Friday, March 24, 2017

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

The Blind Spot is an ongoing series hosted by The Matinee in which bloggers watch and write about movies they've never seen before. For a list of past movies, visit the home site.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
TCM viewing

I never had any prior interest in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I've written about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford here before. I probably will again. For years, though, this particular film has had... a reputation. The impression I had was that it was made long after their glory days and it wasn't very good.

Also, I'll admit it: I wasn't comfortable with the way it has been embraced by the gay community. I've discussed how I worked with an older gay man during my years in video retail. I learned a great deal about movies from him. I also discovered a few tidbits about gay culture. I think some things about it, though, such as their connection to movies like Baby Jane, will remain forever misunderstood by me, and I think that was what kept me from watching this movie for so long. 

In my mind, it can't be just another classic film because it's so closely identified with gay camp. It's as if it's "their" movie now. To watch it would be like encroaching on their territory... and it might say something about me also. So there you have it: my own personal bit of prejudice. I'm not proud of it, but it exists.






It's perhaps no surprise, then, that it took an external force to get me to overcome my bias. I knew, from the moment I saw the ads for the FX mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan, that I'd have to write about it for the blog. In addition to my general interest in seeing two modern acting powerhouses, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, playing two classic ones, it would also let me do something new: write about a current TV show as it airs, week by week. After the first episode, though, it became clear that while I could watch Feud without having seen Baby Jane, I'd appreciate the former more if I did.

The movie is not that great, but it's not as terrible as I had thought it would be, either. It's basically a Sunset Boulevard ripoff: two has-beens, a former child star from vaudeville and her crippled sister, a former film star, grapple for possession of the house that has been their de facto prison for years. When one sees the opportunity for a comeback in showbiz, the decades of spite and jealousy between the two are exacerbated.





I liked that director Robert Aldrich used footage from actual Davis & Crawford movies to show Baby Jane & Blanche's Hollywood careers. Billy Wilder did the same thing with Gloria Swanson in Sunset, though, so it's not like this was a new trick. Still, I didn't expect to see that.

I also liked seeing the difference television made during this time period, the early 60s. One character says how happy she was to see Blanche's movies on TV again. I believe her words were, "It was like seeing an old friend again." TV has become so integral to everyday life today that we easily forget what it was like when it was new; what it did for the careers of many actors and films who might have otherwise gone forgotten - much the same way Turner Classic Movies does for a new generation of film fans.





An able-bodied person keeping a wheelchair-bound person prisoner is obviously something I've seen in Misery, which came decades after Baby Jane. However, I can appreciate how this angle must have seemed fresh in 1962. Crawford gets to do physical things without the use of her legs, which must have been quite a challenge at her age (she would have been 56 when she made the movie).

Feud has made me aware of how much she needed to make Baby Jane, for personal and professional reasons, to the point where she was willing to bury the hatchet, however temporarily, with her great rival Davis. I recalled the moments in Feud where we see Crawford undermining Davis' performance, like wearing 10-pound weights on her waist when Davis has to carry her, or padding her bra so she'll get more attention. Even if stuff like this is exaggeration, one gets the feeling it should have happened.





As for Davis, again, Feud showed how wearing that gaudy makeup was a conscious choice on her part, an acting decision that was meant to inform the Baby Jane character. You have to admire the guts of someone like Davis to just go for broke, unafraid of how she'll look, in the name of art. Baby Jane is a pathetic character, yet tragic as well. Her look emphasizes that, even in black and white.

All that said, this movie still feels very derivative of Sunset: the reclusive movie star forgotten by modern audiences, the attempt at a comeback through collaboration with a young man, murder and madness. Even the ending, where Baby Jane goes completely over the edge, feels like a carbon copy of Sunset's famous final frames. Davis & Crawford have their moments, but I would have preferred their one team-up to have been for something a little less over-the-top. Would it have been as memorable, though? We'll never know. (Kudos also to Maidie Norman as the maid. She got a fair amount of screen time with both principals.)

Still, I'm glad I finally saw it, as a means to overcome my prejudice, if nothing else.

