie, as Leigh’s aging-actress-finding-love-with-a-younger-man-in-Rome is periodically stalked by an enigmatic young man who appears to represent the Ghost of Evil Cruising. His final appearance at the climax, which the film suggests will be Leigh’s final living moment, is pure horror cinema.

Perhaps most resonantly of all, Hush…Hush both evokes and extends the plot, themes, and the film adaptation of Williams’ play Suddenly, Last Summer. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the 1959 film version of this play has been most famously treated in queer circles by Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, as well as by D.A. Miller and Parker Tyler, all of whom read the film as homophobic.[39] Summer’s thematization of a woman’s memory as damaging and dangerous both to her and to the structures of power—institutional psychiatry and the family, in this case—corresponds to important aspects of Hush…Hush.

For Russo, the film version of Summer creates significant new iconographies of homophobia, as the poet Sebastian Venable, whose face we never see, is devoured by the young men the homosexual poet preyed upon, the slum children-turned-cannibals of the exotic beach town of “Cabeza de Lobo.” The film version prominently features, as the poet’s mother, Katharine Hepburn in a rare villainous role that presages the grande dame-guignol turns of other classic-Hollywood stars in the 1960s. (Hepburn would otherwise eschew all such roles, which is a significant dimension of the distinctiveness of her class as well as star persona.)

Both Suddenly and Hush…Hush foreground what Michel Foucault described as “the hystericization of woman”: the ways in which institutional psychiatry and other cultural centers of power render the dangerously outspoken or otherwise intransigent woman “mad” or “ill,” allowing patriarchal-state-familial control over her mind and body.[40] In order not to be lobotomized,Sebastian’s cousin Catharine (Elizabeth Taylor), who witnessed his gruesome cannibalistic murder, must fight against the formidable Violet Venable and the psychiatric institution in which she has been more or less imprisoned.[41]

In Hush…Hush, Charlotte Hollis—eccentric and erratic though she is—is someone who feigns the madness with which she is associated by all in her community. Like an aged female Hamlet, Charlotte uses this put-on madness for her own ends, to investigate the crime (even if unwittingly) that has made her a lonely pariah. As Miriam and Drew plot to turn her into a genuine madwoman who must be institutionalized—odd whiffs of the Jane Eyre plot, only here Jane Eyre is the evil one, Mrs. Rochester, the infamous madwoman in the attic, the heroine—Charlotte must circumvent not only their plot but her own growing potential madness.

It is instructive to take another opportunity to compare the narratives of the classical woman’s film and its late-stage, horror form. If we recall the plot of Jezebel, Davis plays the headstrong, mercurial Southern belle Julie Marsden. When she announces to her worried aunt (Fay Bainter) that she plans to wear red to the Olympus Ball—a major social event for unmarried young ladies and their beaus—she reassures her with the saucy proclamation, “This is 1852, dumplin’, 1852, not the Dark Ages!” Julie’s red dress, which turns the Olympus Ball into her greatest disaster, symbolizes female intransigence, passion, and sorrow at once. Her fiancé, “Pres” (Henry Fonda), forces Julie to dance with him in her red dress, even as tidal waves of attendees recede in horror from the tensely swirling couple.[42]

What ‘60s female-centered horror does with the brooding tensions of the woman’s film is to literalize them. The anxieties over female sexuality that simmer beneath the surface of Jezebel—clearly figured in Pres’ discomfort with Julie’s “scarlet woman” carnality, but also in Julie’s own retreat from it, evinced by her increasingly desperate pleas that he take her off the dance floor—become a literal, material part of Hush…Hush’s palette.

At the lavish party (shades of the Olympus Ball) in the film’s prologue, the black orchestra stops playing music as it becomes gradually apparent that something is terribly wrong. (Like Jezebel, Hush…Hush is set in Louisiana; as I will discuss below, its depictions of blacks are charged with the significance of the civil-rights era.) The cries of Charlotte, in a sumptuous white dress, cause a commotion, and her father advances towards her, parting the waters of stunned, apprehensive revelers. Backing away from the crime scene in which her beloved John lies murdered, decapitated and with his hand cut off, the young Charlotte—played here, though in careful chiaroscuro, by Davis—turns before her father (Victor Buono once again). As her father, who bribed John into breaking off his attachment to Charlotte, keeps asking her to come with him, Charlotte repeats, “I don’t want to, Poppa. No, Poppa.” The white gown that she wears unmistakably evokes the one that Davis wore in Jezebel in the scene in which she begs Pres for forgiveness. But this time, a huge, dripping blotch of blood mars its hygienic whiteness.

