“I was a legendary terror. I was insufferably rude and ill-mannered in the cultivation of my career. I had no time for pleasantries. I said what was on my mind, and it wasn’t always printable. I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile, and oftentimes disagreeable. I suppose I’m larger than life.”[1]

-Bette Davis

In the waning days of the studio era, the once worshiped screen sirens of Hollywood’s Golden Age found themselves unwanted and underpaid. Stars the likes of Shelley Winters and Tallulah Bankhead were entering middle-age, and a new crop of talent (along with a freer studio system) began to phase them out. After the runaway success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, studios were chomping at the bit for projects of a similar ilk to answer the public’s demand for the macabre. Director Robert Aldrich found the perfect project with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Though a commercial gamble at the time, the film proved to be a roaring triumph and birthed a new subgenre that would give actresses of a certain age steady, if not always flattering work. Now known as the “Psycho Biddy” genre or “Grand Guignol picture”, these terrifying tales of senescent malaise served as a proving ground for the old glamor goddesses to flex their acting chops once again.

None welcomed the clammy embrace of this new type of cinema more readily than Bette Davis, who entered a new phase of her career that eclipsed the efforts of her peers. A notoriously difficult woman who left a trail of broken marriages in her wake, Davis was uniquely suited to an emerging genre in which broken identities and the pernicious nature of family were heavy elements. Always the bravest of her contemporaries, never shrinking away from an unglamorous role, Davis played women on the brink of madness and murderous matrons better than anyone. Descending to the level of playing horror was considered unfortunate for actresses in this era, but Davis excelled, turning in performances to rival her more famous, critically acclaimed efforts. She wasn’t demeaning herself; she was magnifying the grotesque elements that had always been a part of her work and exposing her anguished relationship with family through her bold choice of projects.

The Brawling Bride

To say that family life hadn’t been kind to Davis is an understatement. Legend has it that upon seeing the child she had just delivered, her mother, Ruth exclaimed: “Is that what I’ve got? Take it away! It’s horrible!”[2] Her father, Harlow was an unloving man who left Ruth early on, leaving her to raise seven year old Bette and troubled sister, Bobby by herself. After landing her first role on Broadway in 1929, Bette was well on her way to a fully-fledged acting career and began to provide for her mother and sister. In 1932, already a moderately successful player for Warner Brothers Studios, she married old friend Harmon “Ham” Nelson. Davis always chose her career over motherhood, leading to a number of studio-sanctioned abortions – a practice that has since been depressingly described as “necessary body maintenance for women in the spotlight”[3] at that time. She and Nelson were divorced by 1938, with the former citing the latter’s “cruel and inhuman manner”[4] for the separation. She married Arthur Farnsworth in 1940, who would be dead three years later after collapsing on a Hollywood street. An autopsy discovered head trauma that had occurred two weeks prior as the cause for his fall. No foul play was discovered and Davis denied knowledge of any such injury.

In 1945 she married artist, William Grant Sherry. This union would end after Sherry revealed his proclivity for violent rages, but not before Davis gave birth to her first child, Barbara Davis Sherry, or B.D. for short. Davis’s final marriage was to Gary Merrill, her costar on All About Eve, in 1950. The ceremony occurred less than a month after her divorce from Sherry was finalised. They adopted two children, Margot and Michael. As with all the rest of her marriages, things soured. Margot was found to be severely brain-damaged and was sent to a specialized care center. Davis and Merrill’s relationship devolved into drunken quarreling, and the two called it quits in 1960. Family would fail Davis one final, unthinkable time, when in 1985 B.D. would write a scandalous, damning memoir charting her mother’s perceived ill-treatment of her children, leading to their estrangement. The two would never speak again.

In 1962 however, B.D. was only a teenager, and Davis, done with marriage altogether, was looking for a comeback vehicle. The actress made a characteristically shrewd choice with Robert Aldrich’s adaptation of Henry Farrell’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?: a potent portrait of home-grown insanity tailor made to sate the newfound taste for horror that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) had whetted two years earlier.

