On this week’s post, I’m covering a movie that I’ve never seen but always wanted to and revisiting one that I saw a few years ago. This set is a little different from what I listed last week, but after seeing the first film, I realized that there was a perfect pairing to take advantage of. This week’s films are:
Billy Wilder – Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Robert Aldrich – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
There are a lot of similarities between the films, and I had a great time watching them. I was out of town last week, so I didn’t do a post, but I’m excited to get back into it.
Let’s talk about the movies.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
A screenwriter, Joe Gillis is out of chances, with the repo men after his car, and his most recent script idea has been roundly rejected. By chance, he suffers a flat tire and hides it in a garage at what appears to be an abandoned Hollywood mansion on Sunset Boulevard. But what he finds inside is an aging silent film star, Norma Desmon, who insists he reads her screenplay. He sees his chance to make some easy money and offers to edit it for her. She agrees, and begins to ensnare him in her web, making him more and more dependent on her. Will Joe be able to extricate himself?
The film is directed by Billy Wilder and stars William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim. Holden is essentially the main character here, but he’s more a prop for the other characters to play off of. Gloria Swanson is the real star here.
Gloria Swanson actually was a silent film actress, going all the way back to 1915. But she never really retreated from acting the way her character did. She also had a long career after this film was completed. But of course, this is her best known film. And for good reason.
Her introduction perfectly encapsulates the world we’re entering. Joe is called into the house by Max, the butler after stashing his car. Max gives him some bizarre instructions about a coffin, and he goes upstairs to find Norma there, with a body under a sheet. As she explains how she wants to bury him in the garden, she pulls back the sheet, revealing a monkey. They have assumed he is the undertaker they have contacted.
It’s a really effective scene. It sets up Norma as an eccentric, and hints at how strange her world is. She lives alone in a giant mansion with only Max to keep her company. Things only get stranger as Joe clears up the misunderstanding, introducing himself as a writer. Norma insists he read her screenplay. She takes him to a desk which is covered in what appears to be reams of handwritten paper. He thinks it’s terrible, but he sees an opportunity, and offers to help her rewrite it and put it into a script format for $500 a week.
She agrees, and begins pulling him closer, insisting that he stay in an apartment in her garage, and has Max bring all of his things there, even paying off his apartment for the next few months. Joe finds the work difficult, with Norma hovering over him at all times. When he tries to cut a scene, she demands that it stays in, insisting that as soon as the script is done, the studios will come running to make it. She has a particular attachment to Cecil B. DeMille, a famous director of the time, who made many of her silent films. She is certain that he’ll jump at the chance to make it once it’s done.
One of the more noteworthy aspects of the film is the persistent voiceover from Joe. In the first scene, we learn that he is dead from gunshot wounds, but still, he narrates the entire film, I assume from beyond the grave. It strikes me as an odd choice, and I don’t think most filmmakers could have made it work, but Billy Wilder is up to the challenge.
A voiceover is one of those things that is almost always the easy way out. A lot of films that use them end up using them badly. But when they work, they can be great. So what does a voiceover do for us in this instance? In this case, Joe doesn’t really have anyone to talk to about Norma, or what she’s putting him through. So the voiceover gives us some of the information that we might otherwise get from conversations the character would have. Joe is fairly isolated during the first half of this film. He only interacts with Norma and Max. Max becomes a bit of a confidant, but Joe can’t fully trust him. And later in the film, when Joe begins to interact with Betty, played by the lovely Nancy Olson, he can’t really admit to her what’s going on. So without those outlets, we’d be largely in the dark, looking for other clues as to how Joe is feeling. A modern television show could almost certainly manage it, but those have around 5 times the screentime that a film has. They have the luxury of covering those little moments that audience members can pore over for an entire week, or watch several times.
It’s also something of a trope of the noir genre, which this film has a lot in common with. The protagonists of the noir genre are often tough guys who aren’t able to express their emotions and thoughts outwardly, so the voiceover is useful to give the audiences a window into their inner thoughts. In fact, the voiceover brands the film as a noir, even though we don’t have a hardboiled detective.
So the voiceover works in general in this film, but the entire structure involving revealing Joe’s death at the beginning feels a bit strange. It certainly adds some interest, and I suppose it foregrounds how strange the story overall will become. It also adds credence to the noir flavor, perhaps signaling to the audience that the entire film is a murder mystery.
