Thursday, October 31, 2019

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) As if Sunset Blvd wasn't perverse enough, Robert Aldrich took the 1960 novel by Harry Farrell and turned it into the Grandest of Guignol's about the passing of Hollywood glamour with two of the greatest stars of the past pitted against each other in a battle for screen supremacy. Reportedly, the filming was contentious as both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford despised each other and didn't care who knew it. That vehemence inspired two very overheated performances that reached deep into both ladies' bags of tricks—Davis' over the top Jane, and Crawford's long-suffering Blanche. Whatever one may think of the picture, no one can't resist looking at a the middle of a cage-match. And director Aldrich, who could be counted on to make his own fireworks when he needed to, merely had to turn on the camera and watch the material boil over.

And, on occasion, keep it from exploding.

Cautionary placard for ticket-buyers of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
The Hudson family is riding a financial success in 1917, as their daughter "Baby Jane" is a beloved silent film star and doing stage appearances to promote her marketable likeness in the "Baby Jane" doll. America's little sweetheart, however, is, away from the spotlight, a spoiled-rotten brat who dominates the family who give in to her every whim and tantrum to keep the money coming in. Her sister Blanche can only look on and seethe in jealousy.
Cut to 1935. Both Blanche and Jane are appearing in films now, although Blanche's fortunes have eclipsed Jane's and the older film star is drinking to drown her sorrows. But a deliberate auto accident by one against the other reverses all fortunes.
It's modern times (1962) and both sisters live in a Los Angeles mansion in Los Angeles, Blanche (Crawford), confined to a wheelchair from the car accident, watching her old movies on television and reliving her past. Jane (Davis), meanwhile, is still drinking heavily, bitter, and delusional enough that she's teetering on the edge of a psychotic split. Jane is Blanche's "caretaker," with as opposite a definition of "care" as possible. It being 1962, movies didn't show everything involved in caring for a paraplegic, so it's limited to Jane's preparing and bringing of meals. But, in Jane's resentful state, what she uses for protein becomes more than questionable.
What she doesn't make for Blanche is pancakes, presumably because that is what she seems to be using for make-up.
Jane dresses up in woman-sized girly dresses and cakes on the foundation in an attempt to look younger* and acts like a coquettish child while interacting with strangers, but, once you get to know her, she turns into a harridan, dropping the act. Her viciousness is no act, however, and it's escalating, the further she gets away from her fabled childhood and her own dreams of Hollywood success. But Jane is used to getting her way, combined with a twisted guilt for her sister's paralysis, as she was black-out drunk when the crippling accident occurred. 
While Blanche is basically confined to the upstairs, Jane has the run of the house and takes delight in taking any joy she can from Blanche's existence. It is merely the presence of a housekeeper (Maidie Norman) that keeps Jane's more extreme activities in check, and she is beginning to resent it.

It's a battle for control between the two sisters, with Blanche seemingly at the disadvantage. But, she has control of the house, and when she announces to Jane that she intends to sell it, Jane ramps up the abuse, locking Blanche in her room, tossing out her mail and restricting access to the outside world by means of disabling their telephone. Particularly venomous are Jane's manipulation of her sister's meals, at one point using her pet parakeet as an entree, while at the same time living under the illusion that she can revive her career with personal appearances.

But, the public has long forgotten Baby Jane.

Blanche, on the other hand, defends her sister, no matter what cruelty is inflicted on her. Her long-suffering victim-hood has its own deep origins in that accident in ways that are not obvious on the outside.
It is an extraordinary, squirm-inducing example of bat-shit-crazy film-making, with an extra level of cruelty than the usual hard edge Aldrich put on his films as the two sisters have a battle of wills that almost guarantees mutually assure destruction. It has a sardonic nastiness reminiscent of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

It would almost be unwatchable if it weren't for the two actors involved in the struggle (which spilled over to their antics against each other on-set). The casting is key with Davis and Crawford in opposite corners, diametrically opposed in both technique and performance goals, with Crawford falling back on her woman-martyr characterizations and Davis careening in the opposite direction going for manic intensity. Given how the film plays out, it shouldn't work, but both actresses can't help give it their all for screen-domination. It is one of the miracles of casting that couldn't be more ideal.

"We're getting along. Really, we are."
Although she seemed far more stable, there are rumors than "Baby Jane Hudson" was based on 
Diana Serra Carey, who starred in silent pictures as "Baby Peggy"

* When Davis' daughter saw her "Baby Jane" make-up, she reportedly said: "Oh, Mother, you've gone too far this time!"