Psycho re-invented the horror movie by treating the genre with deadly seriousness. Hitchcock’s artful and restrained approach to the material was revolutionary and his mid-film butchering of leading lady Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) emblemised a Hollywood at a crossroads for feminine representation. In supplanting her with dishwater dull sister Lila (Vera Miles), Hitchcock exposed the strain of the expected socially reputable female character on the watchability and thematic maturity of the horror film. Alongside this Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the film’s antagonist, was a perfect monster for the modern age: his mind a psychoanalytical minefield of repressed sexuality. His obsession with his deceased mother (which culminated in dissociative episodes in which he became his mother) tapped into a timeless fear of the insuperable ways that parents can harm the emotional health of their progeny. Mrs. Bates’s presence hung over the film like a miasma, yet the audience received no background on what type of person she was save the few hints her son gave, which made his fixations and actions all the more disturbing. Psycho‘s conception of identity was also highly malleable, allowing Norman’s mother to take up residence in his psyche and exert her will as she saw fit. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and films of its type took this psychosis, and identity unease and placed it firmly within a decaying familial sphere, frequently pitting sisters, cousins, or mothers against each other in a psychopathic battle of wills—nary a “good” woman in sight. Its characters were often childless, casting their aged leading women as mothers of madness rather than flesh and blood beings. Unlike Psycho, identity was presented as rigid and torturous—an inescapable reality that could be wrestled with, but wasn’t easily escaped or broken.

When Robert Aldrich received the script for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? he recognised a rare opportunity to create something iconic. The idea of casting two fallen stars was a fresh proposition that elevated the material from cash-grab to must-see entertainment. It is often claimed that Joan Crawford was the first to join the project and presented Davis with the script herself. The notoriously prissy star sought the role of the long-suffering Blanche, and knew the skillful Davis would be just the right fit to bring the ghastly title character to life. Both seemed to know just how much was riding on this project.

Davis’s attraction to this material isn’t all that surprising if one takes into account the sorts of roles she played throughout her career. Her first breakthrough (and Oscar nomination) came courtesy of the 1934 screen adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage in which she played the vulgar Mildred Rogers. In later years, Davis readily admitted that she landed the part because no other actress would play her, and affectionately referred to her as “the first real bitch heroine.”[5]  She convinced director John Cromwell to let her do her own makeup and insisted that Mildred’s death by consumption feel “as immediate as a newsreel and as starkly real as a pestilence.”[6]

This would lead to her playing challenging, unglamorous, and unlikeable women for her entire life in films like The Little Foxes, Jezebel, and most famously, All About Eve. She was unafraid to be ugly or diabolical, often altering her appearance and playing characters twice her age if it seemed appropriate. Playwright and female impersonator Charles Busch has referred to her as “the screen’s great sadist”[7] (in opposition to Crawford’s perpetual masochist), yet even at her most villainous, Davis suffused her characters with a charisma and emotional truth for which lesser actresses could only grasp. As her looks (which audiences were never very much enamored with in the first place and which, therefore, were never a defining part of her career) began to wane, it opened up the floodgates for Davis to take her more grim propensities to new heights. Baby Jane was the bridge into an era of creative daring that remains under appreciated to this day.

Letters to Daddy

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? finds sisters Jane (Bette Davis) and Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) at odds with each other in their rotting Hollywood manor. Jane, a former vaudeville star and failed actress resentfully cares for the more successful, wheelchair-bound Blanche. One drunken evening, years prior, Blanche was paralyzed in an act of vehicular ill-intent seemingly enacted by Jane against her. When Blanche decides to sell their home, Jane becomes unhinged, presenting her sister with boiled rats and abusing her physically. The film ends with Jane in a fugue state, dragging the starving Blanche to a nearby beach. Blanche reveals that she, in fact, attempted to murder Jane years earlier and snapped her spine in the attempt while the confused and drunken Jane escaped unscathed. The police discover Jane on the beach, and the crowd that gathers seems to her a bunch of fans. She twirls and performs, lost in her mind but finally at peace.

