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« Happy Birthday Peter Jackson! | Main | 3 Notes on New Photos of "Frankenweenie" »
Sunday
Oct302011

Oscar Horrors: I've Written a Letter to Bette

HERE LIES... Bette Davis's Best Actress nomination for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, sent to an early grave by Anne Bancroft's more Oscar-friendly work in The Miracle Worker. 

Andreas from Pussy Goes Grrr here. In 1962, Bette Davis had a good three decades of acting ahead of her—what endurance!—but her disturbing, self-deprecating performance as Baby Jane Hudson sure feels like a go-for-broke swan song. It builds on all her tics and trademarks (bitchiness, powerful voice, melodramatic intensity) and exaggerates them almost beyond recognition. Following in the footsteps of Norma Desmond, Baby Jane's a quintessential star-as-monster. Try as you might, you just can't look away.

Granted, Joan Crawford does co-star as Baby Jane's paraplegic sister Blanche. But this is unmistakably Bette's show all the way: she dominates every second of screen time, whether by snarling and squawking with an alcohol-induced slur, or through a mere flutter of her eyelashes. She plays the role broader than broad with gargoyle makeup and coarse body language, often standing akimbo like a pissed-off teenager. But she leaves space for smaller gestures, like the sudden, wicked curling of her lips, that give us a vision of Baby Jane's sick, sad inner life.

 

Because she's not all monstrous. If only she was, she'd be so much easier to watch. Instead Bette plays her with a nagging core of pathos, of innocence lost. Occasionally her underlying tragedy (and implicit Electra complex) breach the surface, like when she sings her old vaudeville hit "I've Written a Letter to Daddy." It's the film's great can't-look-away set-piece, a pitiful song and dance rooted in Baby Jane's hideous regression to childhood, and Bette performs the hell out of it. No shame, no holding back, nothing but raw chutzpah.

Egged on by Victor Buono's ghoulish pianist, she hoarsely belts out the mawkish melody, and the resulting incongruity is a nauseating mix of horror and morbid comedy. It's a boozy, psychotic siren song that, to their credit, the Academy's members were unable to resist. It's an artifact of poisoned camp, a sour recapitulation of Bette's Hollywood career, and an indelible piece of horror history.

And if you want a real surprise, watch Baby Jane back to back with Bette's foray into Hammer horror, The Nanny. There, she's equally chilling, but all of Baby Jane's grand flourishes have been replaced with stoicism and restraint. It's black-and-white proof that Bette's performances didn't just have magnitude; they had range.

Previously on Oscar Horrors
The Fly, Death Becomes Her, The Exorcist, The Birds, Carrie and more....
Top 100 Most Memorable Best Actress "Characters" 

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Reader Comments (9)

Bette Davis is truly a legend. I love, love all of her movies but my favorites are Baby Jane and The Little Foxes. Talk about acting chops...

October 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Mark, you stole my words! I read the post, scrolled down and saw what I was about to write already posted.

My favorite Davis performance is Baby Jane after that comes the matriarch in the Little Foxes! LOL

The "All About Eve" performance/hype somehow never impressed me to such an extent, just as with "Annie Hall" my favorite Diane Keaton is the one in "Manhattan Murder Mystery".

October 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

Bette would have been a legend without this performance ( I assume) but this role was her saying: "I know you already think I'm amazing but look, I can do that too!"

Thanks for writing this, Andreas!
Love this movie and performance!

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

Love this performance, love this article, love Bette.

Interesting what you say about the going-for-broke nature of this performance. Bette was such a survivor, and she often acknowledged she wanted a third Oscar, especially since her great mid-career work was overlooked, probably because she'd been awarded twice young for less demanding roles. She had a long career, but she fought, fought, fought for everything, often miraculously managing to stay relevant (She only got Eve because Claudette Colbert got sick at the last minute.). Hard to imagine she didn't bring a little of her own desperation to the part, even if Bette had exactly the lasting career Jane was imagining.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

I remember an interview where Davis said she felt the three roles he deserved oscars for were dark victory, all about eve, and baby jane

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZach

I love The Nanny and will always have a soft spot in my heart for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but my favorite demented and delusional "psychobiddy" performance from Davis is The Anniversary. It's melodrama at its finest and features some of the best designer eye patch work in the history of cinema.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

love this post. baby jane is, after Psycho, the horror film i have seen the most often. And every single time, Bette Davis's performance feels like a revelation. People like to call actresses "brave" when they take off their clothes. But this is where it's at.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Love this film, and LOVE Bette! Totally agree with Nathaniel that this is the first performance I think of when people talk about "brave" actresses. Well, this and Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Taking off your clothes or "uglifying" yourself is nothing compared to the scary, manic commitment of these performances.

And has anyone seen the French & Saunders parody of Baby Jane? HILARIOUS!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z11IoaJX7Co

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I've sadly never seen any of Bette Davis's Oscar-winning roles. I've always wanted to though. My heart's with her "All About Eve" performance, but this one is just as profound. I could hardly look at it on first view. As much of a legend as she is, I saw Davis in "The Whales of August" recently, and I was pretty embarassed for her in that role. It's nice in a longevity sense that she did that, but content wise, it was lacking and uncomfortable. I think I'm due to revisit some of Davis's greatest hits.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRemy
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