clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

“Psycho Biddies,” Then and Now

Ryan Murphy’s new show goes behind the scenes of ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,’ a 1962 classic that inspired a wave of film imitations. What can the bizarre genre teach us about aging in Hollywood?

(Getty Images/FX/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/FX/Ringer illustration)

The 78th movie Bette Davis made is called The Anniversary, and it is about a rich, one-eyed widow who wears a chic eye patch and, every year on her wedding anniversary, invites her adult children home to psychologically torment them. At the time — 1968, six years after her comeback role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? — this was standard Bette Davis fare. Reviewing The Anniversary for The New York Times, then-film critic Renata Adler dismissed it as a subpar example of what she deemed the “Terrifying Older Actress Filicidal Mummy genre.”

Make no mistake, by 1968, “once-glamorous woman starts dressing eccentrically and tormenting the people around her” was indeed a recognizable, and even oversaturated, genre. Over the years the subcategory has come to be known by a variety of equally humorous names: “psycho-biddy horror,” “hagsploitation,” and even “Grande Dame Guignol” (the preferred term of Peter Shelley, the scholar who’s written a book on the topic). But the one thing that everyone familiar with the genre agrees on is that it all started with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the morbid cult classic starring longtime rivals Davis and Joan Crawford, a subject of such enduring fascination that it is currently the basis of Ryan Murphy’s eight-part FX anthology series, Feud: Bette and Joan. Baby Jane’s humongous (and lucrative) influence is obvious from some of the genre’s later titles: What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, What’s the Matter with Helen?, and (my personal favorite) Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?

‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ (Warner Bros. Pictures)
‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Davis was 54 and Crawford was 56 when they joined forces make Baby Jane; legendary as they both were, they’d each had trouble finding quality roles in the years just prior. After the film became a phenomenon — it made nearly 10 times its budget and was nominated for five Oscars, including a Best Actress nod for Davis — both actresses found work more easily, but it was usually in the horror genre, and it usually entailed playing some kind of quasi-murderous aging-dame role that bordered on self-parody. By 1966, the movie’s imitators were so widespread that Mad magazine parodied this phenomenon in a piece called, “Hack, Hack, Sweet Has-Been or, Whatever Happened to Good Taste?” (Dire straits indeed, if even Mad magazine has to ask a question like this.) In a moment when Feud is prompting plenty of people to revisit Baby Jane and all its related ephemera, the “hag horror” boom is still tricky to parse. Are these movies depressing? Fascinating? Slyly empowering? All of the above?

There’s a great part in the endlessly quotable All About Eve when whip-smart Margo Channing (perhaps Bette Davis’s most iconic character) sizes up one of the men in her life. “Bill’s 32,” she says. “He looks 32. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it 20 years from now.” She pauses, then concludes, “I hate men.” The scene becomes even more poignant when you know that the actor playing Bill, Gary Merrill, was about to become Davis’s fourth husband, and that they’d split up 10 years later.

1950’s All About Eve is a tale as old as showbiz itself: An aging, once-adored actress is upstaged by next year’s model (the titular Eve, played by then-20-something Anne Baxter). Margo Channing was a bold choice for Davis, who in her younger years was known for spirited, tough-talking performances in movies with titles like Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938), the roles for which she’d won her two Best Actress Oscars. Davis was one of the first truly talented women of the talkies, but her most immediate calling card was that face — all pooling, moonbeam eyes and a definitely-judging-you smirk. To embody a character as complicated and candid as Margo Channing was to admit something quite taboo in Hollywood at the time: that she wouldn’t look like that forever. In the gilded age of soft lighting and studio-penned mythologies, it took even more guts than it does now for an actress to confess to being mortal.

By the time director Robert Aldrich approached Davis with the Baby Jane script, her career was suffering a down moment. Joan Crawford, who’d already signed on, also hadn’t had a starring screen role in years. Their union was a match made in gossip-column heaven, and their rumored rancor for each other on set supercharged their performances. The first season of Murphy’s Feud (an ongoing project that will next take on “Charles vs. Diana”) has taken pains to dramatize the on-set dynamic between these two divas, but he’s also blunted their edges a bit in the soft focus of hindsight. The ironic thing about the show is that although Murphy’s characters are now permitted to swear, screw, and generally behave more salaciously than anybody could on onscreen in 1962, Feud is still infinitely tamer than the original black-and-white movie.