The world of Norma gets stranger and stranger as time goes on. As she pulls Joe closer and closer, we realize that she’s in love with him. He tries to leave, but comes back when she attempts suicide, which according to Max is a constant concern. Joe accepts his new role as her companion. It’s never made explicit if they have a physical relationship, but it seems likely. We see Joe dote on her, hanging around while she plays bridge with her friends, allowing her to buy him fancy clothes and jewelry, and watch her old films every night
I want to spend a little time talking about Max the butler, played by Erich Von Stroheim. Stroheim was very familiar to me from La Grande Illusion, where he played the main villain. In this film, he is completely obedient to Norma, but is also realistic about her neurosis. When Joe talks to him privately, he doesn’t defend her, or pretend she’s ok, he just tries to protect her, and keep her in her little bubble. Along the way, Joe discovers that Max is the one sending fan letters to Norma every day, convincing her that she’s still famous. He also discovers that of her three husbands, Max was one of them, and a director of many of her silent films. He stays to protect her, perhaps because he loves her. But it becomes one of the most interesting characters in the film as it goes on.
So we have Norma, who is terrified of being left alone and forgotten. We have Max who refuses to leave her. And we have Joe, who wants to leave, but doesn’t want to sentence a woman to death to do it. It’s a strange little love triangle that becomes even stranger when we Betty becomes a factor. We meet Betty early in the film when she pans Joe’s script for her boss at the studio, which he of course takes exception to. Later, during his first escape attempt, he encounters her again, as the girlfriend of a close friend. Here she is full of ideas to rewrite a part of one of his stories as a new script.
This subplot with Betty is essential to the story arc, as Joe gets comfortable in his new life quickly. He accepts his new position in Norma’s wake. In order to break out of it, he needs something to show him that he does have value in the world, and there’s something out there in the world for him to experience again.
But we’ve already seen the ending, and it doesn’t end well for Joe. Things eventually come to a head, and we are left with Norma in a catatonic state, and the only thing that pulls her out of it is the promise of the cameras downstairs. Instead of being slightly delusional, she is completely separated from reality. We end the film with a haunting scene where she plays a scene to the newsreel cameras, convinced that her career is on the uptick.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Two sisters live together in Hollywood, Jane a child star from the vaudeville era, long since forgotten, and Blanche, a film star from the 1930s, still well-loved and remembered. Blanche was in a car accident at the height of her fame, and has been crippled ever since. Jane takes care of her now, 30 years later, as the women are both aging. Things start to go downhill when Jane discovers Blanche is planning to sell the house and put Jane under the care of a doctor. How far will Jane go to keep her independence?
The film is directed by Robert Aldrich and stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. We’ve covered Robert Aldrich and Bette Davis before, but this is our first glimpse of Joan Crawford. Davis and Crawford were the greatest actresses of their generation, and two of the greatest actresses of all-time. Putting them together in a film like this was a major event. Much like having John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart play against each other in The Man That Shot Liberty Valance. Two titans of acting in their first film together. This is a big deal.
The film starts with some history. We see some of Jane’s vaudeville act, starring as “Baby Jane Hudson,” doing a song and dance act as a child, no more than 10 years old. There’s no doubt it’s a popular act. The theater is sold out, and people are being turned away. They’re selling life-size Baby Jane dolls in the lobby, and when asked for a request to close out the show, the crowd goes wild. She ends up singing “Letter to Daddy”, which is about a little girl sending a letter to her dead father to tell him she loves him. The entire scene is creepy.
After the show, we’re treated to a moment when Jane throws a fit to get ice cream from her father in front of the fans waiting to meet her. Meanwhile, Blanche watches from the shadows, refusing to participate in Jane’s tantrum. This sets up the dichotomy between the sisters. Jane is a little terror, fame having already gone to her head. She expects to be treated like a star in all things. Blanche on the other hand is quiet, wanting to please, but not willing to participate in her sister’s tantrum. As we leave this era, her mother tells Blanche that she hopes she’s kinder to her sister than she is to her. It really sets the tone of the film.
10 years later, in the 30s, the tables have turned. Blanche is a major star. Jane on the other hand is detested by the studio execs. But Blanche has enough power to force them to make movies with Jane. The execs complain about Jane being a drunk, and terrible to work with. But they don’t dare alienate Blanche.
