Psycho: the birth of modern horror and the later stage of the classical Hollywood woman's film
The once-glamorous, still driven stars of Baby Jane.
Olivia de Havilland, Crawford's replacement in Hush...Hush.
Gay icon and supporting character Agnes Moorehead as an unusual femme
The women: Sex and the City, a text that mines both the classical and the modern forms of the woman's film.
Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991). Modern horror as the concealed woman's film.
The woman's film par excellence: Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942).
Hollywood glamor regained: Joseph Cotten, Bette Davis, and her would-be co-star Joan Crawford during rehearsals for Hush...Hush.
Images from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Bette Davis, sumptuously horrific in the title role, in Baby Jane.
The infamous “Butcha are, Blanche, ya are!” scene.
Jane placing an ad in the paper.
Jane provokes bewilderment from the outside world.
Jane takes a drink, numbing herself.
Davis provides an unflinchingly realistic portrait of depression.
by David Greven
The established precedent for modern horror is Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, which, David Thomson has argued, “taught America to love murder.” [open endnotes in new window] “Many others would follow Psycho's successful reinvention of the horror genre—locating it squarely in the Freudian family and showcasing newly explicit onscreen violence. “Hard-boiled action director Robert Aldrich would begin a new horror formula by casting Hollywood's aging leading ladies in roles as psychopathic gothic grotesques: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962),” the first of a long list of such films.
These horror-woman’s films, as I call them, continue the tradition of the classical Hollywood genre of the woman’s film while holding this genre up to often withering scrutiny, a deconstructive maneuver avant la lettre. I will discuss three specific films starring Davis and Crawford—Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, starring Davis and Crawford; Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Aldrich’s 1964 follow-up to Baby Jane?, starring Davis and de Havilland, with support from Agnes Moorehead; William Castle’s Strait-Jacket, (1964), a Crawford vehicle—and their liminal relation to the woman’s film and to modern horror.
Clearly, the history of the woman’s film, the evolution from “female weepie” to “chick-flick,” needs a much more expansive historical account than I can provide here. Any proper analysis of this topic would need to account for the made-for-TV film from the 1970s to the 1990s; the Lifetime channel and its wide array of content ranging from the TV-movie genre it has kept alive to its various original and re-run TV series; cable TV series such as HBO’s Sex and the City  which self-consciously and explicitly evoke the woman’s film, and the more recent Girls; and so forth. Moreover, the extraordinary cross-fertilization of the woman’s film with other genres, which has been expertly delineated by Jeannine Basinger, such as noir, horror, science-fiction, biopic, screwball comedy, romantic comedy, spy thriller, rape-revenge film, et al, needs to be included in any analysis. Basinger offers a persuasive description of what constitutes the classical Hollywood woman’s film: it is one that “places at the center of its universe a female who is trying to deal with emotional, social, and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the fact that she is a woman.”
The horror-woman’s films of the ‘60s define the liminal. They exist in a shadowy realm between the woman’s film, or woman’s picture, which, by most accounts, fell out of prominence by the end of the 1950s and later (Andrew Ross, in his essay on Camp, quotes Bette Davis’s comment that the 1960 Baby Jane was the first woman’s film in ten years), more “modern” versions of the woman’s film. The post-classical woman’s film of the 1970s—Lady Sings the Blues (Sidney J. Furie, 1972), The Way We Were (Sydney Pollack, 1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974), An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978)—transitioned fairly seamlessly into the star vehicles of the1980s, headlined by Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton, and others. After the 1980s, certainly other woman’s films, or, perhaps more aptly put, female-centered dramas were made, ranging from What’s Love Got to Do With It (Brian Gibson, 1993) to The Brave One (Neil Jordan, 2007) to Eat Pray Love (Ryan Murphy, 2010).