This is the murdered John’s literal blood. It is also the metaphorical blood of female suffering and female wrath at once. As we learn later, it was John’s wronged wife Jewell Mayhew (played as an older woman by Mary Astor) who killed John so savagely. Miriam, in an extremely long-brewing plot, has proceeded to blackmail Jewell for years.

The attention that the film pays to Jewell Mayhew, shown to be a bitter but also interestingly rueful character, is significant, in my view. It speaks to the film’s interest in women’s experiences and the force of their character even when old and vulnerable. There are odd whiffs of Lady Macbeth and her ineradicable bloodstains in the portrayal of Jewell Mayhew. Lady Macbeth wrings her bloody hands as she descends into the madness that succeeds her murder-lust; is John’s cut-off hand a subtle nod to this famous Shakespearean image? The maddened wife now cuts off her husband’s hand as she bloodies her own.

Charlotte’s spreading bloodstain symbolizes the blame she will be forced to bear for a murder she did not commit. It is also the mark of her sexual shame for an adulterous affair the memory of which she passionately clings to decades later. And it is the mythic virginal blood of the newly married woman, except here Charlotte—much like Julie Marsden—cannot, will not be married.

This is, therefore, extraordinarily symbolic blood, blood that signifies Charlotte’s failed erotic, emotional, and, possibly, marital hopes and that stains the lives of the other characters as well. The shame that Julie Marsden’s brazenly worn red dress brings down on her now spreads over and consumes Charlotte, who becomes a humiliated and sullied recluse, forever leered and gawked at as mistress, murderess, and madwoman.

The film articulates the powerful theme of the woman’s refusal to acquiesce to the demands of patriarchy, which insists on constructing women as submissive to men’s will. Again, we recall her father’s insistent requests that Julie come to him, and Charlotte backing away from him as she repeats, “No, Poppa. I don’t want to, Poppa. No, Poppa…” While Tony Williams reads Charlotte as an oedipal daughter locked in the paternal embrace, I would argue that the film foregrounds her ambivalence over this relationship. Her powerful, manipulative father’s presence in the film signifies decades of patriarchal corruption and control.[43] In this manner, the film recalls, as well, the great William Wyler film adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes (1941), which also starred Davis, a stinging critique of the American South’s corruption and greed during the Reconstruction era.

Indeed, what stems from this paternal ambivalence is a larger heterosexual ambivalence. While Charlotte clutches the music box that John gave her and that plays the cloying title song on the harpsichord that her lover wrote for her—implying, then, that John often made the young Charlotte cry, long before he breaks up with her at her brute father’s behest—her passion for John is treated in the film as a vestige of a poisoned past and as the goad to her incipient madness. In other words, heterosexual passion is this aging woman warrior’s Achilles heel.

Miriam, musing on why Velma Carruther hates her so, remarks that Velma has always been obsessively devoted to Charlotte; the implication is of a lesbian tie, at least on Velma’s part. This tension in the film is intensified, for contemporary viewers, by the gay adulation of Agnes Moorehead as a camp/lesbian star, stemming no doubt from her role on the popular 1960s sitcom Bewitched as well as her appearance on The Twilight Zone series entry, “The Invaders.”[44]

De Havilland’s Miriam evokes her Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, a great 1948 film adaptation, directed by William Wyler, of Henry James’ novel Washington Square. The young, shy, awkward Catherine is emotionally annihilated by men—first, by the handsome young mercenary Morris Townsend, who woos her for her money and then abandons her when she seems to have been disinherited by her father, who disapproves of the match; second, by her father, who correctly senses that Morris only wants Catherine for her money, and tells her so in the most cruelly explicit manner possible. Catherine, as I argue in Representations of Femininity, is then reborn as a Fury whose goal is to seek vengeance on the men who have wronged her.

