Posts Tagged ‘Joan Crawford’

maxresdefaultA once-fabulous mansion in decline, its worn vestiges of better times heartbreakingly reflected in the deep shadows of its spider-webbed corners. A large 1930s home in a quiet, upscale suburb, hiding a lifetime of pain and dark secrets. The sprawling landscape of Hollywood is littered with broken dreams and ruined lives; the never-were scrambling for a chance at making their mark, while the has-beens fall into obscurity, earning, at best, a footnote in the clutter of contemporary American culture.

The movie industry is a particularly cruel business; everyone involved is just one flop, one bad review, away from ruin, a concept that most of us will never understand. We live our lives within our small circle of friends and family and, except in cases of abuse or neglect, that is where we stay: unknown to most, close to a few, in simple, manageable lives. For those who have tasted and enjoyed stardom, however, to be unknown is akin to being dead, but without the relative comfort of eternal rest and a marker at Forest Lawn.

In Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950), struggling writer Joe Gillis makes a fateful turn into a driveway while evading repo men, and finds himself propelled into the world of Norma Desmond, once the darling of film’s silent era, “the greatest star of them all,” as she puts it. As happened with countless others, Desmond’s career came to an abrupt end when the film industry changed over to talking pictures.

Protected from the outside world by the remains of her fortune and her loyal servant Max, Norma Desmond surrounds herself with memories, both real and imagined, blissfully unaware that she is all but forgotten in 1950 Hollywood. Seeing an opportunity with the young writer who falls into her life, Norma plots her return to the silver screen, with a script she has spent the last several decades writing. Gillis sees in Norma Desmond a chance to make some money and get ahead of his debts, because her script is, predictably, awful, not least because the fifty-one-year-old actress wants to play the role of Salome herself, despite the three-decade gap in age.

In her efforts to defy the advancement of time, Norma surrounds herself with past associates from the silent era, diligently applying her makeup to stave off the evidence of age, and re-watching her old films, night after night. Her sense of fashion is thirty years out of date, and we readily see that she is living in a time capsule, a safe place far from the world that has long since forgotten her. She is as much a prisoner in her world as Joe Gillis, bound by her delusions and an intricate web of dependency and lies, as real as the fan letters she continues to receive.

Gillis soon finds himself a captive in Norma’s world, seduced by the gifts she lavishes upon him, the convenience that her money provides. He becomes essentially a kept man, unable to break away for the sake of Norma’s fragile grip on her version of reality, as he discovers that his benefactor’s sanity is a delicate balancing act, enabled and supported by Max, and the secrets that bind them. Norma Desmond desires is to be back in the spotlight, on the screen, to beg for the acceptance and forgiveness of the fans that she left so long ago, and incapable of accepting that time continued marching forward and she has been all but forgotten. When she is ultimately faced with the terrible truth, tragedy naturally prevails, as inevitably as night follows day.

As Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson gives the performance of a lifetime, and an ironic one as well. Swanson, who had been Paramount’s top star for six straight years during the silent era, had retired from film and moved to New York, where she worked in radio, and later, television. Swanson, however, understood that her time in film had passed, and was comfortable with this knowledge. It is notable that numerous silent film stars had been invited to a screening of Sunset Boulevard, and gave Swanson a standing ovation at the film’s end.

Sunset Boulevard holds a brutal mirror up to Hollywood, daring it to look itself in the eye and acknowledge its complicity in the using and discarding of lives, giving no support or counsel to those who fight the tide, or whose demons won’t go unheard.

Robert Aldrich’s film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), further examines the phenomena of those whom the world once adored, but then discarded, in a story as dark as Sunset Boulevard, but with the added elements of sibling warfare and toxic co-dependency.

