“She’s supposed to be shriveling away,” observed Davis, “but her tits keep growing. I keep running into them, like the Hollywood hills.”
After the unexpected international success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Janet Leigh’s star was shining. She was offered a few horror roles but instead she chose a political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, and a musical comedy, Bye Bye Birdie, where her vivacity and intelligence continued to win fans. Leigh’s career had begun with a curious connection to the horror film. In 1946, when she was eighteen and living a quiet life in central California, her portrait caught the attention of the recently retired Norma Shearer, who had worked with Lon Chaney and whose former husband, the late Irving Thalberg, had in great measure been responsible for the American horror film.
“What a pretty face,” said Shearer, looking at the framed portrait of Leigh on the registration desk of a California ski lodge. “She should be in pictures.” (Leigh, Psycho)
In 1959, inside the metal cans that held Shearer’s personal print of Marie Antoinette, time stood still. There she was a luminous thirty-seven, photographed to look twenty by cameraman William Daniels. “I don’t care what lighting scheme you use,” Thalberg once told a cameraman. “My stars have to look beautiful.” (Kobal, Art of the Great, 89) Outside the frozen celluloid, in the dull glare of a smoggy Beverly Hills noon, Shearer was fifty-nine years old. She had not made a film in eighteen years. The reason? She knew exactly what lighting, filters, and angles could do to create the illusion of youth. She also knew that advancing age would one day render those tools useless. That day came in 1941, when she saw ineradicable signs of age spoiling her close-ups. She was only forty-one then, but she knew that motion-picture film could not be retouched. “A great star should always leave them laughing — or crying for more,” said Shearer as she quit the business. (Freeman) Never mind that she was at the height of her powers and on the verge of an even more distinguished career as a character actress. She had collaborated with M-G-M on an image, and the only way to maintain that image was to preserve it in nitrate. She would not sully it by playing grandmothers. Her contemporaries, except for the very rich Oberon, Goddard, and Garbo, could not afford the luxury of retirement.
In that same year, Myrna Loy was fifty-four and still working. Bette Davis was fifty-one and enduring what she would later call her “ten black years,” the slow period that followed her blaze of glory in All About Eve. (Stine, Mother Goddam, 241) She was subsisting on character parts, TV appearances, and occasional stage work. Katharine Hepburn was fifty-two and had not made a film in two years. Joan Crawford was fifty-five and a recent widow. Her husband, Pepsi-Cola executive Alfred Steele, had just died, leaving her hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. She was forced to sell her Brentwood home and work for Pepsi while she considered a variety of odd roles. A British producer told her that she would be a wow in 3-D. “I’d like to come out of the screen,” Crawford replied, “but on the strength of my own personality.” (Freeman) She was reduced to taking a glorified guest part in The Best of Everything, a melodramatic showcase for an ensemble of young actors. True to the prediction of Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood had no interest in former stars. A new horror cycle would change that.
Spiegel wanted Hepburn to play Mrs. Venable but could not offer her first billing. Liz Taylor, the world’s number one box-office draw, would expect top billing for playing Catherine. For the first time since 1933, Hepburn agreed to second billing. Taylor also expected her friend Montgomery Clift to play Dr. Cukrowicz. Though Clift’s star was on the wane because of drug and alcohol abuse, he was still as well known as Marlon Brando or Paul Newman. There was, however, the question of insurance. If a star could not be insured against sudden failure to work, a major studio would not hire him. Spiegel scheduled a physical examination for Clift with Columbia’s insurance company. The actor missed one appointment, then showed up for the second appointment so tranquilized that the doctor, recognizing that Clift might go off the deep end at any time, declared him uninsurable. Spiegel cast him anyway. The company flew to London, except for the slippery Spiegel, who went to the PCA office to wangle a Code seal from Geoffrey Shurlock, who had called Gore Vidal’s Suddenly, Last Summer script “revolting.” (Miller, Censored Hollywood, 187)
Reminding Spiegel of the Code section that said, “Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden,” Shurlock told him that director Joseph Mankiewicz could not film the scene in which Catherine reveals that Sebastian was a magically charismatic sociopath who used her and his mother to procure teenage boys for him in exotic ports of call. The script called for a flashback to show how Sebastian, “suddenly, last summer” in Spain, realizes he is not young any more and loses his powers of manipulation. Sensing his vulnerability, his exploited playthings turn on him and punish him in some unspeakable manner. This was a horror story with multiple monsters — a domineering mother, a predatory homosexual, and a band of swinging delinquents. Shurlock refused to approve it. Spiegel defied him and told Mankiewicz to start shooting. The director was still coping with Clift.
Elizabeth was still mourning Mike Todd. Miss Hepburn was suffering through Spencer Tracy’s illness . . . Joe Mankiewicz had some kind of skin disease on his hands and he had to wear gloves all through the picture. You don’t think of Gore Vidal or Tennessee Williams as particularly happy people. Of course, Monty was in torment. Everybody connected with the film was going through some kind of personal anguish and it showed. (LaGuardia, Monty, 205)
Suddenly, Last Summer went into production on May 25, 1959, at Shepperton Studios, fifteen miles southwest of London, just as a heat wave rolled in. Clift tried to cool himself by drinking fruit punch from the thermos that he always carried with him. Screenwriter Edward Anhalt once made the mistake of pouring himself a drink from it. “What the hell is this?” he asked through pursed lips. (Ibid)
“Bourbon, crushed Demerol, and fruit juice,” Clift smiled in his gentle way.