As a child star, Jane is an image of manicured perfection—her hair an angelic blonde with a big bow perched atop her head. Her signature song “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” is a saccharine tribute to a dear departed fantasy father designed to tug manipulatively at the heartstrings of her adoring public. In reality, Jane is a spoiled brat who knows all too well that she’s the sole provider for her very much alive father, mother, and neglected sister. As the years pass, her parents die, and Jane’s star wanes; she yearns for the stage where she received adoration as a child. Though it’s abundantly clear that the audience served as a surrogate family for Jane when her real one proved wanting, she still has an obsessive veneration for her deceased father. We only see him once—scolding his young meal-ticket for neglecting to play the perfect, kewpie-doll version of his daughter—but in the intervening years the mystical fantasy father that Jane once crooned about has melded with the real life version. As with everything associated with one’s youth, even the nasty bits get shinier with distance.

Blanche’s duplicity is inadvertently cruel in only a way a sibling could be. Though for much of the running time, Crawford plays Blanche as a goodly woman, by the end it’s revealed that she bears responsibility for Jane’s broken psyche—extending the forced servility of her childhood fame into adulthood. Just as she played the perfect daughter, so too Jane plays the part of caretaker and torturer: wracked with guilt yet mentally shackled to an identity she rages against. As her father demanded subservience, so does Blanche. Though saddled with regrets of her own and ultimately well-meaning, she unwittingly continues her father’s assault against Jane’s autonomy and reaps a vile harvest. In the film’s final moments as Jane lolls on the beach next to her dying sister, the realization that she and Blanche “could have been friends all this time”[8] proves too much. The malformed identity that has been crafted for her collapses and she reverts to a form of ugly second childhood, performing for the crowd on the beach, doing what she does best in a desperate bid for love and approval – sanity be damned.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is frequently cited as a “camp classic”. Though it’s a sort of Sunset Boulevard gone full-tilt gonzo, it plays much straighter in the current era, since the public taste for dramatic irony is much more refined. Crawford’s fastidiously contrived air of martyrdom feels distinctly moth-eaten, while Davis’ operatic lunacy only continues to grow in stature. She chews the scenery with an effervescent glee that still jolts today. In Jane Hudson, we see the seed of such villains as Silence of the Lambs’s Hannibal Lector and Misery’s Annie Wilkes—grotesque overstatements of performances that amuse, anchored by psychological truths that unease.

The film would prove highly successful (earning Davis her eleventh and final Oscar nomination), and Aldrich would follow it up with Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), a particularly tawdry slice of Tennessee Williams-style Southern Gothicism. The film also stars Davis, who again inhabits a character used and abused by her family to the point of psychosis. Joan Crawford was originally supposed to star alongside her, but she dropped out, and Olivia De Havilland picked up the reigns.

The story concerns the aging Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis), believed to have murdered her paramour John Mayhew (Bruce Dern) after her father convinced him to spurn her to avoid scandal. In the present day, she’s a wealthy spinster with a tenuous grip on reality inhabiting her moss-covered mansion alone. When the highway commission comes to take her land, she seeks the assistance of her cousin Miriam (Olivia De Havilland) who harbors secret motives of her own. As Charlotte’s sanity begins to deteriorate, putting her prospects for keeping the house in danger, she comes to suspect that Miriam is to blame and enacts a satisfying vengeance.

Although Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte doesn’t reach the heights of Whatever happened to Baby Jane?, it is an accomplished thriller that often bests its predecessor in visual flair. The opening sequence in which we witness Mayhew’s murder is rife with symbolism, and Aldrich’s use of light and shadow is masterful. The violence of the act—a cleaver hewing a hand from an arm, which lands next to a fallen bouquet and spurts syrupy blood onto the chubby thigh of a stone cherub—more than earns that Grand Guignol moniker. After witnessing the bloodshed, a gore-soaked Charlotte rushes into the ball: she is as an embarrassed, baffled child, the horror she has just seen is incomprehensible. Her father placates her calmly, imploring her to come to him, while she whimpers, “No papa, I don’t want to papa.” Once again, a father’s influence has lead to a psychological wound that will begin to fester—girlish hopes inextricably linked to destruction. In adulthood, Charlotte possesses a worshipful fear of her father, believing him responsible for John’s death. Practically genuflecting before his massive portrait, she opines, “Just because I loved him more than I love you, it doesn’t give you the right to murder him to punish me!” Charlotte’s father is a looming, spectral presence, torturing her with the memory of the life path that was lopped off with the cleaver’s stroke.

