Friday, August 17, 2012

They're Baaaack!

Werth: One, two, three, four, five—

Wise: Are you practicing for your advanced math classes, Werth?

Werth: No, I'm counting the number of out-of-work action stars who are making a comeback in The Expendables 2.

Wise: You'll need an abacus for that.

Werth: While I'm not a huge fan of the mindless action genre, I think it's great that actors like Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger can put their golf clubs down and show up for hair and makeup.

Wise: The ones who still have hair.

Werth: That kind of comeback reminds me of my favorite star resurgence flick, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

Wise: Speaking of wigs and makeup.

Werth: When Robert Aldrich started pitching his cinematic take on Henry Farrell's novel, the studios were not biting. Not helping matters was the fact that the two stars of the film were stars in memory only. Neither Joan Crawford nor Bette Davis had much caché left at the box office after glorious careers as marquee headliners.
These famous leading ladies had been relegated to playing old baglady mothers (Davis as Apple Annie in Pocketful of Miracles (1961)) and ball-breaking bitch bosses (Crawford as Amanda Farrow in The Best of Everything (1959)). But after slashing the budget, Aldrich was able to convince Jack Warner to distribute the film, even if, as Warner was accused of saying, "I wouldn't give a plugged nickel for those two old broads."

Wise: I guess he was busy plugging other broads.

Werth: Baby Jane opens in 1917 in a vaudeville hall where the "Diminutive Dancing Duse from Duluth," Baby Jane Hudson (a sickeningly perky Julie Allred), taps and sings her way through her juvenile number, "I've Written a Letter to Daddy." An offstage tantrum reveals a rift between her and her older, un-famous sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie).
Fast forward to a screening room in 1935 where studio execs are screening the grown-up Jane in her latest flop (the footage is actually of Davis from 1933's Parachute Jumper) and wondering why they have to work with this hopeless has-been. The reason? Her hugely successful, movie star sister Blanche's contract requires that Jane get work too.

Wise: The drab older sister also rises.

Werth: But those tables turn again as a cinematically edited accident leaves us with the idea that the spoiled Jane has run over her sister with a car. The film then jumps again in time to the early 1960's where we find Blanche (Crawford) regally sitting in her wheelchair watching one of her old movies on TV (real footage from her hit Sadie McKee (1934)). Jane (Davis) tromps into the room looking like Mrs. Haversham after a mime class and the bitch-fest begins.
The great fun of this movie has always, and will always be the amazing chemistry between these two actresses. The sparks don't fly, they explode as Jane abuses Blanche and Blanche struggles to survive. Much was made in the press of how much Crawford and Davis hated each other, and perhaps that PR agent creation has colored our modern viewing of the film.
No one would be silly enough to say that these two titans of the silver screen liked each other, but by most reputable accounts they were nothing but professional on set. So that leaves us with two amazing actresses who were able to not only create unique opposing characters, but a complicated and emotionally engaging screen relationship with each other.

Wise: Which can't be said for those limp dishrags from Twilight.

Werth: Baby Jane is fascinating in that not only do we see a conflict between Davis/Jane and Crawford/Blanche, but Aldrich also seems torn between worshipping these old movie stars and degrading them. On the one hand we know their mythic reputations and get glimpses of their old work, but on the other, Davis transforms into a painful-to-look-at pyschotic harridan and Crawford is physically brutalized.
While neither actress came out of this movie "looking" good, Davis was nominated for an Oscar and both stars had a resurgence in their careers—even if it was made up of more horror schlock like Davis' Dead Ringer (1964) and The Nanny (1965) and Crawford's dalliances with William Castle in Strait-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965). Still, Baby Jane was a wonderful opportunity to remind the world that these two stars still had plenty of shine in them.

Wise: Even stars who haven't been eclipsed by the next generation sometimes need a career re-invention.  After two decades of being America's TV sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore left behind the quirky world of sitcoms for Robert Redford's directorial debut Ordinary People (1980).  In it, she plays Beth Jarrett, a perfect suburban mother gone brittle and cold after the death of one son and the suicide attempt of the other.

Werth: That is definitely not a plotline for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Wise: Based on the novel by Judith Guest, the film focuses on Beth's depressed son Conrad (Oscar-winning Timothy Hutton) and his attempts to return to normalcy despite the guilt he feels for not being able to save his brother in a boating accident.  Helping him along the way is psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch gently stepping away from his smarmier Taxi persona) and his father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) who nobly, although fruitlessly, attempts to reconcile mother and son.

Werth: He should have just called in Lou Grant to take care of it.

Wise: Moore is terrifying in the role.  After years of playing appealing gals with spunk, she makes Beth utterly unapproachable—all jutting elbows, strained throat, pursed lips.  But unlike a lot of other actors' attempts at image reboots, Moore's past success actually enhances her work here. 
The warmth of her sitcom performaces throws her portrayal of Beth into greater relief, allowing her to make Beth colder and more vicious than just about any other actor could.  The audience longs for—along with her damaged, hurting son—the warmth of the person beneath this icy façade.

Werth: Icy façade or plastic surgery?

Wise: Redford's direction, aside from displaying great sensitivity to the subject, is very clever about the way he uses his actors.  After all, he was in the midst of transforming himself  from matinee idol to auteur, and cannily plays with audience expectations. 
Among other things, Ordinary People is about a golden boy who doesn't survive, and the scrappier, more emotionally messy sibling who does.  Redford uses that model for himself and his actors—especially Moore—escaping the gilded perfections of the past for a more complicated vision of the present.

Werth: Well faithful readers, make sure your complicated vision is focused on next week's Film Gab!

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