Mankiewicz had been treating Clift coldly since the ruined dinner party. Now, as Clift constantly trembled, blew his lines, or just stared blankly, the director told the producer to replace him. Spiegel asked Taylor to talk to Clift. “I’ve tried to get through to him and I just can’t,” she answered. (Ibid) Hepburn then took it upon herself to nurse Clift through shakes, sweats, and agitation. Mankiewicz looked askance at her and began to favor Taylor. “Mankiewicz was anxious to court friendship with Elizabeth,” said Spiegel. “He was downright disrespectful to Katie.” (Ibid) Hepburn thought he was being cruel to Clift by making no secret that he wanted to get rid of him. The distress off camera contributed to the tenor of Taylor’s scenes, especially the halting monologue that climaxes the film.
At the very top of the hill — a place — a ruin — broken stones — like the entrance to a ruined temple — they overtook him — there . . . I heard Sebastian scream. He screamed just once . . . I ran — they let me run — they didn’t see me — I ran —down — the waiters, police, people — ran out of buildings — back up to where — to where Cousin Sebastian — he was — lying — naked — on the broken stones . . . and this you won’t believe — nobody, nobody, nobody could believe it — it looked as if — as if they had devoured him — as if they had torn or cut parts of him away with their hands or with knives or the jagged tin cans they made music with — as if they’d torn bits of him away and stuffed them into those gobbling mouths!
On the day that Hepburn completed her scenes, she walked up to Mankiewicz and faced him. “Are you quite sure we’re finished?” she asked him, three times over. (Ibid) When he assured her that they did not need her for retakes or looping, she paused, reared back, and spat in his face. Having expressed her opinion of him, she walked off the film.
Suddenly, Last Summer was released on December 22, 1959, not long after Spiegel placated the PCA by agreeing to slice one line from the soundtrack and one shot from the negative. The line was “We were procuring for him.” The shot showed two shirtless youths rubbing against each other.* The token censorship fooled no one. “I assumed the youngest child in the audience would get the point,” wrote Pauline Kael. (Kael, I Lost It, 140) They did and immediately told their friends, who made the film, along with Psycho, one of 1960’s highest-grossing films. Variety called it “the most bizarre motion picture ever made by a major American company.” (Miller, Censored Hollywood, 188) Suddenly that summer, two horror films with monstrous mothers were all the rage.
Rage was the point, if writer Philip Wylie was any indication. His much-talked-about 1942 book, Generation of Vipers, attacked the mother-son relationship that was Williams’s stock in trade. “Oh, Sebastian,” Mrs. Venable says to her son. “What a lovely summer it’s been. Just the two of us. Sebastian and Violet. Violet and Sebastian. Just the way it’s always going to be. Oh, we are lucky. To have one another. And need no one else. Ever.” The idea of an aging beauty dominating an effete son drove Wylie into spasms of hyperbole. “And when we agreed upon the American Ideal Woman — the Dream Girl of National Adolescence, the Pin-up, the Glamour Puss — we insulted women and disenfranchised millions from love. We thus made mom [a] taloned, cackling residue of burnt-out puberty.” (Ibid, 189)
Generation of Vipers went into more than twenty printings, inciting as much anger as it did recognition, especially when Wylie accused the military of convincing thousands of soldiers “that they are momsick and would rather talk to her than take Betty into the shrubs.” (Wylie, Generation, 194) Whom were they taking into the shrubs? The warning that the moms of these healthy American males would turn them into adolescent-seducing Sebastians came through loud and clear in Wylie’s unequivocally damning echo of Dr. Pretorius’s “I give you . . . the Monster” in Bride of Frankenstein. (Ibid, 215)
“I give you mom,” wrote Wylie. “I give you the destroying mother.” (Freeman)
Wylie no longer had to. The Hollywood Glamour Puss was about to teach the Frankenstein Monster a lesson, both onscreen and off.