‘Feud’ (FX)
‘Feud’ (FX)

More than 50 years after its release, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? still sprays caustic spittle in every frame. It seethes with hate, ugliness, excess; it is almost alarming, how modern is this movie’s capacity to shock. Davis and Crawford play two sisters who were, in the past, two different kinds of famous: Davis is “Baby” Jane Hudson, a Shirley Temple–esque vaudeville star, and Crawford plays Blanche Hudson, a more lauded and distinguished screen actress. (To highlight the meta quality of the roles, actual clips from both actresses’ old movies are used in flashbacks.) At the height of her fame, Blanche was paralyzed in a car accident that, we are led to believe, was caused by a drunk and embittered Jane. Years later, Jane has become Blanche’s sole caretaker, and when she learns that Blanche plans to sell their house from under her, the infantile Jane begins to torment Blanche in increasingly violent ways, until it appears that she intends to starve her to death in her own home.

It’s one of the movies’ great domestic horror stories, building tension through stasis and locked-door claustrophobia. But Baby Jane’s sharpest weapon is — of all things, something that was once velvet-soft — Bette Davis’s face. As Jane, caked with chalky powder and shakily drawn lipstick, Davis has allowed herself (in close-up, no less) to look unsettlingly grotesque, like a Madame Tussauds figure of herself left to melt in a hot car. But, unmistakably: herself. It would be entirely another thing if she’d worn a mask, or a wig, or used prosthetics beyond recognition. But one of the most unsettling things about Baby Jane is that, in every scene of the movie, it’s impossible to forget we are looking at Bette Davis, older than she was before and drawing attention to that fact rather than hiding it. There’s a striking shot in the middle of the movie when she looks directly into the camera and (over)does her makeup. She plays the scene like she’s scrawling graffiti on her own headshot, staring uncomfortably into the lens as if she’s directly implicating the viewer’s gaze. And then she hocks it back at our faces like old gum.

(Warner Bros. Pictures)
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

There is no other way to say it. The “hagsploitation” movies that followed Baby Jane are bonkers.

Take, for example, 1964’s Strait-Jacket, in which Joan Crawford plays an unhinged axe murderer, or, better yet, 1967’s Berserk!, in which she plays the ringmaster in “a macabre mother-daughter tale about a circus plagued with murders.” There’s also the gloriously pulpy Die! Die! My Darling!, starring former glam girl Tallulah Bankhead as an ex-actress turned-religious zealot who locks her dead son’s ex-fiancée in an attic so that she can remain a virgin until she meets her betrothed in heaven. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

The “hag horror” genre was a product of a very particular moment in film history. There was, for one thing, a sudden glut of aging ex–“It Girls” from the talkies’ first boom, and the dissolution of the studio system meant that they were suddenly without contracts and actively looking for work. There was also a nostalgic moviegoing public with an appetite not only to see the actresses of their youth, but with a more perverse human desire to see how they had (or hadn’t) “held up.” It is not coincidental that “hag horror” snuck into the cultural consciousness in that last free-for-all before the mainstreaming of the women’s liberation movement (Baby Jane came out a year before The Feminine Mystique was published), when these movies’ unbridled pathologizing of aging-while-female might have been up for more debate, if not outright censure.

Far from being depressing last gasps of relevance, though, these movies remain thrillingly watchable — in fact, viewed through a modern lens they feel more like defiant bursts of unruliness than acts of desperation. They’re powerfully larger than life, a kind of macabre corrective to that famous observation by the proto–Grande Dame, Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”

In his book Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror From Baby Jane to Mother, Peter Shelley observes, “Often, but not always, the actress playing a grande dame in Grande Dame Guignol had not worked for some time, or this role would be her last starring role. In other cases, it would either lead to a form of typecasting or rejuvenate the actress’s career for a time in a fickle industry where the lifespan of an actress is usually five years.” The latter case is how the rest of Crawford’s and Davis’s careers played out, which was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they both were working much more consistently after Baby Jane; on the other, they were mostly playing questionably sane women in over-the-top horror films that some critics found not only insulting to their earlier work but borderline exploitative. (Of Strait-Jacket, Judith Crist wrote, “It’s time to get Joan Crawford out of those housedress horror B movies and back into haute couture.”) Still, Davis in particular was a skilled enough actress to bring something way beyond stereotype to the best of these movies, like Aldrich’s 1964 Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a moody, Southern Gothic take on the trope; the film was a milestone for horror’s respectability, as it earned seven Oscar nominations, unprecedented for a movie of its kind. (Initially, Crawford was slated to costar with Davis once again, but she then backed out of the film.)