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Bad Seed (1956)

The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956) I was probably just emerging into my "terrible two's" when The Bad Seed premiered, so I suspect my parents never saw it, as my up-bringing was limited to stern looks and measured tones. The Bad Seed, however, is such a gleefully over-the-top pot-boiler that toys with murder, matricide, infanticide, and pure evil in the form of a child (Patty McCormack, a wise, knowing performance...with just a touch of gonzo sadism...for one so young), I wonder how many children suffered at the hands of it.

Believe me, I've heard the stories of children's lies being used to destroy adults and it has been a part of art since
Oedipus, and has been hoisted from "The Crucible," until "The Children's Hour." And it became Script #05 in the television writer's bible for dramatic series ever since.

But little Rhoda Penmark's (McCormick) motto is "Actions, Not Words." During the course of the film she kills a school-mate with the metal soles of her tap-dancing shoes and sets the only person who can incriminate her (handyman Henry Jones) on fire. A sociopath in pig-tails, Rhoda may make this Diane Downs' favorite movie. LeRoy basically transformed the Broadway production into a film, with an economical direction that eerily evokes television set-ups of the sort you'd find on "Leave it to Beaver," but with Grand Guignol dialogue in its place. Rhoda is actually an uber-version of creepy Eddie Haskell.
The stage-play (by Maxwell Anderson) ended with the death of the mother in a murder-suicide attempt and Rhoda living on,* but The Production Code would have none of it, so Mom is allowed to live in regret, and Rhoda? Well, the writers let God sort out the mess with His usual 20/20 hindsight, to atone for the Almighty not stepping in previously to prevent the Evil.**
And then, as if the "creep" factor weren't enough, the film-makers have a bizarre curtain-call in which McCormick is turned over a smiling Nancy Kelly's knee and given a spanking, for some sort of audience catharsis. Gotta give the audience what they want, so they leave the theater with a smile on their face.

Rhoda's not the only one with "issues."

* This may be the reason why, in the airline emergency instructions, they insist the parents put on the oxygen masks first.

** SPOILER ALERT: How Rhoda gets her "comeuppance" is the sleaziest form of lazy writing in the form of a Deus ex Electrica. But, there's a gleeful sadism in The Bad Seed that leaves one a bit speechless. I can just see an studio exec with a cigar, advising the script-writer to "fry the bitch."

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Don't Make a Scene (Redux): The Godfather

It takes a lot of time to do the "Don't Make a Scene" feature that I put up every Sunday (all those screen-caps!), so while I'm preparing a bunch more, I'm going to take a break and re-post the ones that have gotten the most "hits," and others that I think are exceptional—it is no surprise to me that they couldn't be more different. I like this one because it's a thesis statement for the movie...from the very first line. Then deepens as it talks about the corruption of a dream, the efforts made to deal with that corruption and the resulting morass of evil that completely negates all good intentions and dreams. Plus, it depends on a brilliant a non-professional actor, who has to carry the first scene of a movie filled to the rafters with accomplished actors. This one's amazing.

The Story: It's important to get to a movie early enough--it's not just good manners to the folks who did plan ahead to see the entire show--because sometimes the most important part of the movie--the theme, the thesis statement--is tied up in the first few minutes of the film. You miss that, you might as well miss the whole thing.

Such a movie is Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather.* There are speeches throughout the thing where the characters justify the things they do and explain their paths. But the opening is significantly powerful and all-encompassing. Its first few minutes, with a character that is, in the scheme of things, unimportant, sets up an entire world. The world of La Cosa Nostra doesn't operate like the real world, but it does operate like a mad-house magnified version of the Corporate World. Make a mistake and it's not your job--it goes a step further--into your grave, or an anonymous cornerstone. The fiefdom of The Godfather with its favors, its fealty and its family ties has rules of honor and service far tighter than a mere contract can bestow, a necessity for order when working to bend rules and subvert honesty. In the topsy-turvy underworld The Godfather demands loyalty, friendship and respect from the very men who do not respect the ways or the rules of the rest of the world. And for those intangibles he will use his sway to make the world bend to your needs. In the first few minutes of The Godfather a desperate man—pointedly and ironically, an undertaker**—asks of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to re-align his immigrant's dream of a perfect life in America, which has now been threatened, for both his family and his soul. He has tread the righteous path up until now, but it has failed him, and in desperation he turns to the one man he had hoped to avoid for fear of losing that dream. He must now go to the devil to beat the devil, as Faith is no longer enough.

The Godfather starts with a title card over a mournful peasant tune played on a lone trumpet, and in the pitch blackness, a solo voice emerges...