Aldrich had directed Joan Crawford in the 1956 suspense film Autumn Leaves. In the years since, Crawford had written him numerous times, reminding him that she wanted to do a film with Davis. Perhaps Crawford was thinking of The Great Lie, in which supporting actress Mary Astor not only stole the show from Davis but also won an Oscar. Davis never again worked with any actress who might give her competition, and she had always maintained a cool distance from Crawford, whom she called “that mannequin from M-G-M.” The rivalry was a longstanding one, according to MGM publicist Dore Freeman, who knew Crawford for fifty years. “Bette Davis was the Big Actress at Warners when Joan Crawford showed up there in the forties. Bette didn’t take her seriously until Joan got an Oscar and started grabbing parts that Bette thought were hers. Which is what Norma Shearer was doing to Joan at Metro before. And this is what made Bette and Joan into rivals.” Still Crawford kept after Aldrich. “She said she wanted to work with Bette Davis,” he recalled. “I could never see them working together in anything. Then I read Baby Jane.” (Considine, Bette and Joan, 294)
Aldrich sent the book to Crawford, who was promoting Pepsi-Cola in New York. Meanwhile, the option lapsed. Before Aldrich could act, an agent named Sid Beckerman bought the book and assigned Harry Essex, the screenwriter of It Came from Outer Space, to adapt it. Aldrich still wanted to do it, but Beckerman wanted $61,000. Aldrich did not have the money, but his new producer, Joseph E. Levine, was willing to advance it. Essex got $28,500 to stop in his tracks, Beckerman got the rest, and Aldrich got his book — almost. When Levine and Aldrich parted company, Aldrich had to pay Levine $85,000 for the book and for the screenplay that Aldrich and Lukas Heller had already written from it. Aldrich finally had his property. Now all he had to do was get a broomstick with two wicked witches on it.
In January 1962, Bette Davis was appearing at the Royale Theatre on Broadway as the blowsy Maxine Faulk in Williams’s Night of the Iguana. She was sitting in her dressing room after a performance one night when who should come calling but the bejeweled Joan Crawford, who beamed at her, presented her with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and said respectfully, “I have always wanted to work with you.” Davis frowned at the book, reluctantly accepted it, and spent the weekend at her home in Connecticut reading it. “Well, it could work,” she recalled saying to herself. “It’s all there. Phony Joan and Crazy Bette.” (Ibid, 295) Davis had lunch with Frye in New York the following week. “You’ll never believe it,” she said. “Crawford gave me a copy of the book with a note suggesting I play the younger sister. I told her never. The only part I’m interested in is Baby Jane.” (Fry, “The Devil,” 230) Davis soon heard from Aldrich, who sent her a script and a letter: “If this isn’t the best screenplay you’ve ever read, don’t see me.” (Miller, Robert Aldrich, 141) A meeting took place.
“What part will I be playing?” Davis asked.
“Jane, of course,” Aldrich replied.
“Good,” she said. “I just wanted to be sure.” She paused. “Have you slept with Joan?”
“No,” replied Aldrich, grinning slyly. “Not that I haven’t had the opportunity.”
“I just wanted to be sure there was no partiality involved,” said Davis. (Davis, This ‘n’ That, 135)
Aldrich began shopping the project around. “When Aldrich tried to interest the studios in Joan Crawford and myself,” Davis recalled, “the moguls said, ‘We wouldn’t give you a dime for those two washed-up old broads.'” (Thomas, Joan Crawford, 222) Four majors said no, but Aldrich kept asking. “Three distributors read the script and looked at the budget,” he remembered. “Two of these said they might be interested if I would agree to cast younger players.” (Stine, Mother Goddam, 289) Then Eliot Hyman called him — the same Eliot Hyman who had bought the Warner Bros. film library in 1956 and then made such a large profit on old Davis, Bogart, and Crawford films that he was able to start his own company, Seven Arts, only two years later. “I think it will make a fabulous movie,” said Hyman, “but I’m going to make very tough terms because it’s a high-risk venture.” (Silver, Whatever Happened, 23) Now Aldrich had to cut costs without losing his stars. “From my rapidly narrowing slice of the pie,” he said, “I offered each actress a piece of the picture plus some salary.” (Aldrich, “The Care and Feeding”) Crawford would receive ten percent of net profit and $40,000. Thanks to a stubborn agent, Davis would get five percent and $60,000. Everyone in the industry wondered what kind of movie would need two old stars. A story about two old stars, of course!
The script could have served any number of aging actresses — Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer and Miriam Hopkins, even Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich — but they might have made it a psychological study, a melodrama, or a tragedy. What Crawford and Davis brought to it was a distillation of their own well-known personas, the exophthalmic viciousness Davis had displayed in The Little Foxes and the tear-blinking self-sacrifice Crawford had shown in Mildred Pierce. By squeezing their bigger-than-life characters onto the tiny stage of a shabby mansion, Davis and Crawford created horror. What they created on a the set was a battle royal that made the ordeal of Suddenly, Last Summer look like a tea party.
Before Davis and Crawford squared off in front of the camera, they had turf skirmishes with the various artists at Producers’ Studio on Melrose Avenue. Crawford wanted her costumes to be flattering. Designer Norma Koch had to talk her out of wearing sexy negligees or dresses that would show her legs since the character’s leg muscles would have atrophied. When it was time for Crawford to make wardrobe tests, Aldrich used a moving camera to track in and show the costumes in motion. Script supervisor Bob Gary took notes. “By the time the camera got to Joan’s face,” recalled Gary, “she was crying. She was wearing the dress she was supposed to die in . . . and the tears began to fall. She is the only person I have ever seen who cried at her own wardrobe tests.” (Considine, Bette and Joan, 301)
Koch’s costumes for Davis were grotesque. “I designed grown-up versions of dresses that a little girl would wear,” said Koch. “They were supposed to be extensions of the child star she once was.” (Ibid) The script called for Jane to wear a wig that apes her childhood mop of curls. Davis’s hairdresser rented a Shirley Temple “Curly Top” wig from Max Factor, but Aldrich did not like the way it tested. He secretly approached Crawford’s hair stylist Peggy Shannon. “Peggy, you worked on all those old musicals at M-G-M. Can you help us out?” (Considine, Bette and Joan, 300) That day after work, Shannon visited old pals at MGM and found a platinum blonde wig. When Davis put it on the next day and looked in the mirror, she exclaimed: “It’s the nuts! I love it!” No one told Davis that the wig had been worn by Crawford in 1930’s Our Blushing Brides.