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Related:
Feud: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Previous Blind Spot films:
Gone With the Wind
Charlie Chan in Paris
Jaws
Lawrence of Arabia

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

QWFF 2017 All-purpose mega-post


It has snowed before during the Queens World Film Festival, but this is the first time I can recall the snow canceling a day of programming. Opening Night, no less! The Museum of the Moving Image opted to close last Tuesday, the 14th, meaning no gala first-night show, and I can hardly blame them for it, but I've seen worse blizzards than the one that hit New York last week. The roads in my neighborhood were clear relatively quickly. There was a party at a Jackson Heights restaurant, but I chose not to attend. Getting back home might not have been a problem, but I didn't want to take the risk. Besides, I'd see everyone during the week.

It was good to be back at QWFF after last year's hiatus. I've chosen to consolidate my report on the fest into one big post instead of a day-by-day account, to see if writing about it is any easier.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Feud pt. 3


Part 1 Part 2

Daughters are this week's theme. We meet Joanie's twin daughters for the first time. Christina is implied but not seen. When the twins go away for the summer, Joanie endures a little empty nest syndrome. Bette, meanwhile, consents to put her daughter BD into the film at Aldrich's suggestion, but she is not the thespian her mother is.

Before we get to the principals, let's show a little love to Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper. Between the excessive makeup, the wrinkles and the outlandish hats, Davis, a lovely woman normally, looks like an old hag here. Her role as gossip-monger and confidant to Joanie is shaping up to be crucial. On the one hand, she's eager to offer Joanie a shoulder to cry on, but it's only because she smells blood in the water on the Baby Jane set. All she really wants is to take a bite. It's the kind of role Davis specializes in: catty and full of false sincerity.

I had no idea Bette had children. Kieran Shipka plays BD with a certain innocence that's endearing. Her best moment so far was in Part 2, when she calls her mother on wanting fame as much as her rival Joanie.

Seeing Bette depicted as a single, working mother adds a new dimension to her for me. I had always imagined her as almost a force of nature, but she had many of the same vulnerabilities as other women. One can't help but be reminded of what she says in All About Eve about being a woman: "That's one career all females have in common.... Sooner or later, we've got to work at it."

As for Joanie, she elicits much sympathy for missing the feeling of motherhood, to the point where she even tries to adopt again in this episode, but we all know what kind of mother she really was. It's hinted at in the opening scene with the twins, as well as in her scene with Bette over dinner as they share their family histories. Ryan Murphy and his writing staff know better than to compete with Mommie Dearest (which I've never seen either), so they come at Joanie's motherhood from a slightly different angle, which is smart.

I'm afraid I don't know anything about Victor Buono beyond his IMDB bio. Dominic Burgess plays him here, and he gets a moment where his homosexual proclivities almost get him in trouble off the set. I'll have more to say about Baby Jane as an iconic gay camp movie when I write about it, but I'll say here it was good that the writers had Bette acknowledge her gay audience.

From the tidbits of Baby Jane I've seen throughout Feud, I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. Is it really a horror movie? It doesn't look like one, although Bette in that kabuki makeup and ridiculous blond wig is frightening enough. We got lots of scenes on the set this week. They were funny. Loved the part where Bette and Joanie argue about who should have won Best Actress in 1950, the year of Eve.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Speed

Speed
IFC viewing

His first name is Hawaiian, meaning "cool breeze over the mountains." His ancestry is a polyglot of ethnicities, Eastern and Western. Given that, it's a bit surprising Keanu Reeves isn't a bigger star internationally. Or maybe he is. I don't keep track of such things. His career, too, has been a little bit of everything: indie darling, romantic hunk, comedic stooge, serious thespian, and of course, action hero.

This last one has always amused me. I know he's currently enjoying success as a badass in the John Wick movies, but it's always been difficult for me to completely buy him in such a role, for one reason: every time he opens his mouth I want him to be Ted "Theodore" Logan. With Alex Winter by his side as Bill S. Preston, Esq. Keanu keeps insisting he wants to make Bill & Ted 3. I'll be there opening day if he does, but he better hurry. He and Alex ain't getting any younger.

Keanu as action hero isn't necessarily bad. One thing I liked among many about the Matrix trilogy was how grounded Neo was as a character. He's tough without the usual Hollywood bravado you tend to find in action movies - like Speed, for instance. In this one, he's likeable, but he and Dennis Hopper don't do anything different than in so many other post-Die Hard, cop/criminal movies. Keanu even tosses off a James Bond-like quip after Hopper meets his demise! That's the fun of movies like these. It just seems like an odd fit. Bill & Ted aside, Keanu seems more like the soulful, thoughtful type.