Charlotte, a polar opposite of the spiteful mania of Baby Jane’s Jane Hudson, is a fragile, pig-tailed, former belle flitting around a rotting mansion. She’s willful and unpredictable, pulling a gun on the construction workers demolishing her property and fleeing in terror before the heinous visions that visit her at night. When the treacherous Miriam arrives, Charlotte is grateful and relieved for familial companionship once again, though that relief is misplaced. As a poor relation who never received a piece of the Hollis pie, Miriam chooses to wrest it away from Charlotte herself, drugging her to intensify her hallucinations. In a variation on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), Miriam and her lover, Drew, create macabre set pieces to frighten Charlotte into leaving, from dismembered heads rolling down the stairs to a staged murder in which she fires a planted gun filled with blanks at a supposed intruder. The fiendish duo construct a second reality for Charlotte, one in which her greatest fears are realised, and she is the insane woman who killed her lover that everyone gossips about. Charlotte’s rebellion against this false reality culminates in a poetic moment involving reflective surfaces: upon waking, Miriam informs Charlotte that she has smashed all the mirrors in the piano room in her sleep. Whether it’s just another of Miriam’s tricks or Charlotte’s doing is anyone’s guess, but the mirror represents an identity that doesn’t actually belong to the film’s anti-heroine. The reflected image of the mad murderess isn’t hers, and the smashing of it is an expression of her desire to regain the truth that was lost that fateful night when her lover died.

This truth is exposed far too late. When Charlotte overhears Miriam and Drew gloating about their plans in the courtyard, she overturns a massive decorative urn on their heads, crushing them to death. When the police arrive to take her away, Mr. Willis, a family friend, places a letter in Charlotte’s hands from the dying wife of John Mayhew, who reveals that she, in fact, murdered her husband all those years ago. It’s an almost transcendent moment of freedom for Charlotte—confirming what her broken mind was battling against all along. The reinstatement of her true identity cannot save her life, but soothes the ache in her soul and provides a vindication of remarkable power. Though her joy is embarrassingly overemphasised by the rather nauseating title song that closes the film, sung by Al Martino, it’s still quite an effective and satisfying conclusion.

In Molly Haskell’s essay, “From Reverence to Rape: Female Stars of the 1940s”, she encapsulates the power behind Davis’s performances in a manner easily relatable to these two films and worth quoting her at length. Putting into words the heartache that was central to Davis’s skill and the quantifiable results of it, Haskill writes,

“The only clue in her background to the seething polarities of toughness and vulnerability expressed in her roles was the trauma (glossed over in her autobiography) of her father’s desertion of the family when she was only a child. She was supported in her theatrical career by her mother, Ruthie, who was also her lifelong friend, even as she progressed (or regressed) from the guardian of her struggling daughter to the spoiled charge of her successful one. All of this might or might not explain the conflicting impulses of the Davis persona (in tandem or from film to film): the quicksilver shifts between distrust and loyalty, the darting, fearful eyes, and the bravura, the quick wit of the abruptly terminated sentences, the defensiveness, and the throttled passion.”[9]

Both of Robert Aldrich’s horror pictures with Davis provide a striking illumination of the old wounds peppering her emotional landscape. Though any glaring similarities between life and plot are likely consequential, Charlotte and Jane are vital expressions of real, paternally provoked adolescent trauma metastasising into mental illness in the adult—an obvious and personal concern when regarding the brilliant actress who gave them cinematic life.