When it was time for makeup, Davis found a look worthy of Jack Pierce. “She, more than I,” said Aldrich, “decided on her Baby Jane makeup, that ugly, chalky mask.” (Higham, Celluloid Muse, 40) She was inspired by gossip. “I wanted to look outrageous, like Mary Pickford in decay,” said Davis. (Considine, Bette and Joan, 306) Shannon told her about the extras in M-G-M Technicolor musicals. “They were so in love with the way they looked that they never washed their faces,” said Shannon. “You would see them days later, walking down La Brea Avenue with the original makeup still on.” (Ibid, 307) This was all Davis needed to hear. “Jane never washes her face,” she beamed. “She just adds another layer of makeup each day.” (Davis, This ‘n’ That, 137) Crawford, meanwhile, refused to approve her own makeup. Monte Westmore had followed Aldrich’s instructions that Blanche should look as ravaged as Jane. “I had put huge lines under her eyes,” said Westmore, “and the shadows on her face made her look like she had jowls. She looked rotten, like she had been on dope.” (Considine, Bette and Joan, 307) Crawford and Aldrich compromised, letting Crawford begin the film looking mature but not wrecked. She also prepared for her role by studying with a disabled war veteran who showed her how to do “transfers” from the wheelchair to the bed. “He taught me how to hoist my body into the bed first and then lift each leg, and how to fall out of the chair — straight forward, and then roll over.” (Ibid, 299) Rehearsals ended on July 20, 1962, and Crawford uttered the famous last words: “I have been waiting twenty years to work with Miss Davis.” (Stine, Mother Goddam, 289)
The typical day on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? began as Crawford arrived with an entourage — her chauffeur, a junior agent from the William Morris agency, her maid, her secretary, her makeup artist, and her hairstylist. Davis arrived alone. Cinematographer Ernest Haller had photographed Davis’s Academy-Award-winning performances in Dangerous and Jezebel and Crawford’s in Mildred Pierce. On this film there were no black net scrims on their key lights and no diffusion disks on the camera lens. “If I’d lit either of them this way ten years ago,” said Haller, “they’d have had my head!” (Considine, Bette and Joan, 307) At lunchtime, Davis walked to Lucey’s Restaurant in full Baby Jane makeup and then wondered why traffic was stopping. To her friends, Loretta Young and Barbara Stanwyck, Crawford would say, “You should see the way Bette dresses at the studio. She walks around in bedroom slippers and an old, ragged terrycloth robe with makeup stains on the collar.” (Thomas, Joan Crawford, 221) At the end of the day, Crawford would head for her limousine. “This entire entourage would follow her,” recalled photographer Phil Stern. “Then you’d see Davis, stepping over cables on the floor, going home alone.” (Considine, Bette and Joan, 303)
A few days later, when Crawford and Davis saw the first rushes, they both burst into tears. Crawford turned to Haller: “Why do I have to look so damn old? It’s like I have a grandmother playing my part.”
“I can’t play her,” sniffed Crawford. “She’s twice as ugly.” (Ibid, 308)
Davis stopped looking at the rushes, but not before she noticed that Crawford’s close-ups were becoming softer and more numerous. “There were far more close-ups than the script called for,” Haller admitted. (Ibid) Crawford began sending Davis a red rose every day. Davis responded by ignoring her or cutting her short. In response, Crawford would say “Bless you.” Both stars had an autobiography published during the production. After Crawford gave A Portrait of Joan to Davis, she expected a copy of Davis’s The Lonely Life. Davis hemmed and hawed, not wanting to write “Dear Joan.” (Frye, “The Devil,” 230) Finally she thought of something. “Joan,” she wrote, “Thanks for wanting my autograph.” Crawford was beginning to get the message, recalled Frye, that Davis “actively despised” her. Crawford was bewildered but not without her own animus. “Each one coveted what the other possessed,” said director George Cukor. “Joan envied Bette’s incredible talent and Bette envied Joan’s seductive glamour.” (Considine, Bette and Joan, 108) As the production moved into its fourth week, a rebuffed Crawford started keeping score.
Davis would watch while Crawford rehearsed, then casually ask her, “Is that how you’re really going to do it?”
“Yes, Bette. Why?” Crawford would ask.
“Never mind,” Davis would yawn.