Everybody went to see Speed when it came out, but did I? Nope! I had to be alternative. I had to go to the Angelika to see the other Keanu movie out at the time, Bertolucci's Little Buddha. I'm pretty sure I saw it with Vija. I remember feeling so hip and with it because I was seeing this art movie while Speed was ruling the box office. So, of course, I ended up being bored out of my mind by Little Buddha, a largely forgotten movie now. Speed, meanwhile, became one of the greatest action flicks of the 90s and certainly one of the best action movies of all time. Live and learn, I guess.


Imagine what director Jan de Bont (the DP on Die Hard, by the way) had to go through to rehearse this, never mind film it: planning where in LA the action would take place and how, finding the right angles to shoot from, arranging the stunts, making sure the mikes pick up the sound properly, and much of this taking place while in constant motion. Looking at it last week, the thought baffled me: how do you prepare for all of this? I can't imagine.


It goes without saying Speed was made before CGI changed the way action movies were made. A big reason why it holds up after over twenty years is how convincing it all looks, because it's real. That bus really is traveling at 50 mph or faster, with all those people on board (even when it's stunt doubles), so you feel the danger their characters are in, crashing into parked cars, dodging vehicles on the freeway, etc. It's thrilling to watch. And Sandra Bullock is adorable, as usual, as the passenger forced to drive that bus.

It's a fun movie. So why so serious, Keanu?

Monday, March 13, 2017

Feud pt. 2


Part 1

Robert Aldrich, feeling pressure from all sides to capitalize on the enmity between Bette & Joan, stirs the rumor mill, with predictable consequences. Alfred Molina, as fine an actor as he is, never struck me as a romantic lead, yet he's holding his own in Feud, soothing the fragile egos of his Baby Jane co-leads even as he's forced to exploit their mutual scorn for each other. The scene where he and Susan Sarandon rehearse Baby Jane's song was shot well, following their gestures and emphasizing their physical closeness.

An advantage to telling this story as a TV mini-series is how peripheral characters are able to get their moments. In part 2, we see Aldrich's wife and Bette's daughter express crucial points of view. That was a pleasant surprise. The final scene was also composed well, with Aldrich's wife in the foreground, in bed, pretending to be asleep as her husband stirs in the background, literally turning a blind eye to his activities. Ryan Murphy has a good eye for angles, and it shows throughout this series so far.

Jessica Lange's Joanie is so needy! Watching her in this story, we're reminded of how movie stars feed on the adulation we, the fans, happily give them. Some of them can keep it in perspective. Joanie can't seem to, however. It makes you wonder how much of her rivalry with Bette is all in her mind, given her insecurity and her need for validation.

Sarandon's Bette, on the other hand, comes across as the more grounded of the two at first, until that scene with her daughter reveals the truth: Bette is just as hungry for the spotlight as Joanie, and it's damaging her relationships with her loved ones to the point where the only one she can turn to for comfort is her director, Aldrich. Again, I don't know how much of this is real and how much exaggeration, but it makes for great drama.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Simpsons Movie

The Simpsons Movie
Cinemax viewing

It was not the first animated series in prime time. It was not even intended to be a series at first, but a supplementary feature of a mostly-forgotten variety show. Other animated series have since come and gone that have tried to harness its spirit, to varying degrees of success. One or two have come close. When the final tally is taken, however, I suspect the dysfunctional family from Springfield, USA will reign supreme. If you disagree... well, don't have a cow, man.

I knew The Simpsons had arrived on the pop culture landscape when I first saw the t-shirts. They were everywhere. Wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt, for awhile, was a countercultural statement. "Family values" was a big thing in the Reagan 80s, but Reagan's family was just as screwed up as that of most people. I think Matt Groening's creations were meant to reflect not just that, but to reveal the soft pink (or yellow, in this case) underbelly of what we always thought of as the traditional American nuclear family, the flip side of Andy Hardy and Father Knows Best and The Waltons we never noticed - or wanted to notice.