Although the stars of these “hag horror” movies animated them with the charismatic force of their personalities, it must be said that the scripts and direction were all the product of the male imagination. (And in some cases, a single male’s imagination: Henry Farrell, who wrote the original Baby Jane novel, also wrote the scripts for Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and What’s the Matter with Helen?) As the actresses continued to age, the parts that this patriarchal imagination dreamed up for them sometimes did become demeaning and exploitative. Davis’s illustrious screen career in particular had an unfortunate ending: Her last movie, shortly before her death in 1989, was playing the title role in Larry Cohen’s B-movie, Wicked Stepmother. Cohen recounted the experience in a 2012 essay that is almost too painful to read. Davis, who’d had a series of strokes by that point and had lost some of the movement in one side of her face, quit the film early. Cohen had to rewrite the script substantially to account for her absence. “I hate to say it,” he wrote in that essay, “but the best parts of Wicked Stepmother are those in which Bette Davis does not appear. The rest of the cast was excellent. But when Bette comes on screen, her physical condition is so shocking that the audience is in no mood to laugh.”

It’s a shame Bette didn’t live to tell her side of the story. I bet she’d have a hell of a retort for that guy.

For women, aging in Hollywood has always been its own kind of American horror story. They’re damned whether they go under the knife (who could forget the internet reaction to Kim Novak’s 2014 Oscars appearance) just as they’re damned if they don’t. To add insult to injury, the same rules do not apply to their male counterparts. As an investigation on Vulture concluded a few years ago, “Leading men age, but their love interests don’t.” This was the very phenomenon that Amy Schumer skewered in her popular sketch “Last Fuckable Day.” “You know how Sally Field was Tom Hanks’s love interest in Punchline,” asked Tina Fey in the skit, “and then like 20 minutes later she was his mom in Forrest Gump?”

We’re nowhere close to solving the connected problems of sexism and ageism in Hollywood (to say nothing of our culture writ large), but at least there are more visible exceptions to the rules. Take the 2016 movie 20th Century Women, for example, which is essentially a love letter to 58-year-old actress Annette Bening. In one memorable scene, a character reads aloud from Zoe Moss’s poignant 1970 essay “It Hurts to Be Alive and Obsolete.” “Listen to me!” that essay begins. “Think what it is like to have most of your life ahead and be told you are obsolete! … To be, in other words, still a living woman, and to be told every day that you are not a woman but a tired object that should disappear.”

‘Feud’ (FX)
‘Feud’ (FX)

Feud creator Ryan Murphy has, in some sense, been trying to tackle the problem of older female representation head-on: He’s made a point to cast women like Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, and Jessica Lange in his anthology series American Horror Story, and in doing so has introduced them to new audiences. Feud, which stars Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis (both are at least a decade older than Davis and Crawford were in 1962) feels like his most self-conscious iteration of this project yet. But Feud also exposes the drawback to this approach; though it’s a stylishly entertaining watch (it wants to be Mad Men so badly that it actually cast Kiernan Shipka as Davis’s daughter), it feels hemmed in and dulled by the supposed righteousness of its present-day politics. TV critic Willa Paskin has articulated this well: “Feud promises a knock-down, drag-out fight between two legendary dames at a time when it has become uncouth and impolitic to celebrate a catfight,” she wrote in her review of the show. “To ameliorate Feud’s ideological discomfort with its very subject, it has thrown a tiger and a lion in a cage and turned them into emotionally distressed zoo animals.”

My ambivalence about Feud has helped me understand my attraction to even the most tawdry “hag horror” movies: They have that kind of messy, feral anger that the show is missing. There is a brutal honesty in the venom of a film like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or even Strait-Jacket — a defiant refusal to be silenced or to become invisible. I don’t see exploitation in these movies so much as I see women finding an imperfect but available channel to express rage at their own perceived obsolescence. They are making visible not only their faces and bodies, but the terror of being reduced to simply a face and a body that can easily be cast aside when it no longer fits a certain mold. That’s why these are horror films — but it’s also why the women in them remain powerfully iconic. When I look at Bette Davis caking on her makeup in Baby Jane, I hear a defiant echo of the words at the end of that Zoe Moss essay: “I am bitter and frustrated and wasted, but don’t you pretend for a minute as you look at me … looking exactly my age, that I am not as alive as you are and that I do not suffer from the category into which you are forcing me.”