Saturday, October 27, 2018

Movie Reviews: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mandy

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
directed by Robert Aldrich
Legendary superstar actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis famously hated each other. Some say both women made romantic moves on the same actor. I've read other claims that the infamously libertine Crawford once made a play for Davis, who declined in insulting terms. 

Other reports say that the fiercely competitive women disliked each other for the usual reasons of money, roles, and prestige. Perhaps Davis saw herself as an actress first and was put off by the more glamorous Crawford. And maybe Crawford and Davis detested one another just because they were so similar. It's not important now. 

It is interesting that in this movie Davis and Crawford found ways to feud and fight with one another, even as both women recognized that this film could be career rejuvenation for them during their struggle to remain commercially relevant in their (very) late middle age. 

Supposedly when Davis' character kicked and stomped Crawford's character, Davis got some real licks in on her rival. Not to be outdone, when a scene called for Davis' character to lift and drag Crawford's character, Crawford put bricks and other material in her clothes to make herself as heavy as possible, knowing full well that Davis was suffering from lower back problems.

Even people who haven't seen this classic movie may be familiar with the most famous scenes. It's  similar to Sunset Boulevard that way. This movie is a psychological drama/horror film. Although the film focuses on rivalry and abuse between two aging sisters, there are other issues to unpack. Independent people can suffer an unpleasant and humiliating shock if they suddenly become dependent on other people for the most basic or intimate requirements.

And many people who have a loving intimate or familial relationship with someone still may not always enjoy doing things for that person that they can no longer do for themselves. Even angels can lose their temper. We might only rarely have those feelings and feel guilty about them when we do. But they're there. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane takes those ugly feelings and makes them resident in one woman, the title character. 

"Baby Jane" Hudson (Bette Davis) is a sad pathetic loony alcoholic woman.  Jane is a former child actress/singer and  later Hollywood starlet. From flashbacks we see that the child Jane was a spoiled wretch, overindulged by her father. Jane hasn't gotten any better with age. Jane lives with her paraplegic older sister Blanche (Joan Crawford). Blanche wasn't the talent that Jane was a child.  As an adult Blanche FAR surpassed Jane as an actress and star. But times change. Blanche has been paralyzed from the waist down ever since a suspicious accident. Jane may have been involved. Jane is now Blanche's primary caretaker. 

Blanche is at Jane's mercy. Jane dresses and talks as if she's a eight year old girl and not a woman way past fifty. Jane has a very unsettling appearance, with caked on makeup and outlandish hair styles. When Jane thinks that Blanche, who actually owns the home and still receives residual income from her hit movies, is planning to sell the house and put Jane in an asylum, she initiates countermeasures and ramps up her abuse of Blanche.

Blanche may be paralyzed, but she's not without resources and her own secrets. Each woman seeks help from outsiders. Blanche tries to appeal for assistance from her maid Elvira (Maddie Norman) and her star struck next door neighbor Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee). Jane (wrongly) thinks that she still has the sex appeal and talent for a comeback. She hires a pianist, Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono). Jane is so out of touch that she flirts with Flagg, utterly oblivious to the fact that his dangle doesn't angle that way.

The film is shot in black and white. Although there were two leads, Davis received the meatier parts and resulting Oscar nomination. This probably explains why Crawford allegedly successfully lobbied to ensure that Davis didn't win the Oscar. I appreciated that the film took its time detailing the fear and isolation that Blanche experiences.  Crawford couldn't do much physical acting as Blanche. Crawford conveyed intense emotion through tone of voice and facial expressions. Visually the film communicates the dangers of being isolated with a lunatic, with plenty of high shots emphasizing the dangers faced by Blanche, whether she's trying to crawl up a staircase or wondering what Jane is doing downstairs. This film has a certain camp reputation because of Davis' over the top performance; it is also a textbook manual on how to make a creepy film without too much explicit violence.

directed by Panos Cosmatos 
In a lot of his recent movies, particularly the ones that don't get widespread theatrical release, Nicholas Cage plays weird whispering characters who are either stoned out of their gourd and have to concentrate just to do things like breathing  and blinking, or rage-a-holics who won't stop shouting and yelling as loudly as they can. And from what I could tell Cage would seemingly give those interpretations to characters whether the script called for them or not. The results were generally mixed. Well in this movie, the script actually calls for both versions of the weirdo Cage. It couldn't have worked any other way. It actually fits. Cage delivers.

Ok let's get one thing out of the way. This movie is violent. It should not, repeat not be viewed by people with a low tolerance for realistic appearing cinematic mayhem. I say realistic but perhaps that's only in certain segments of the film. The director's choices of color saturation and sound give an outre seventies vision to the movie. I've never taken LSD or PCP but I imagine that watching this movie would be a close substitute. You can't tell what's real and what's not. This is purposeful. It makes sense for the viewer to see what the protagonist is seeing. There are a lot of allusions to classic heavy metal/hard rock album covers, psychedelia in general and even Frank Frazetta artwork. If you are into those sorts of things you may smile at some points in this film. The story itself however is not one calculated for humor. Not in the slightest.

Red (Cage) and his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are a couple who live in a California forest in the early eighties. Red makes a living as a logger while Mandy is a gas station cashier. Both Red and Mandy seem to be processing some emotional damage from their past, but who isn't right? There are things they don't talk about to one another. But there are also things they obliquely mention or refer to that the other knows all about without needing to explicitly discuss. The important thing is that they love each other madly. Intensely. Forever and ever and ever. Mandy is an artist. 

Red loves Mandy as much for the art she creates as for anything else. Well nothing good lasts. Mandy comes to the attention of cult leader Jeremiah Sands (Linus Roache). Sands considers himself a New Age Hugh Hefner but he's closer to Charles Manson/Jim Jones/David Koresh. The women in his harem aren't necessarily there by choice and certainly can't leave once they are there. Some of the women might not be of legal age. Sands also fancies himself a talented musician. He's very sensitive to any suggestion otherwise.

Sands controls his followers with mental and physical abuse, sex, music, and a cornucopia of drugs, designer and otherwise.  Most ominously Sands apparently does have some sort of magical power, just as he claims. Sands summons bikers who may or may not be demonic to abduct Mandy for him. When the drugged and abused Mandy still refuses to submit to Sands or join his harem and even laughs at him, the humiliated and angered Sands murders her in a most horrific fashion in front of Red. The cult leaves Red for dead and continues on its not so merry way.

But as anyone who watches revenge films knows, if you don't kill the hero, he will come back stronger and harder to drink your milkshake and rip your spine from your body. This is not your normal revenge film because we're never quite sure if this is all some sort of acid trip or even occasionally which plane of existence the movie is showing us. There are some very strong hints that Red has descended to Hell and is fighting devils there. The movie never gives us a good look at the bikers; some of them still have human interests. But they don't move or sound human.  This movie is surreal almost from the beginning. If you're looking for something off the beaten path this could be for you. It's emotionally engaging, I will say that for it.
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