Nothing was more symbolic of that idea than the moment when Fox, the fledgling network with nothing to lose and everything to gain, put The Simpsons head-to-head against The Cosby Show. I remember feeling torn. The Huxtables represented the epitome of urban middle-class, upwardly mobile family life that also appealed to middle America - a black family, no less. Abandoning them in favor of these animated upstarts from the same network as the equally trashy Married... With Children, to me, almost felt like an act of disloyalty... but The Simpsons were that good. Time has borne this out.


When The Simpsons Movie was announced, I remember thinking after the show's unprecedented longevity, having done and said so much about so many things, a movie version would be pointless without two things: a naked Marge (or at least topless) and Bart saying fuck (or at least shit). Otherwise, why do it? I still think that way. We got nudity, but seriously, was anybody clamoring to see a 10-year-old animated boy's penis?


The movie has everything that made the show great, but I found it a bit disappointing because it didn't push the boundaries more. The South Park movie preceded this by eight years and they took full advantage of their R-rating. The Simpsons, by contrast, stuck to a PG-13. Maybe that was a result of having become so mainstream, so accepted by America. I dunno.


If The Simpsons has a legacy, hopefully it's one in which audiences see animation as capable of more than Disneyesque talking animals and family-friendly entertainment. Movies, in this country, at least, still tend to stick to the cutesy stuff - even Pixar, for all its innovation, has yet to make a "mature audiences"* movie - but TV has seen an explosion of edgier animated material post-Simpsons (even if it's been confined to cable), which is good.

Has The Simpsons ever done a multi-part arc? (Besides the "Who Shot Mr. Burns" two-parter.) Each episode is packed with so much stuff, it almost seems redundant to engage in the latest trend in television. Still, I think that's the one thing I'd like to see them try before they retire. What else is left after all this time?

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* We do understand that stories with mature themes don't necessarily have to have nudity and profanity, right?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Key Largo

Key Largo
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ

When I think of Florida, my grandmother comes to mind. This was very long ago, so my memories are dim and fragmented. She was nice, though I can't picture her face. My mother always encouraged me to write to her, but I didn't need much prompting; she always sent me money.

She lived in St. Augustine. We might have visited her at least a couple of times that I recall. I have a vivid image of the street she lived on, if not her house. It was a sandy road, unpaved, with no sidewalks. While in Florida, we also went to Disney World at least once. No memories of that.

We did not visit the Florida Keys. I have no burning desire to do so, though I'm sure they're beautiful, based on what we see of them in Key Largo. John Huston gave us a few location shots, of the Seven Mile Bridge and the piers. I wouldn't want to live down there, though. I'd be too afraid of the damage hurricanes can do. They're enough of a problem here in the northeast.

Largo was based on a play, and as I watched it I tried to imagine how certain scenes would be staged. I imagine it's not too hard to provide sound effects for a hurricane. Maybe you could rattle the sets backstage to simulate the blowing wind. Could you have a tree smashing through a window on stage? Maybe that was for the movie. The climax on the boat probably plays much better on a movie screen.



When Jacqueline wrote about seeing Largo on a big screen, she pointed out how it almost seemed like a different movie because everything's magnified. Absolutely true. Every word. I didn't have the bad experience with the audience she had. The Loews JC crowd was totally respectful, as they almost always are. Going there for this movie was a spur of the moment decision. I'm glad I did it. I feel at home watching a movie there like I do no place else.



Let's talk about Claire Trevor for a minute. Did you know there's a Claire Trevor School of the Arts? It's part of the University of California-Irvine. Jon Lovitz went there, among other notables. They offer programs for visual as well as performing arts.



Largo was Trevor's Oscar-winning role. She had appeared with Bogey before, in the movie Dead End, another Oscar-nominated performance, plus she had done radio work with Eddie G in the late 30s. Her role here may not seem important at first, but it provides depth to the overall story, as well as a contrast to Lauren Bacall's more virtuous lead role. Plus, she ends up doing something very important late in the story. She's quite good as the sympathetic bad girl, a role she specialized at throughout her career.