This all ends when the two sisters come home one night. One opens the gate, and the other intentionally drives the car into the gate, apparently trying to kill the other. We never see faces in this scene. It’s particularly well setup, as it leverages the expectations of the audience. We have already seen archival footage of Bette Davis as a young Jane, in one of her early films from the era, so we don’t expect to see the present day actors. We don’t expect that there might be another reason to not see anyone’s face. When we come to the present, with Blanche in a wheelchair, and Jane taking care of her, we fill in the blanks. We’ve heard about Jane’s troubles, and know she’s not the star anymore, and is in fact despised by the studio, and the picture becomes clear. Jane intentionally injured Blanche, and is taking care of her to make up for it.
In the future, Jane is horrifying. Her makeup makes her look like a melting clown. And Davis plays it perfectly. Her first encounter with a friendly neighbor involves her rebuffing the woman rudely. And when Blanche rings a buzzer asking for help, her scream is blood curdling.
Make no mistake, this is not a family drama, it’s a horror film. Without Davis’ performance, it might not be. Crawford on the other hand is playing the victim. She looks presentable, even in a wheel chair. She’s soft spoken, and kind, even when Jane is being unreasonable.
Crawford and Davis did not like each other, and this film only gave them more opportunities to annoy each other. One point of contention was that Crawford insisted on looking nice for her role, while Davis thought she should look old and wasted away. But from my perspective, I really enjoyed that aspect. It further delineates the two sisters, and makes Jane’s actions in the film more horrifying seeing her torment this normal, kind, nice looking woman.
We see how triggered Jane is by Blanche’s success, as a local TV station has recently begun rerunning her films on it’s channel, and a neighbor asked Jane to tell Blanche how much she enjoyed it. When Jane brings Blanche lunch, she catches Blanche watching one of her own films and complains, telling her that she had a movie out that year too, claiming that her own film was better than Blanche’s and she’s a fool for watching her old movies. But we later learn that it’s all jealousy, as the housekeeper brings Blanche an envelope full of fan letters that the TV studio has sent along.
We also learn of Jane’s alcohol dependence, as she tries to order more liquor, and when they refuse on Blanche’s orders, she is able to employ her spot on Blanche impression to fool them and get more booze. The impression comes back several times as Jane furthers her plans.
The housekeeper also mentions that Blanche is planning to sell her house and live alone, sending Jane to a home somewhere, and that she hasn’t told Jane yet. But we soon discover that Jane knows all about it, and this is part of her bad behavior, which includes offering to clean a bird cage and returning without the bird, reporting that it flew out the window.
Things deteriorate quickly though, once the housekeeper leaves. The film takes an unexpected turn here, as instead of bringing food for Blanche, Jane brings her dead bird under a tray lid. She also takes the phone away from Blanche, isolating her further. This is our first indication that Jane’s resentment might lead to more than just complaining.
Blanche begins looking for help, turning to her neighbors who are just outside her window. The film falls down a little bit here, as Blanche apparently isn’t capable of raising her voice, as she very quietly pleads to her neighbor who is just 20 feet away. The film puts some loud music in the background to cover it, but it didn’t quite ring true to me. Blanche instead throws a note to the neighbor, which of course Jane picks up when she returns. That evening, when Jane brings her food, she casually mentions that they have rats in the basement before leaving. The film ratchets up the tension, and when Blanche finally gets the courage to open it, finding a dead rat there. She screams, and Jane laughs and laughs.
We start to get a sense of Jane’s inner psyche as this goes on. Her plan appears to be to kill her sister and then start performing again as Baby Jane Hudson. When confronted by Blanche about her treatment, Jane asks matter of factly, “What have I ever done to you?” As the film goes on, it becomes clear that Jane isn’t really capable of taking responsibility for her actions.
To further her goal of starting up a nightclub act, Jane puts an ad in the paper, and gets the interest of a down on his luck piano player with a brow beating mother, Edwin. Edwin is played by Victor Buono, who possesses the phoniest British accent that has ever been put on film. It also seems to go in and out. I’m not sure if the director didn’t notice or didn’t care, but it never gets better.
But to his credit, Buono plays Edwin as incredibly slimy and opportunistic. When he meets Jane, it’s clear she’s more than a little unhinged, but he lets it go as soon as he gets her to agree to his fee.
In this section of the film, we get some of the best and creepiest moments from Davis. She looks through her old clippings, and sings her old songs to herself. She imagines herself as the young, fresh vaudeville legend, until she sees herself in the mirror. The lighting here is haunting, coming directly from above. When she sees herself, she covers her face and screams. It’s a completely unforgettable moment.
Once she and Edwin start working together, we start to see some of her original act, and Jane starts to revert to a more childlike view of the world. She can manipulate her sister easily, but when it comes to Edwin, she’ll give him anything he wants to stick around. When we see the titles of her old songs, they all seem to be love songs to ‘Daddy’ or ‘Papa’ or something similar.