Crawford also saw Davis appropriating credit for discovering the book and getting preferential treatment from Aldrich. “Bette did everything in her power to antagonize Crawford, but in a very quiet way,” recalled actress Anna Lee. “She would put little notes on her dressing room door — ‘Of all my relations, I prefer sex the most’ — and she thought Joan would be shocked by that.” (Weaver, Science Fiction Stars, 268) Crawford saw Davis treating actor Victor Buono coldly, so she spent extra time helping him with his reaction close-ups. Davis caught on and told him she liked his acting style. Crawford worried that she looked flat-chested in her bedridden scenes so she began wearing larger falsies. “She’s supposed to be shriveling away,” observed Davis, “but her tits keep growing. I keep running into them, like the Hollywood hills.” (Considine, Bette and Joan, 310) When Crawford asked Aldrich if the cast and crew could watch one of her TV appearances, Davis walked to a corner of the soundstage and began to sing her Baby Jane song with a record player, trying to drown out the TV. On another day, Davis screamed at a crew member, cursing out Crawford in full hearing of her dressing-room door, which slowly closed after a few moments.
Crawford began telephoning Aldrich at night “Bob, dear, did you see what Bette did to me today?”
As soon as the director would hang up, Davis would phone. “What did Crawford call you about?”
“Mother was on the phone to Aldrich at least an hour every night,” recalled B. D. Hyman, Davis’s daughter. “She’d rehash everything that happened on the set that day that Aldrich had to apologize for . . . and all the terrible things Joan had done to her, which he would have to prevent her from doing the following day.” The calls came like clockwork. “First one, then the other,” said Aldrich. “I could rely on it every night. They were like two Sherman tanks.” (Ibid, 306)
The ongoing stress gave Crawford a head cold. She was starting to feel poorly after numerous takes on a confrontation scene with Davis. “Could we have a break for a few minutes, please? I feel terrible.”
“You’d think after all these years we’d all be troupers,” said Davis. Crawford gave her a withering look and walked in the direction of the Pepsi machine that she had arranged to have on the soundstage. “She spikes her Pepsi,” Davis said, not so sotto voce. “That bitch is loaded half the time.” If Crawford was drinking a bit more than usual, it was because she was apprehensive about shooting the scene in which Jane kicks Blanche all over the floor of the music room. Aldrich shot some angles with a Blanche dummy. Davis kicked it so hard that she looked as if she might hurt her foot. When it was time for Crawford to do the other angles with Davis, Crawford took Aldrich aside. “I’m not doing it,” she whispered to him. “I don’t trust Miss Davis. She’s going to kick my teeth in.” Aldrich shot a few more angles with the dummy, then carefully rehearsed Crawford and Davis. When the camera rolled, Davis kicked convincingly, missing Crawford’s head once, twice — and then connected. Crawford screamed and rolled over. Davis walked off. “She raised a fair-sized lump on Joan’s head,” reported gossip columnist Hedda Hopper the next day. There were unconfirmed reports of stitches. There were no reports of apologies. (Ibid, 316)
One of the last scenes to be shot required the demented Baby Jane to lift her dying sister Blanche from the bed and carry her out of the bedroom where she has kept her a prisoner. As they rehearsed, Davis asked Crawford not to make her body a dead weight because she didn’t want to aggravate her back problems. “There is a way of making it easy on the actor who is doing the carrying,” said Aldrich. The small set was tense as the crew readied itself for the shot. “It was one continuous take,” recalled Heller. “Bette carried her from the bed, across the room, and out the door.” For some reason, Crawford looked heavier now. “You could clearly see that when Bette lifted Joan off the bed she was straining herself,” said Gary. “Then, as soon as she got into the hallway, out of the camera’s range, she dropped Joan and let out this bloodcurdling scream,” said Heller.
“My back! Oh, God! My back!” (Ibid, 317)
As the crew stared in disbelief, Crawford got up and sauntered to her dressing room. She may have been wearing weights under her costume and Davis was out of commission for four days. When she returned, the company moved to the beach for the dreamlike finale. Crawford and Davis were no longer speaking. “I think it’s proper to say that they really detested each other,” recalled Aldrich, “but they behaved absolutely perfectly.” (Higham, Celluloid Muse, 39) He had not yet realized that his film had created two monsters.
Filming ended September 12, and Aldrich’s editors worked in teams around the clock for weeks to ready the film for an October 20 preview in Long Beach. Its primarily teenage audience had an unusual reaction. They liked What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? so much that they wanted the theater to run it again. A few days later, a Hollywood Citizen-News critic voiced the opinion of many. “For months, the word in the industry was that Bette and Joan had thrown what was left of their careers down the toilet by doing this B movie. No one expected it to be this good.” Paul V. Beckley of the New York Herald Tribune wrote: “If Miss Davis’s portrait of an outrageous slattern with the mind of an infant has something of the force of a hurricane, Miss Crawford’s performance as the crippled sister could be described as the eye of that hurricane, abnormally quiet, perhaps, but ominous and desperate.” (Stine, Mother Goddam, 289) Variety appreciated one of the film’s many ironic moments. “In one superb bit, Miss Crawford reacting to herself on television makes her face fairly glow with the remembrance of fame past.” (Quirk, Films of Joan Crawford, 211) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? recouped its $980,000 cost in eleven days and eventually grossed $3.5 million. “I must say we are gloating,” Davis told Jack Paar on The Tonight Show. (Thomas, Joan Crawford, 222) She had even more reason to gloat when she was nominated for an Academy Award — and Crawford was not. The Queen of Warners had trounced the Mannequin from Metro. Mannequin or monster?