The horror-woman’s film, along with many others kinds of ‘60s films, defines this transitional decade’s relationship to the classical Hollywood past, marked by simultaneously maintained attitudes of nostalgic reverence and bitter, ironic contempt. Immediately inspired by Psycho, films such as Baby Jane also reflect a new kind of explicit horror that emphasizes onscreen violence and gore, as opposed to the atmospheric, stylized, suggestive horror exemplified by the films produced by Val Lewton, exemplified by Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942). As I argue in my book Representations of Femininity in American Genre Cinema, horror film in its modern, post-Psycho form crucially overlaps with the evolving woman’s film genre. Many female-centered horror movies, such as The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and its sequels, and The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), can be described, to rework the theories of Robert B. Ray, as concealed woman’s films. The Baby Jane-style movies of the ‘60s paved the way for later horror movies that made femininity their central, troubling and troubled, subject. Indeed, as the decade was ending, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) would make contemporary youthful femininity, embodied by elfin and fragile Mia Farrow as the heroine, the center of modern horror and relegate the older woman once again to the supporting role. Ruth Gordon’s busybody older woman neighbor Minnie Castavet, forever dispensing barbiturate-laced concoctions to Farrow’s unsuspecting Rosemary and part of a secret Manhattan witches’ coven, primarily exists to terrorize the young heroine. With its themes of Satanic birth and the violation of a young wife and mother, Rosemary’s Baby resonated for audiences, who experienced, in the incipient feminist moment of the film’s release, its fragile heroine’s suffering and vulnerability as newly urgent. (In contrast, Polanski’s 1965 Repulsion figures woman’s sexuality itself as inherently terrifying.)
For the most part, the films are associated today with the gay male appropriation of them that can be generally classified as a Camp response. One of the first encounters I ever had with the phenomenon of Camp was the birthday card a friend gave me when I was a freshman in college. The card was a still from Baby Jane, with Bette Davis’s line to the wheelchair-bound Joan Crawford printed in a balloon, in all-caps: “Butcha are, Blanche, ya are!” Jane, played by Davis, is responding, after a reflective pause, to Blanche’s (Crawford’s) searching statement, “Jane, you couldn’t treat me this way if I weren’t in this wheelchair.” I had watched the film on the Channel 5's Saturday Night Movie Club (Channel 5 being then, for the New York Metropolitan area, what today is known as the Fox channel) and had experienced it as a searing, scary, sad drama. That postcard was my first encounter with an entirely distinct, complex world in which films like Baby Jane lived, the world unto itself of Camp.
Given that the premise of the film, until its climax, is that evil Jane put her sister Blanche in that wheelchair by crashing her car into her deliberately, Jane’s swerve towards manic defiance (“But you are, Blanche—you are in that wheelchair!”) is central to Davis’s characterization of an increasingly sadistic, sociopathic, and ultimately pitiable personality. It is also central to the Camp aesthetic, as is Davis’s delivery of the line, which the balloon print (“Butcha!” for “But you…”) simulates. When Jane wheels around and throws Blanche’s pleading back in her face, she offers a Camp response. As David Halperin discusses in How to Be Gay, the political uses of women’s melodrama by gay men “can be summed up in a single, simple formula: to turn tragedy into melodrama.”
As Halperin continues,
Jane’s indifference to Blanche’s suffering violates social propriety and, I would add, the entire discourse of sentimental culture that has defined American constructions of femininity since the nineteenth-century, as Lauren Berlant has shown. I am left wondering, however, about the moment before Davis/Jane wheels around to unleash her “Butcha are.” After Blanche raises the suggestion of incrimination that is an appeal to her sympathy, Jane pauses, reflecting on the painful suggestion that she is responsible for Blanche’s suffering, and therefore should at least empathize with her. Reflective, human, vulnerable, exposed, Jane in this moment could conceivably attempt to join Blanche in sympathy. That she does not, that she offers her defiant and now Camp response, can be interpreted many ways—one of these being the film’s interest in demonstrating a breakdown in sympathy and kinship. As I will explain, this is the queer—as opposed to the Camp—resonance of Baby Jane.
The Camp response to the films has so thoroughly framed their reception in the past four decades that discussing their significance—to say nothing of their radicalism—is necessarily to challenge these film’s seemingly inextricable associations with Camp. Such a challenge itself creates a set of difficulties that will need to be worked through in order to arrive at a new understanding of the films that is neither hostile nor indifferent to Camp but also refuses a certain thorough immersion in Camp principles that, while keeping the legacy of the films alive, has made it almost impossible to think about their significance in any other register.
One implicit effect of the Camp framing of these films has been their subsequent exclusion from other kinds of analyses. Though an immense body of rigorous feminist scholarship exists on the classical Hollywood woman’s film, comparatively little feminist work has been done on “campy” horror-woman’s films of the 1960s. With the powerful exception of Peggy Phelan’s experimental, poetic analysis of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in her brilliant Mourning Sex, there is no major feminist film theory treatment of which I am aware of the cycle of horror-woman’s films of the 1960s. (I would be happy to be proven wrong on this finding.) And to the extent that these films have been discussed in feminist terms, they have not been well-received.