My Sister, My Enemy, Myself

Davis made Dead Ringer the same year as Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Though the least outright horrific of her films from this era, it takes both the pressures of identity and the predatory potentiality of relationships between siblings and turns them inward, casting Bette Davis as murderous twins. She had previously played against herself in A Stolen Life (1946), but the trick process shots created by cinematographer Ernest Haller were much improved upon in Dead Ringer.

At her husband, Frank’s funeral, wealthy widow Margaret DeLorca (Davis) encounters her identical yet frumpy twin sister, Edith (also Davis). The two have been estranged for eighteen years because of their falling out over Margaret’s marriage to DeLorca, who initially courted Edith but had an affair with Margaret. Margaret had claimed to be pregnant with his child, leading to their sudden marriage. After this combative reconnection, Edith finds out from Margaret’s chauffeur that the couple never had a child, and realises that her sister duped DeLorca into a union to spite her. While Margaret enjoys a life of pleasure and wealth, Edith struggles with eviction and the potential closure of her small business, a failing cocktail lounge, an endeavor in which her boyfriend, police sergeant Jim Hobson (Karl Malden) aids her. Edith hatches a plan to murder her sister and assume her identity, which she carries out brilliantly, portraying Margaret’s death as a suicide. All goes awry, however, when Margaret’s lover Tony (Peter Lawford) enters the picture and Edith learns that he and her sister murdered DeLorca using arsenic. She is put on trial as Margaret, ultimately receiving the death penalty for her sister’s crime.

The death’s head adorned poster for Dead Ringer, and its alternate title (Who Is Buried in My Grave?) are arguably a good deal more interesting that the film itself, which is plagued by pedestrian direction and a dearth of genuine thrills. It is, however a fascinating piece when viewed alongside the rest of Davis’s horror-suspense filmography. Much like Charlotte and Jane, Edith is living a life she didn’t intend to, virtually helpless to stop what has transpired. When she kills Margaret and stages it as a suicide in lengthy, almost sterile detail, we sympathize with her, for her sister acquired what should have been hers through mendacity and scheming. In Margaret, Edith sees the unfulfilled promises of her life made flesh, and she takes back what she considers hers with violence and cunning. Unsurprisingly, Edith finds her new life lacking and her daily existence becomes a constant struggle to maintain her new identity; fighting tooth and nail to make it work despite the fact that it’s a vapid and anemic illusion. When Jim brings her a framed dollar bill commemorating the opening of Edie’s club as a remembrance, she says, “My sister was very fortunate in having a man who so loved her,” and gives it back to him. She’s fully and painfully aware of the good, simple life she has obliterated in her quest for completeness.

Later, when Jim comes back to arrest her for DeLorca’s murder, Edith attempts to reveal her true identity. Jim bristles at this, exclaiming that: “Edith would never hurt a fly!” This nod to the final lines of Psycho (in which the ghostly voice of Mrs. Bates within Norman’s head muses upon the aura of innocence that sparing a fly will give her) is repeated in Dead Ringer’s final moments when Jim rushes to the newly convicted Edith, now unsure that the woman he’s arrested isn’t the woman he once loved. She says: “I’m Margaret. You’re right, Edie wouldn’t have hurt a fly.”  It’s a small, mournful moment of triumph: saving the memory of the woman she once was from debasement even while facing death.

In Dead Ringer we see Bette Davis’ character wrestling with the personal and public, performance and reality. The duality of Margaret and Edith is rare in this group of films, showing the supposed villainess and heroine to be more similar than either initially realize. Edith thrives on her opposition to Margaret but is soon forced to acknowledge their similarity of character in her quest for fulfillment—a quest ending in the termination of two lives. In a more personal sense, Dead Ringer examines the constant dissatisfaction of the actress, ill at ease in the domestic sphere, yet unmoved by the amassing of wealth and success.