Watching from the Hollywood sidelines was the opportunistic William Castle, who wasted no time in mounting a horror film around a malevolent mom. His first choices were unavailable. Crawford, suddenly in demand, was playing a tough mental hospital administrator in The Caretakers. Davis was costarring with the only actress she could trust not to upstage her. Through the miracle of movie magic, Davis was playing opposite herself as twin sisters in Dead Ringer. Anyone else would have been happy to play one good twin and one evil twin; in this film, both twins were wicked.
A lucky Castle ran into Crawford at a Hollywood party after an accident had forced him to shut down production on his latest film, Strait-Jacket. He could not conceal his excitement at encountering her. Putting his cigar aside and fetching her a fresh glass of one-hundred-proof Smirnoff vodka, he shamelessly lied that he had been preparing a script especially for her. The writer was the famous author of Psycho, Robert Bloch. The script was called Strait-Jacket. “I’m listening, Mr. Castle,” said Crawford. (Considine, Bette and Joan, 334) He related the farfetched story of Lucy Harbin, a fifty-year-old woman who comes to live on a farm with her daughter after spending twenty years in a mental institution. When Lucy was thirty, she found her husband and a barroom floozy in bed and chopped off both their heads with an axe. Now she just wants to live a quiet life, but axe murders begin to recur.
“Mm hm,” said Crawford, biting her lip.
“She is the suspected killer,” Castle continued. “She believes it herself.”
“And?” asked Crawford.
“She is arrested. But — she’s not the killer,” Castle grinned. “It’s her twisted daughter!”
“The little bitch,” said Crawford, taking another sip. “When can I see the script?” Still busy with Pepsi promotions, Crawford took the script with her to New York, read it, and then convened a meeting with Castle, Bloch, and Leo Jaffe, executive vice-president of Columbia. “Strait-Jacket will have to be completely rewritten as a vehicle for me or I won’t accept the role,” she said quietly over the lunch she had prepared for them. (Castle, Step Right Up!, 167) Her guests gulped and finished their quiche lorraine. The film did become a Crawford vehicle, making Lucy ten years younger and giving her the requisite number of showy scenes, but Castle spent more time directing horror effects than performances.
His main concern was to simulate the sound of a head being chopped off. He first tried a wet telephone book. The flat sound evoked nothing. “The following day,” he recalled, “I brought a large watermelon that I had stolen from Ellen’s refrigerator. Wielding an axe, the prop man cut it in half. The squish was perfect. It sounded exactly like a head being lopped off.” (Ibid, 171)
When it came time to sell Strait-Jacket to the public, Castle deviated slightly from form. “I always have some sort of a sales gimmick or hook,” he told Variety. “However, I use it at the point of sale — the box office — rather than on TV as Hitchcock and Disney do.” (“Castle’s Ballyhooey”) This time, instead of using a mechanical gimmick, Castle had his star pitch the film with personal appearances in twenty theaters in seven major cities. Crawford would speak, answer questions, and, for a finale, she would swing a three-foot axe. The tour was a mobbed sensation but critics cluck-clucked. “It’s time to get Joan Crawford out of those housedress horror B movies and back into haute couture,” wrote Judith Crist. “Miss Crawford, you see, is high class. Too high class to withstand in mufti the banality of Robert Bloch’s script, cheap-jack production, and direction better suited to the mist-and-cobweb idiocies of the Karloff school of suspense.” (Quirk, Films of Joan Crawford, 215) Crawford’s profit participation soothed the sting of such reviews. Meanwhile, horror queens multiplied.
“Do you think I’d invite you up here to sit on my couch and drink my coffee and insult my picture if I didn’t enjoy it?” he asked Slavitt. “I don’t need you to tell me what kind of picture I made. I know what kind of picture I made. But go ahead. This is the high spot of my day.”
Castle made one more horror-queen movie with Crawford, I Saw What You Did. In it, two rambunctious teenage girls (Andi Garrett and Sarah Lane) play a telephone game while their parents are away. Running their bored fingers down the page of a telephone book, they choose a name at random, dial the number, and breathily say: “I saw what you did and I know who you are.” As the script would have it, they call a man who has just committed a murder (John Ireland). His neighbor (Crawford), who has designs on him, mistakes one of the pranksters for a romantic rival. In her one good scene, a bewigged, bedizened Crawford chases a properly terrified teen away from her quarry, shouting at her. “You little tramp! Throwing yourself at him! Chasing him! Get outta here!”
“It was just a game!” the girl protests.
“I know what kind of game! With a man over twice your age! Now, get outta here!” Crawford roars with all the authority of the M-G-M lion. Her demise a few minutes later is hard to believe, since she is the scariest thing in the movie.