I’m not sure, but all of these clues paint a dark picture to me. Jane has substance abuse problems, many of her songs reference her father, and she reverts to a childlike tone when she’s stressed. It makes me wonder if Jane was sexually abused as a child. The film doesn’t make it explicit, but perhaps the book made this clearer.
It’s also possible that Jane’s resentment is so strong, she has been struggling her whole life with the fame she achieved and lost early in life, and has never recovered. She blames her sister for all of her problems, as she achieved the success she lost, almost as if Blanche had stolen it from her.
Things get more and more complicated as Jane gets closer and closer to killing Blanche. Finally, Edwin sees Blanche tied up in her room, and Jane knows she’s about to get caught. She takes Jane to the beach, sitting there all night while the police look for them.
Jane has fully reverted to a child-like state, trying to get Blanche to say everything is alright, and she won’t be in trouble. But here, Blanche reveals something else, which I didn’t really like.
Blanche tells Jane that Jane wasn’t driving the car the night of her accident. She had been too drunk. As Jane opened the gate, Blanche had been angry at her for making fun of her at a party, doing her impression and mocking her. She was the one that tried to run over Jane, but Jane saw and jumped out of the way. Blanche hit the gate and snapped her spine, just able to crawl out of the car while Jane ran away. When the police found her in front of the car, they decided that Jane had done it.
I don’t love this moment in the film. It gives Jane some redemption, but I think it changes the entire narrative of the film. And we haven’t been getting breadcrumbs to this the entire time. It’s not as if Jane secretly knew this, and this was her motivation to torturing Blanche, she was completely oblivious. We had no indication of this before this moment as far as I saw. It’s not something that bothered me on my first viewing, but something I noticed this time.
It didn’t ruin the film, but it’s something I noticed.
Let’s move onto final thoughts.
The Double Feature
This might be the best pairing I’ve ever had. Both films focus on the fleeting nature of fame, and how it affects those that lose it. Both films involve a lonely Hollywood home, and a shut-in, one by choice, and one by force. They both also concern someone being tormented in the house. Blanche in one, and Joe in the other. They also both deal with mental illness. I also considered Misery as an option for my second film this week, but couldn’t find a copy of it in my network of streaming services.
The highlight of both films is their lead actresses, Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis. both were nominated for an Oscar for their performance in the film, but neither won. Swanson and Davis were actually both nominated the year Sunset Boulevard came out, Davis for All About Eve, another of her legendary performances. With yet more proof that the Oscars don’t always reward the best film or performance, neither of them won that year.
Both of these actresses create a character that is unhinged and even scary, but at the same time sympathetic. Gloria Swanson uses her eye to great effect, widening them in a way that’s like a warning for anyone she’s dealing with. Bette Davis devolves from an angry, abusive woman to a child-like state. It’s a fascinating performance from both women, but I think Davis does just a bit more. She goes from stable but angry to fully unhinged throughout the course of the film, while Swanson starts fairly unhinged, and we spend the film exploring the particulars of her break from reality.
And while Davis creates her own new fantasy world, Swanson has one created for her. Rather than being forced to look at the world as it is, Max builds a fantasy world around her that she can’t escape from. Max is almost a villain, but a very sympathetic one.
I hadn’t seen Sunset Boulevard before, and it’s one of the most interesting films I’ve ever seen. I’ll be buying a Blu-ray to keep it in my collection for the future. I feel like I barely scratched the surface of the film in this post. Baby Jane I had seen before, and it’s an amazing film as well, but I think I was a little less fascinated with it this time. But both are essential films on the topic of fame, and how it affects people.
I took a week off last time because I was out of town. But watching two films like this really energizes me and reminds me how much this blog means to me. In about 6 weeks, I’ll be leaving the country for about 6 weeks. I’ve been trying to decide whether to take that time off from the blog, or try to keep it going, even though I’ll be busy. Having a week like this makes me feel like there’s no doubt I’ll keep it going. Of course, it will depend on what I have access to at that point. I know that streaming services don’t always cross different regions, so time will tell.
So what shall we do for next week’s films? I decided on a couple of well-known sci-fi films which I’d never seen before.
Michael Anderson – Logan’s Run (1976)
Peter Hyams – Capricorn One (1978)
I’ve heard of both of these films, and they both have pretty great premises, though Logan’s Run is a film known for having a fairly mockable view of the future. But whatever, it will be fun. See you then.