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In 1917, Baby Jane Hudson is the darling of the vaudeville stage, while her sister Blanche watches from the sidelines, seething with resentment while their father gives all his love and attention to the spoiled, tyrannical Jane. By 1935, both sisters are working in Hollywood, but it is Blanche who is now the star while Jane has nothing but failure, despite Blanche’s demand that for every film she makes, the studio must make one for Jane as well. A drunken car crash leaves Blanche confined to a wheelchair, with Jane as her caretaker. Jane’s failure has turned her into a bitter lush, and whose grip on reality has become tenuous at best. By 1962, their already difficult relationship has turned dangerous: Jane’s psychosis has become more delusional and violent, while Blanche seems to have all but surrendered to her demented sister. As sibling dysfunction and the realities of aging pile up, the sisters rush headlong into an inevitable confrontation in which secrets and lies come to light, leaving neither woman untouched.

Each sister carries her own demons and responsibility for the events that have led them to this place in time, and neither is completely innocent. Davis plays Jane as a grotesquerie, a monstrous, raging gargoyle that dresses as she did in her childhood heyday, heavily piling on makeup in a vain attempt at covering the ravages of failure, alcohol, and hateful spite. There is, however, a delicate sorrow to her character, of which we are given glimpses as the story progresses. Jane Hudson has become a lost soul; forty-five years have passed since she was a star, and she appears to have no idea how the time has passed, and the damage it has done to her, forever trapped in the mind of a petulant, over-indulged child. It is a tour-de-force performance for Davis, which won her a well-deserved Academy Award nomination.

Crawford, on the other hand, imbues Blanche with an almost noble, quiet dignity, enduring Jane’s viciousness with the grace and compassion that we would think could only come from true caring. Blanche is the rational adult of the two, looking out for Jane even as Jane’s attacks become increasingly violent and disturbing. We learn that while she wants to sell their house and find a place where Jane can receive the care that she needs, Blanche doesn’t appear to have any plans for herself, so deep is the love that she seems to have for her troubled sister. With time, we come to realize that Blanche may not be as loving and altruistic as she appears, and that deep secrets and hostility run on both sides of their bitter divide, and that this is perhaps a shared family trait, with neither sister having exclusive ownership of bitterness.

 At the heart of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? lies a story of family, and the damage that family can inflict upon itself. Who would put up with Jane’s constant abuse, if not a family member? Who would take charge of Blanche’s needs, if not a sibling? While these are admirable traits, family can oftentimes be a source of great discomfort and frustration, causing more pain than any stranger ever could, and enduring abuse that we would accept from no one. Family can be a fine and wonderful thing; it can also be a nightmare of dysfunction and heartbreak.

Like Sunset Boulevard, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? examines the lament of the forgotten; whenever Jane is out in public, she compulsively asks whomever she is talking to if they know who she is, seemingly unaware of how much time has passed since she was popular, and dreams of returning to her former glory in a world that has moved on without her, in much the same way as Norma Desmond, but without the funds, direction, or backhanded support that Desmond enjoyedJane and Blanche Hudson are prisoners in their lives as much as Norma Desmond, their horrors are what connects them to us, and make no mistake: these are both horror films. The horror of growing old and being forgotten, of having no control over one’s life, of all-consuming, soul-destroying resentment and rage, of losing oneself to madness. The monsters in this film are very real, and all the more horrifying because of their familiarity to people we might know.

The streets and graveyards of Hollywood are filled with the lost and forgotten, those who couldn’t make the transition from from child star to adulthood, from silent to talkies, who had their shot at stardom and blew it, who never had a chance or a prayer, with no clue what to do as time marches mercilessly forward, and no protector to save them from themselves. Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are harsh indictments against an industry that prizes youth and beauty above all else, but it is also a judgment against us, the audience, for our capricious willingness to discard those whose dreams, whose desires, are to gain our acceptance and love, to make a name for themselves by making a place in our hearts.

 

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Baby JaneI really wish the day job would stop intruding on the writing but until I can make that change, I’ll deal with it. In addition to (almost) completing the first draft of my novel, I also have a new article up at Zombie Hamster,  a retrospective piece on an old favorite, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Yes, it’s in black and white, and it’s from before a lot of us were born; the fact remains that the themes in this classic are timeless, and well worth the time investment.

Stop by and check it out!