In her classic study From Reverence to Rape, Molly Haskell notes that ‘60s horror films made “complete travesties” of once-great stars like Davis and Crawford. Discussing the classical horror film, Linda Williams writes, in her well-known essay “When the Woman Looks,”
An immediate response to Williams is that most of the stars of the horror-woman’s film—Davis especially—were rarely presented as sexual objects who incited the male gaze. Indeed, as Davis herself frequently remarked, her primary audience was women, in the occasional company of the husbands they managed to drag along with them. (Davis seems to have been made aware only much later that many of the members of her audience were gay men. Sadly, Davis, by all accounts, wasn’t very receptive to this aspect of her fanbase.) She also turned down a later Aldrich picture with explicit lesbian themes, The Killing of Sister George, from 1968. The lesbian potentialities of Davis’s oeuvre has been brilliantly discussed by Patricia White in Uninvited and by Peggy Phelan in Mourning Sex but has not been frequently explored elsewhere.) I would posit that while the female stars may indeed be horror objects here, part of what is “horrifying” about seeing them in horror-women’s films is that they have insisted on persisting not only beyond the moment of their career-heyday but beyond the moment of the legitimacy of the genre that made them famous. Their signature genre has died off, but they, as stars, have gone on living.
Writing in accord with Linda Williams, Vivian Sobchack notes,
This “almost visceral disgust” is not, I would argue, the chief response of women and gay men, these films’ chief audience. Moreover, if horror-woman’s films do indeed produce these attitudes of disgust, that is not all that they do. They reclaim bodies and identities that fall outside of their normative dictates. Along with their more questionable maneuvers of making their stars’ aging bodies something of a freakshow entertainment, the films establish, maintain, and evince sympathy for their female protagonists, however wildly off-putting, erratic, or unkempt they may be.
My challenge—both to myself and to Camp discourse, and also to feminist film theory—is to imagine a response to the films that treats them as continuations of, rather than a radical break with, the woman’s film of the classical period. While there are many other possible responses to the woman’s film—which has also been received as a Camp phenomenon, especially in terms of the valuation of stars such as Davis and Crawford as Camp icons—one of these responses is sympathy, which forges communities of empathy and feeling. The woman’s film in America is a continuation of the genre of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction, exemplified by Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly, the phenomenal 1852 global bestseller written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
While some critics, such as James Baldwin in his scathing treatment of Stowe’s novel, have read sentimentalism as oppressive, even pernicious, and at the very least deeply manipulative, there is also a period-specific way in which what sentimental texts ask us to do is to feel along with the characters and to share in their emotional histories. This maneuver is key to what Jane Tompkins has called “sentimental power.” The woman’s film, extending nineteenth-century sentimental fiction, creates communities bound together by shared feeling, crying along with the heroine and along with one another; the horror-woman’s film, as I will show, creates such empathetic communities as well while also, sometimes mercilessly, holding up the sentimental genre to an unflattering but also not exhaustively unsympathetic scrutiny.
Indeed, the horror-woman’s film provides something analogous to the Camp response, but not, I argue, reducible to it: a critical, ironic, deconstructive, and proto-feminist understanding of the woman’s film as a crucial but incomplete stage in the representation of femininity. The woman’s film at its most radical asks us to see femininity as being fully as complex, various, unclassifiable, vexed, and dynamic as masculinity. Analogously, the horror-woman’s film asks us to consider the older version of the female star as being as fully complex and interesting as the more glamorous, more conventionally beautiful, younger versions of these stars. The ‘60s horror works also continue the woman’s film’s most politically urgent project, which is to interrogate institutionalized heterosexuality and compulsory marriage as equally oppressive structures for the containment of female sexuality and agency. Most of the horror-woman’s films do not end in marriage or heterosexual fulfillment of any kind, and this maneuver is not a function exclusively of age. For example, in the Bette Davis vehicle Dead Ringer (1964), directed by Davis’s Now, Voyager co-star Paul Henreid, the heroine is involved in a romantic relationship in her own life and then another one when she takes over the life of her rich twin sister, whom she murders. The film foregrounds the failure of sisterly bonds, while eschewing heterosexual romance as a cure-all for this failure. Most importantly of all, bonds between women (and their sundering) provide the central overlap between the classical and the horror-inflected woman’s film.
In attempting to make a case for these films, I do not want to run the risk of eliding or ignoring the difficulties they present—a demonstrable ageism in that they treat the aging woman as spectacle; a capitulation to crass commercialism—but, at the same time, my goal is to take them seriously and to treat them with sympathy.