Miriam’s style—speech and deportment and dress—for much of the film is refined, precise, personable, and increasingly icy. She is presented as a woman who was wronged by a man in her youth—Drew, who dumped her—and never developed a relationship with any other man. Indeed, her rekindled romance with Drew—played by an aged Joseph Cotton as a would-be Lothario—more resonantly evokes her vengeful greed and desire to destroy Poppa Hollis’s wealth and estate along with his once prized and pampered daughter than it does her erotic passion for Drew.

Miriam and Drew are presented, in Raymond Bellour’s phrase to describe Sam and Lila Crane in Psycho, as the shadow couple, a reconstitution of the normative heterosexual couple, its shadow.[45] But Miriam and Drew are the only sustained representation of heterosexual relationships in the film, given that John exists, for the most part, only in Charlotte’s memory. They are the fabric and the texture of the structures of power that surround and then engulf Charlotte—structures of power shown to be entirely negative and constrictive, devoid of empathy and imagination, and utterly corrupt.

Miriam and Drew, despite their depravity, access and embody the power of heterosexual normativity, and this is a power that cannot be underestimated. Charlotte, the hystericized woman—drugged and seemingly demented to the point of no return—spies on their decadent, heartless, perverse merriment at the climax. As Charlotte watches from above on her balcony (she is an aged Juliet with a murdered Romeo), Miriam and Drew dance in triumph, reveling in Charlotte’s humiliation and imminent institutionalization in a psychiatric ward.

The film frames its fragile but indomitable heroine in direct opposition to the villainous couple’s triumphant union. A lonely, bedraggled, truly mad woman about to be shipped off to the sanitarium, powerless, socially shunned, abject, Charlotte would appear to have nothing left—a Charlotte Vale who was never saved, who could never find redemptive escape.

That is what makes Charlotte’s final act so satisfying—and interpretable as an act of queer intransigence. In destroying this corrupt couple, she scores points for all of the vulnerable and abject in the social order who have been trampled by the decadent yet unimpeded forces of greed and corruption who hide behind normativity’s face. She also avenges the murdered Velma, her lifelong female companion.

Charlotte, leaving her mansion the next day, presumably to be tried, institutionalized, or both, must once again face the crowd of unsympathetic gawkers who glut themselves on her suffering. Charlotte, now looking stunningly elegant and poised, is about to walk out of the father’s house, yet still clutches fast to the music box. In what is, in my view, one of the most feminist gestures in films of the 1960s, Charlotte stops in her tracks and puts the music box down. She no longer needs or wants it. The entire raison d’etre of the film has been the culmination of this moment in which Charlotte implicitly rejects the trappings of the heterosexual sexual order. I don’t want to, Poppa, has become, after decades of despair, a rejection of and break from both the father and sexual normativity, embodied by the specter of the dead and maddening John, who even in life silenced Charlotte, as the imperative command in the title song (Hush…Hush) song suggests.

Like Baby Jane but also many of the horror-woman’s films, Hush…Hush exquisitely thematizes what Helena Michie has called “sororophobia,” a disruption in bonds between women.[46] Fatal gulfs on the level of class and affect keep the women characters from bonding: Miriam and Charlotte, primarily, but also Miriam and Velma, Miriam and Jewell, Jewell and Charlotte (couldn’t both women be imagined to have put aside their differences and compared notes on the frustrating John they shared?), even, at times, Charlotte and Velma (“I told you to stay out!” Charlotte shrieks at Velma at one point).

The terrifying nighttime scene in which Miriam slaps the near-catatonic Charlotte after they have apparently buried Drew in the river—the way de Havilland and Davis play the scene, the former with a venomous cold hatred, the latter with the abject terror of a small child—is an exquisite and heartrending depiction of sorophobia. The force of Miriam’s rage exceeds her ruse; it seems to flow from the depths of longstanding pain and anger. (Again, such a moment allegorizes behind-the-scenes Hollywood tensions, such as a possible rivalry between an important female star such as de Havilland and the more famous female star Davis.)