Bonasera: I believe in America.
Bonasera: America’s made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I gave her freedom, but I taught her never to dishonor her family.
Bonasera: She found a boyfriend—not an Italian, She went to the movies with him. she stayed out late. I didn’t protest.
Bonasera: Two months ago, he took her for a drive, with another boyfriend. They made her drink whiskey, and then they tried to take advantage of her. She resisted. She kept her honor.
Bonasera: So they beat an animal.

Bonasera: When I went to the hospital, her nose was broken. Her jaw was shattered--held together by wire. She couldn’t even weep because of the pain. But I wept. Why did I weep? She was the light of my life.
Bonasera: Beautiful girl. Now she will never be beautiful again. Sorry. Sorry.
(Bonasera breaks down, and the Don signals to an unseen man in the room to bring him a drink, which he gratefully takes)
Bonasera: I went to the police—like a good American. These boys were brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison, and suspend the sentence.
Bonasera: Suspend the sentence?! They went free that very day. I stood in the court-room like a fool...
Bonasera:...and these two bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, “For justice, we must go to Don Corleone.”
Corleone: Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first?*
Bonasera: What do you want of me?
Bonasera: Tell me anything, but do what I beg you to do.
Corleone: What is that?
(Bonasera gets up, and whispers in the Don's ear. The Don sits back)
Corleone: That I cannot do.

(There are two other men in the room. The Don's son, Sonny (James Caan) and The Don's legal adviser, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).
Bonasera: I’ll give you anything you ask.
Corleone: We’ve known each other many years, but this the first time you ever came to me for council or for help. I can’t remember the last time you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee. Even though my wife is god-mother to your only child.
Corleone: But let’s be frank. You never wanted my were afraid to be in my debt.
Bonasera: I didn’t want to get into trouble.
Corleone: I understand. You found paradise in America. You had a good trade, made a good living, the police protected you and there were courts of law. But, you come to me and you say “Don Corleone, give me justice.” But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me “Godfather.” Instead you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to commit murder...for money.
Bonasera: I ask you for justice.
Corleone: That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive.
Bonasera: Make them suffer, she suffers. How much shall I pay you?
(Corleone looks at Bonasera with disgust, and gets up from his desk, the others in the room shift nervously)
Corleone: Bonasera...Bonasera...What did I ever do to make you treat my so disrespectfully. If you’d come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day.
Corleone: And if a honest man like yourself should make enemies, they would become my enemies...
Corleone: And then they will fear you.
Bonasera: Be my friend?....
(Corleone shrugs in indifference, and Bonasera bends low, takes the Don's hand and kisses it)
Corleone: Good.
Corleone: Some day...and that day may never come...
Corleone: I will ask you to perform a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.
Bonasera: Grazie
Corleone: Prego.
(Bonasera leaves the room, the Don closes the door.)
Corleone(to Hagen): Uh...give this to Clemenza. I want reliable people, people that aren’t going to be carried away. I mean, we’re not murderers, despite what this undertaker says.

Words by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather is available in many different iterations on DVD and Blu-Ray on Paramount Home Video.

* There are many hands present in the creation of The Godfather but without Coppola at the helm it would have been a completely different movie: no Brando, no Pacino, no period structure, and the style of shooting would have been completely different. The movie bears a lot of Coppola's personal stamp, despite the fact that he basically took the film on as a job to pay off his debts.

** "Bonasera" is played by Salvatore Corsitto, a "novice" actor, who showed up at an open casting session. His undertaker feels real, and his performance at the opening of the film gives it an emotional weight that evokes empathy--he gains the sympathy of the audience from the way his monologue is played, and that sympathy is a gateway to the plight of the immigrant in America, and an argument for the subsequent reliance on "social clubs" and "secret societies" to gain a modicum of power in this country . Marlon Brando called it the best performance in the movie. Considering the talent involved in The Godfather--Pacino, Caan, Duvall, Keaton, Cazale, Hayden, Marley, Conte, Castellano, Brando himself...that's a tremendous compliment. But it's true. Perhaps because of the familiarity of his face and voice, or for the fact that he wasn't a "professional" actor--or the residuals from this one movie and its many versions--Corsitto has only appeared in one other film...on television.

*** When Coppola cut The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II into a linear "Novel for Television" for NBC—which subsequently became known in video release as The Godfather Saga—he re-looped this line with Robert De Niro's voice as the Don.  Not a very good match, and alarming when someone knows the movie backwards and forwards.  Ya know, folks are all over George Lucas about refining his movies, but nobody ever goes after Coppola, or Ridley Scott, or Oliver Stone.  Nobody.