Infernal Maternity

In 1965 and 1968, Bette Davis teamed up with England’s immortal Hammer Films to produce two features that are often cited among the studio’s finest and oddest works. The first, The Nanny (1965) is a richly photographed spine-tingler, combining elements of B-movie thrills with social realism tethered by an atypically understated performance from Davis. She stars as the titular, nameless, murderous matron who has served the well-to-do Fane family for generations. The movie begins with little Joey (William Dix) returning from a special school where he was sent after the death of his toddler sister, Susie (Angharad Aubrey). Time hasn’t cured him, however, as he still maintains that Nanny was responsible for the girl’s death, despite his parents’ (Wendy Craig and James Villiers) protestations. What ensues is an increasingly bizarre cat and mouse game between Davis and her pint-sized nemesis.

Directed by master of suspense Seth Holt, The Nanny takes its time reaching its destination but pays off in disturbing thematic dividends. The final minutes of the film are devastating in their social and psychological ramifications and present the mysterious death that haunts the family in flagrant detail: When Nanny receives an anonymous call one afternoon, she leaves the Fane children alone. While she’s away, little Susie suffers a fall in an empty tub and passes out. Nanny returns, noticeably distraught and absent-mindedly turns on the tap. When she comes upon the drowned child, her demeanor changes to one of sunshine and care, washing the corpse as if nothing is amiss as the horrified Johnny looks on.

 

We see this scene twice, and the second time we’re clued into why Nanny had to leave the house so suddenly. She enters a filthy room on the poor side of town and sees a dead woman on a bed. It happens to be her daughter, estranged from a young age. She’s expired after a botched back alley abortion: an attempt to spare her unwanted child the same fate she endured. Nanny takes this cooly, but when she returns to the Fane house, the sight of another dead child is too much for her heavy conscience. She suffers a psychotic break, hallucinating that little Susie is alive and well and only playing a trick on her dear old Nanny.

The social environment of the time when Davis’s character would have been pregnant are evident. An unmarried woman with child had the two loathsome options of a potentially dangerous termination or an orphanage, and she obviously chose the latter. This is as much back story as we receive, however, and it’s clear that Nanny’s relationship with the Fane family took the place of the true family unit that she could have had. There are unsettling connotations here as well. Joey’s father is noticeably absent for much of the running time, and his mother is essentially a child herself—relying on Nanny for even the simplest tasks and begging her to brush her hair to assuage her emotional pain. For all of Nanny’s care and fussing over the family, she’s full of hollow platitudes meant to ease any ache that only provide a temporary balm, not the lasting relief that an actual mother-child dynamic would, in theory, provide. This veneer finally shatters when she attempts to drown Joey: sensing that her makeshift reality is on the verge splintering, the victim of poor circumstance turns sinister, seeking any solution available to silence her young charge. She poisons his mother, resulting in her hospitalization and neglects to give his babysitting aunt her medication, resulting in a massive heart attack. When Nanny is finally alone with Joey and she’s about to succeed in defeating the enemy of her delicate peace, something snaps. Tears flow from her eyes, and she removes the sopping wet boy from the bath, holding him close before he tears away from her. She slowly rises and gathers the portraits of the generations of the Fane family that adorn her mantle. This acquired, stand-in family was simply a contrivance meant to nurture whatever mothering tendency she might have felt, whether by guilt or necessity, if only feebly. In a tragic turn of events almost Greek in scope, this ramshackle dummy life crumples, and she’s left with nothing but her demons.


Many, including Davis herself, found the tacked on happy ending to be mawkish, but it’s a welcome respite from the storm of dread that precedes it. After Nanny is carted away to a mental institution, little Joey visits his sick mother in the hospital. He assures her that he will “take care of her now.” The unheeded child (very like Nanny’s dead, unnamed daughter) still has the capacity for love within and refuses to visit the neglect of his parents on others. There’s hope here, even if it is a little too tidy a finale.