Castle attempted to justify the silly film by presenting it as a cautionary tale about “the current teenage rebellion against parental control that includes . . . destruction of property, mass adoration of public figures, [and] choices of music and reading material.” (“Castle’s Ballyhooey”) Crawford also stressed the film’s social value. “I think this film will have a terrific audience identification with both parents and teenagers.” She could not fool the veterans with whom she had made so many classic films. “She would write to me about these pictures, actually believing that they were quality scripts,” said director George Cukor. “You could never tell her they were garbage.” (Considine, Bette and Joan, 365)
Robert Aldrich was a brave man, braver than director Edmund Goulding, who, in 1943, when faced with the prospect of directing the feuding, intransigent, cantankerous duo of Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis a second time, faked a heart attack. Aldrich, however, had done well by Baby Jane. It made sense to do a sequel with the same stars before his imitators ran the cycle into the ground. Farrell, Baby Jane‘s author, had come up with another saga of hate, What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? Crawford agreed to costar in it with Davis, but, even though Davis would be playing Charlotte, Crawford wanted top billing. She also expected $50,000 and twenty-five percent of net profits. Davis screamed at Aldrich when she heard this and demanded $200,000 and fifteen percent.
“That is the same amount I’m getting for producing and directing,” he fumed. “That makes us partners on this picture.” (Ibid, 337)
“Partners,” said Davis, puffing on her fifty-first cigarette of the day. “All the way down the line. I will hold you to that.” Twentieth Century-Fox agreed to Aldrich’s budget of $1.3 million, part of which went to paying off Farrell and hiring Heller to write the script. Davis soon threatened to quit, complaining that Aldrich had not yet changed the “cheap” title or hired a cinematographer. To placate her, Aldrich hired the painterly Joseph Biroc, raised Davis’s percentage to twenty-five percent, and gave her equal billing with Crawford — in “alphabetical order.” And the film would now be called Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte. It was the story of another aging recluse, Charlotte, who asks her cousin Miriam to help her save the old family mansion from demolition by the Louisiana Highway Commission. Charlotte fears that the building will yield evidence that her father killed her married lover, John, in 1927. Charlotte is haunted by dreams and hallucinations of the unsolved murder, in which a mystery killer surprised John and then chopped off his hand and his head.
“What does it matter, Joan? I am going to be a mess and you are going to be your usual gorgeous self.” (Ibid, 339)
“Dear Bette,” said Crawford with a million-dollar smile. “Bless you.”
The Sweet Charlotte company flew to Baton Rouge on May 31, but Crawford made the mistake of flying in a few days late. Davis was taking her status as Aldrich’s partner quite seriously. She had already ingratiated herself with the crew. When Crawford landed, there was inexplicably no one at the airport to meet her. Her lodging arrangements were also confused. When she arrived at the location, the Houmas House Plantation in Burnside, Louisiana, it was apparent that Davis was relishing her role as unofficial producer. Crawford, sensing that she was at a disadvantage, decided to keep out of her way and stayed with her entourage.
“Bette lets her hair down,” wrote gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, “but Joan surrounds herself with the aura of a great of yesterday. Times have changed and she doesn’t seem to realize that.” (Ibid, 343) Crawford did realize that she had to put on a good face, so she made attempts to win Davis over. “Miss Crawford always says ‘Good morning,’ when she walks onto the set,” wrote columnist Lily May Caldwell. “Miss Davis seldom answers her.” (Ibid, 345) Davis usually walked away, swigging a Coke and snickering to anyone who would listen: “Old ‘Bless you’ is at it again.” Snubbed, Crawford went back to her trailer and poured herself a Pepsi (with Smirnoff). “Crawford obviously wants to clear the air,” wrote Len Baxter of Motion Picture magazine. “But Davis is not able to kiss and make up. She doesn’t know how to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and Crawford doesn’t feel that she has anything to be sorry for.” (Ibid, 346) Davis certainly thought so, according to her secretary, Vik Greenfield. “After the business with the Oscar, this was war.”
Bit by bit, hour by hour, Davis saw to it that Crawford was undermined and ostracized. “Bette was a formidable presence on the set,” said Aldrich regular Gary. (Ibid, 348) “She and Aldrich were very tight,” recalled unit publicist Harry Mines. “She was always by his elbow.” Aldrich’s son, Bill, was again working with the two legends. “Bette was something else,” he recalled. “She worked the company, the crew. She was a very strong lady who was still carrying on a one-way feud with Crawford.” (Ibid, 349) Davis began to sit in front of the camera, watching Crawford do her scenes, a highly unprofessional situation for Aldrich to allow. Just as before, when Crawford would do a line reading for a last rehearsal, Davis would turn to Aldrich. “My God! Is that the way she’s going to play it?” (Thomas, Joan Crawford, 224) Crawford was gracious about the unsolicited opinions, but even the most casual observer could see that her armor was cracking. She spent more and more time in her trailer.