I would argue that these fatal rifts between women is the chief trauma at the heart of the horror-woman’s film—a lack of connection and empathy, a lack of mutual and healing affirmation and strength. If in the classical woman’s film the plot centered on the woman’s relationship to marriage, in these films the plot centers on a woman’s relationship to other women, often to her nearest and dearest and least accessible. What is moving about Strait-Jacket is that Crawford’s Lucy Harbin vows, in the last moments, to provide comfort and support to the daughter who attempted to destroy her anew. In contrast, films such as Hush…Hush and Dead Ringer (1964) hinges upon one sister’s literal destruction of another.[47]

Hush…Hush subtly suggests that Charlotte’s social abjection places her on a social level with the African-American women of “1964” Louisiana. In one unforced but telling scene, a group of black women hired by Miriam, getting the house packed up before Charlotte’s eviction, stare at Charlotte as she walks by them. “Stop staring,” she requests, having been pulverized by the assaultive gaze for so long. (In one startling scene, Charlotte is blinded by a tabloid reporter’s incessant camera-flashes.)

Interestingly enough, Aldrich gives us a scene that occurs solely among the black women. One woman remarks that Charlotte certainly seems as crazy as people say she is. “That’s what people say,” another of the women responds. “But I wouldn’t bet on it.” This woman’s surprising solidarity, to whatever extent it exists, with Charlotte, the madwoman who isn’t really mad, or is only as mad as society has made her, is a grace note of sympathy that cuts across class and racial lines. It also forges a link between the wealthy but fading former Southern belle Charlotte and the black underclass upon whose misfortunes her father’s wealth was built.

Another interesting character who provides a note of sympathy is the English reporter, Harry, played by the elderly Cecil Kellaway. Taking a position of skepticism towards Charlotte’s guilt that places him in marked contrast to her contemptuous community, he quietly investigates the case, having tea with the elderly, dying Jewell Mayhew, played with melancholy world-weariness by Astor, who, in an Oscar-winning role, had co-starred with Bette Davis in the crypto-lesbian melodrama The Great Lie (Edmund Goulding, 1941).

As Jewell and Harry talk, she says something rather out of the blue to him, along the lines of: “I imagine that you’ve had your fair share of unhappiness.” Where does this line come from, and what is its significance? Is it possible that Jewell reads Harry as a gay man—and someone presumably as lonely as she? Notably, there is no suggestion whatsoever of anything even slightly erotic in Harry’s scenes with either Jewell or Charlotte. In other words, he is never presented as the dapper geriatric gentleman who may swoop one of these women off their feet.

In one of the most appealing scenes in the film, Charlotte and Harry speak for the first time. Charlotte visibly relaxes as she shows this non-judgmental, genial stranger around the house. She is really beginning to let down her guard when she spies one of the black women holding John’s music box, about to pack it up. Truly seeming like a madwoman, Charlotte, in mid-sentence during her conversation with Harry, shrieks at her and wrenches the box out of the packing-woman’s hands. These are the hands of the same woman who had spoken out on behalf of Charlotte’s sanity. Connection—with this sympathetic woman of another race and with the elderly, possibly gay Englishman—is shattered.

This scene makes the final one between Charlotte and Harry all the more poignantly satisfying. In the limousine in which she rides to her ambiguous fate, Charlotte looks up and sees Harry, one sympathetic and knowing face among the crowd of ravenously mean-spirited gawkers, reveling once again in her misery and monstrosity. Harry hands a note to Charlotte: it is Jewell’s confession, after all of these years. This gesture is significant. It evokes Charlotte’s friendship with Harry and at the same time a reconciliation—of a kind—with Jewell, with whom she shared the love for and the body of a weak-willed man.

Hush…Hush establishes bonds even as it destroys them. It establishes heroism in the face of defeat. What makes it a queer work is its emphasis on non-biological and non-marital kinship, on the power and importance of friendship and ties outside of the family. In the process, it ennobles the socially abject—the mad, the slovenly, the non-white, and the other outsiders.

I believe that careful examination of at least some of these horror- woman’s films will reveal further, resistant elements in them. At the very least, they deserve more scrutiny. More work also needs to be done on the relationship between the Camp and the feminist potentialities within them, and the ways in which these differing approaches intersect, often in ways that have not yet been sufficiently considered. In any event, I believe that 1960s horror-woman’s films are also resonant indications of the potentialities of the woman’s film genre—signs of the genre’s enduring life and vitality.

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