Davis’s second and final outing with Hammer would be Roy Ward Baker’s adaptation of the stage play The Anniversary (1968). Though not outright horror, this black comedy features cutthroat familial relationships of a piece with the rest of Davis’s 1960s work and showcases the actress at her most diabolical. She plays the one-eyed Mrs. Taggart, a garish, draconian image of motherhood befouled. She lords over her dead husband’s successful building company and her three sons, who also happen to be her employees. Every year on the anniversary of her marriage, the three boys trudge to her mansion (wives and girlfriends in tow) to suffer an evening of ridicule, slander and morbid deference to their father’s memory. The eldest son Henry (James Cossins) is a transvestite. Middle son, Terry (Jack Hedley) is planning to emigrate to Canada with his perpetually pregnant wife Karen (Sheila Hancock). Youngest son Tom (Christian Roberts) arrives with new girlfriend Shirley (Elaine Taylor), the latest in an endless parade of nubile young things that must endure the stinging insults of his mother.

Mrs. Taggart is one of Davis’ finest roles, a perfect companion piece to The Nanny if only in its direct opposition to the latter’s restrained frigidity. Her first appearance—dressed a crimson gown, twirling upon the stairs of her manse to the dulcet tones of Al Jolson, one blue eye shining, the other obscured by an eye-patch as red as her dress and shaped like a drop of blood—is a moment of daffy, delightful brilliance. She plays Mrs. Taggart like a vulgarised Lady Bracknell, laughing wildly at the pissing statue that Tom gives her for a gift and greeting Shirley with a gruesomely evocative comment on her weight saying, “You wouldn’t fetch much on the butcher’s slab.” Comments like this are par for the course with Mrs. Taggart: the almost non-existent plot is a mere skeleton to hang scenes of knock-down-drag-out verbal parrying upon. The Taggart boys feebly laugh off their mother’s insults, while Karen is a vigilant aggressor, lashing out at her mother-in-law and giving almost as good as she gets. When the naive Shirley makes the mistake of joining the fray, Karen warns her, “She’ll find your weakness and she’ll drag it around the room in triumph.”

Mrs. Taggart is a fascinating creation, depicting mother as conqueror. She collects bric-a-brac from her sons in an ornate display cabinet—hoarding locks of hair, trophies and various detritus representing their spent youths. When Terry gets up the courage to confront her about his emigration, she assures him “You belong to me. If I could stuff you, and put you in that cabinet there alone with my other beautiful possessions, I would…and that’s love!” One doesn’t doubt for a moment that she means it. Much like Davis’s first project with Hammer, The Anniversary presents the viewer with a corrupted vision of maternity—presenting a villainous parent the likes of which the injurious fathers of Jane Hudson and Charlotte Lollis would flee in terror from. Karen and Tom often engage in humorous make-believe about burning her at the stake, which, after the events of the film, seems the only logical conclusion. She’s witch-like in her meddling and control of her sons, castigating them into a middle-age infantilism.

After an evening of increasing tension, and potential police involvement, Karen proclaims to her husband and brothers in law: “Without you lot to feed on she’d starve!” As they depart, for a brief moment, it seems they’ve won. Karen and Terry make ready to flee to Canada, and Shirley has weathered the storm of meeting the mad Gorgon, ensuring that she and Tom will have a happy life. Mrs. Taggart, now alone, retires to her husband’s disused office and places a call, framing Terry for an act of panty thievery perpetrated by Henry, all but ensuring he won’t be able to leave the country. More vile still, she lets Tom and Shirley be, recognizing in her the same gumption and fire within herself, to which Tom is most unfortunately sexually attracted. She knows the young girl will torture him in just the same way his mother always has. Mrs. Taggart looks up at her husband’s portrait, musing over what a nice family gathering it was and again picks up the pissing statue. She gives its pump a squeeze and laughs raucously at the spray. She knows she has once again, and always will triumph, for to be a child is to be inexorably drawn back to the mother, even one of demoniacal evil.

She Did It The Hard Way

There’s a beautiful scene in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte where Mr. Lewis encounters Charlotte kneeling at her lover’s grave. The exchange is as follows:

Mr. Lewis: You’re my favorite living mystery.

Charlotte: Have you ever solved me?