“[Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte] couldn’t have been more the opposite than its predecessor,” recalled Aldrich. “A terribly hostile atmosphere prevailed.” (Higham, The Celluloid Muse, 40) Davis was now making remarks about Crawford’s advanced age to reporters. Crawford was sixty and looking quite presentable. Davis was fifty-six and showing the effects of years of nicotine addiction. The clincher came for Crawford when she phoned Aldrich at his hotel room one night to set things straight. She started talking about the script, then heard a familiar voice in the background. “It was Miss Davis,” she recalled. Whether Davis was sleeping with Aldrich or not, she had his ear; Crawford was in trouble. “I’d looked forward to working with Bette again,” Crawford said later. “I had no idea of the extent of her hate and that she planned to destroy me.” (Considine, Bette and Joan, 360)
A month later, she was well enough to report to work at Twentieth Century-Fox. Davis was standing by the camera again. Crawford was shooting a scene with Joseph Cotten. Davis interrupted. “I am cutting some dialogue,” she informed Crawford, who didn’t fight back but soon started missing work. Aldrich tried to force Crawford’s hand with an examination by a specialist. Crawford’s doctor sent her back to the hospital in an ambulance. “At that stage,” said Aldrich, “the insurance company offered us the alternatives of finding a replacement for Miss Crawford within two weeks or scrapping the picture.” (Higham, Celluloid Muse, 31)
Crawford was well aware of what had happened to Marilyn Monroe and George Cukor two years earlier on Something’s Got to Give. “Twentieth had closed down my last movie because no actress wanted to take over for Monroe,” said Cukor. “The picture was [insured] and I think Joan figured they would do the same thing for her.” (COnsidine, Bette and Joan, 358) Aldrich took the kinder view. “There’s no doubt in the world that Crawford was sick, seriously sick,” he said. “If she’d been faking, either the insurance company would never have paid the claim or she would never have been insurable again. Insurance companies here are terribly tough, and there’s no such thing as a made-up ailment that they pay off on.” If Cukor was correct, Crawford may have taken the precaution of warning Stanwyck and Young to decline the role because when Aldrich approached them, they both said no. Crawford no doubt knew that if the studio closed down Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Davis would lose: (1) the role of Charlotte; (2) more than $100,000 in pending salary; and (3) her percentage points of the film’s profits. Whether Crawford was faking or not, the result would be the same: Crawford would defeat Davis.
Aldrich’s next candidate was de Havilland, who was traveling. “[Davis] tried to persuade Olivia to do the part, helped me talk to her on the phone,” said Aldrich. “No good. So I went off to Switzerland to try to convince de Havilland in person. It was terribly difficult. I’m not quite sure why, but I think it has to do with Miss de Havilland’s opinion of what her image is vis à vis what it may be.” (Higham, Celluloid Muse, 41) Sitting on a mountaintop, they went back and forth about Miriam’s character.
“In the first script she was written as rude,” said de Havilland. “That’s what threw me and put me off frightfully. She depressed me because she was so wicked.”
“You mean the ambivalence, the counterpoint, the duality don’t interest you?” Aldrich asked her.
“That’s just what she doesn’t have,” de Havilland replied. “She’s all one color — black, solid black. If one thing were changed — her rudeness — if you take that away and give her the opposite — exquisite manners, exquisite courtesy — then she becomes really dangerous . . . . It’s always the charming ones of evil intent who are the dangerous ones.” (De Havilland, “Come Out,” 21)
Aldrich offered de Havilland $100,000. She accepted, and Aldrich called Davis with the news. She was pleased. Then he asked her to keep it quiet for two days until he could give Crawford’s lawyer formal notice. He might as well have saved his breath. Davis immediately alerted her press agent, who made surreptitious calls to the Hollywood press. Crawford was in her hospital bed when she heard the news on the radio. “Aldrich knew where to long-distance me all over the world when he needed me,” she told reporters. “But he made no effort to reach me here to alert me that he had signed Olivia. He let me hear it for the first time in the radio release. And, frankly, I think it stinks.” (Stine, Mother Goddam, 310)
The film hit the theaters on Christmas Eve 1964 and Time said:
Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a gruesome slice of shock therapy that, pointedly, is not a sequel to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The two films are blood relatives, as producer-director Robert Aldrich well knows, but Charlotte has a worse play, more gore, and enough bitchery to fill several outrageous freak shows. The choicest holdover from Jane is Bette Davis, unabashedly securing her clawhold as Hollywood’s grande dame ghoul. (Ringgold, Films of Bette Davis, 186)
Davis took exception to such reviews. “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte was not a horror film,” she claimed. “It was the study of a very sad woman who had a terrible thing happen in her life.” (Considine, Bette and Joan, 366) More to her liking was the review written by British critic Kenneth Tynan: “An accomplished piece of Grand Guignol is yanked to the level of art by Miss Davis’s performance as the raging, aging Southern belle. This wasted Bernhardt, with her screen-filling eyes and electrifying vocal attack, squeezes genuine pathos from a role conceived in cardboard.” (Stine, Mother Goddam, 310)
In a few more years, the cardboard crumbled. “I’m not going to put old stars in a horror picture again,” said Aldrich as he prepared a war film called The Dirty Dozen. “It’s kind of sad when you think about it, isn’t it?”
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De Havilland, “Come Out Fighting.” Films and Filming (Mar. 1966): 19-21.
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