Though she passed on in 1989, fans and critics alike have never stopped trying to uncover the elusive heart of Bette Davis, whose life and art seemed to meld together frequently. In speaking of Davis’ role in Jezebel (1938), Molly Haskell states that “her charm, like her beauty, is something willed into being. It is not a question of whether she is inside or outside the part (for curiously she is both) but of the intensity of her conviction, a sense of the character in the old-fashioned sense of moral fiber.”[10] This overwhelming certitude and sense of both living within and without her characters is essential to the Davis mystique. In a time when actors scrupulously cultivated their public personas, she was unafraid to let her life influence her art and was always at her best playing some version of herself.

This self was famously caustic, and like many great artists, her personage rankled many—family members most painfully of all. In B.D. Hyman’s 1985 memoir My Mother’s Keeper, the author described Davis as “abusive, domineering and hateful” and “a grotesque alcoholic.”[11] Hyman also made the claim that she was primarily responsible for whatever mistreatment she may have received at the hands of her husbands. In later years, Davis would readily admit that B.D.’s betrayal was the biggest heartbreak of her life, proving more damaging to her than the stroke she suffered in 1983. When she died, taking a page from Joan Crawford’s handbook, Davis neglected to provide for her daughters in her will, though son, Michael was amply cared for.

Was she a childish adult tortured by the spectre of her father, a la Jane Hudson? Was there something of Edith in Davis, re-enacting the plot of Dead Ringer over and over, sacrificing family and comfort for the promise of something more? Just how much could she relate to Mrs. Taggart?  As always, the gulf between intention and analysis is massive. One thing, however, is certain: Bette Davis’s best roles capitalised on her ferocity, panache, depth of feeling, and natural inclination toward capriciousness. Her horror and suspense films may, in broad strokes, bring us closer than any other to a clear snapshot of the inner life of one of Hollywood’s most intriguing titans, and they fully deserve to be mentioned alongside her greatest works, rather than as an shameful footnote in her sterling filmography. They showed her at her best by playing on her worst attributes—attributes that made her both larger than life and a legendary terror, and solidified her as one of the greatest actresses ever to storm across the silver screen. As is etched on her tomb, “she did it the hard way”, and endeared herself to generations: a global family of film lovers to make Baby Jane Hudson shriek with envy.

[1] Albin Krebs, “Bette Davis, a Queen of Hollywood, Dies at 81”, The New York Times 8th October 1989. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/10/08/obituaries/bette-davis-a-queen-of-hollywood-dies-at-81.html?pagewanted=all

[2] Ed Sikov, Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis (London: Aurum, 2008): 11

[3] Marcie Bianco and Merryn Johns, “Classic Hollywood’s Secret: Studios Wanted Their Stars to Have Abortions” HWDVanity Fair, 15th July 2016. http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/07/classic-hollywood-abortion

[4]  James Spada, More Than a Woman: An Intimate Biography of Bette Davis

 (Bantam Books, 1993): 144–148

[5] All About Bette, Dir. Susan F. Walker (Turner Pictures, 1994)

[6] Molly Haskell, “From Reverence to Rape: Female Stars of the 1940s”, Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Baudy and Victoria Lowe (Oxford University Press, 2004), 621-633: 625

[7] All About Bette, Dir. Susan F. Walker (Turner Pictures, 1994)

[8] What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Dir. Robert Aldrich. Perf. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Wesley Addy, Julie Allred, and William Aldrich. (Warner Bros., 1962)

[9] Molly Haskell, “From Reverence to Rape: Female Stars of the 1940s”, Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Baudy and Victoria Lowe (Oxford University Press, 2004), 621-633: 624

[10] Molly Haskell, “From Reverence to Rape: Female Stars of the 1940s”, Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Baudy and Victoria Lowe (Oxford University Press, 2004), 621-633: 626

[11] “Bette Davis Estate Near $1 Million; 2 Daughters, Grandsons Left Out”, Los Angeles Times 7th November 1989. http://articles.latimes.com/1989-11-07/news/mn-913_1_bette-davis-estate

 

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