Largo is a great movie, but you already knew that. It's Eddie G's swan song as a cinematic gangster, just as White Heat was for Jimmy Cagney a year later. When Lionel Barrymore tells Eddie "Your kind has no place in the world anymore," or something like that, the effect is doubly felt because it's being said to someone famous for playing gangsters. Very canny bit of casting there. Indeed, the gangster picture did fall into decline for awhile, until a film school brat named Coppola adapted a certain bestselling novel about the mafia... but that is another story.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Feud pt. 1


It seems unfathomable now, in this age of Netflix and Turner Classic Movies and a legion of film bloggers worldwide, that a pair of cinematic titans like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would not be revered and adored by the industry they served. The FX mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan sets out to chronicle such a time, the early 60s, even as it details the intense competitive rivalry between the two Oscar winners. Its specific focus is on the making of the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which brought the two together for the only time in their long careers.

I haven't seen Baby Jane yet. It was on TCM last week. I missed it, but it'll be on again later this month. For a long time I didn't think I was missing all that much. I knew its nefarious reputation. I figured, why bother with that camp-fest when I could watch better movies with those two, in their prime? Well, once I sit down with it, I'll talk about it here, but I'm sure I can still appreciate Feud on its own merits...

...which are many so far. Chapter 1 establishes B&J's dire straits as fading screen queens who can't get arrested in Tinseltown anymore, and how Joanie recruits Bette and director Robert Aldrich to film an adaptation of a suspense novel about, oddly enough, faded Hollywood glamour.

Jessica Lange as Joanie is a bizarre hybrid of the two, not quite looking like one or the other. Plus, she has the evergreen memory of Faye Dunaway's performance as Joanie in Mommie Dearest to contend with. So far, Lange appears to have made the role her own: brittle and needy, hungry for respect as an actress and a woman. Susan Sarandon was born to play Bette with those eyes of hers. She can't stop looking like herself, but she has Bette's attitude down pat - fire to Lange's ice. And how cool was it to see her in Bette's All About Eve dress for a brief moment?

Director/co-writer Ryan Murphy washes Feud in bright colors, fancy wardrobes and lavish sets that capture the opulence of Hollywood. I had expected this to feel like a theatrical movie, given the all-star cast and subject matter, but it still kind of has the feel of a modern TV drama, although I'm still not used to hearing actual profanity in a TV show. I'm amazed this is an original teleplay and not adapted from somebody's biography or movie history book. My classic film blogger friends will know the details of this history better than me, so I'll rely on their judgment as to how accurate everything is here. I'll post links to write-ups of theirs if I see them.

Feud is eight weeks long, so in subsequent posts I'll talk about the rest of the cast and other aspects of the series as they come to me, but so far, I'm mighty impressed.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The House That Would Not Die

The House That Would Not Die
YouTube viewing

It's been awhile since I wrote about a Barbara Stanwyck movie. I was looking at some old posts and I saw a comment from my old video store pal Steve, who suggested a TV movie Stany made in the 70s called The House That Would Not Die. It's also a chance to write about a horror film again.

On top of all that, this may be the first made-for-TV movie I've talked about here (and wouldn't you know it, I just missed a TV movie blogathon). I certainly remember their heyday. I was more drawn to the big, epic mini-series than to the movies of the week. Even as a kid, I think I was aware they were generally inferior to a theatrical movie, so I don't recall watching them much.

House would never be mistaken for a big-budget picture. It sticks to the titular house for the most part. Special effects are limited to superimposed images and lots of wind and fog and shadows. More money was probably spent on Stany's wardrobe. The cinematography is very basic and unflashy, looking not unlike a TV show from the time.


This was Stany's first movie of any kind post-Big Valley. I have to say, she still looked good in her twilight years (she would have been 63 when she made this movie). She never lost her trim figure. Despite the wrinkles and silver hair, she was still recognizable as the star of so many great films from her youth, in the 30s and 40s. If she had any plastic surgery, I couldn't tell. Her clothing in this movie is fabulous and tasteful, worthy of a Hollywood legend.

The story, based on a book, taps into the fascination with spiritualism and the supernatural that was going around at the time for whatever reason. There are not one, but two séances. There's the debate over whether spirits are real or not, trying to use science to explain them away as products of the imagination when in fact, they're real enough for the purposes of this story. The teleplay is a little stiff and awkward, but there is an attempt to provide atmosphere, at least. It's watchable.

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Related:
The Big Valley
Dynasty/The Colbys

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Link in the shell

Why no links last month? Long story short, I was sick the last week of January (I'm better now) and I didn't have a great deal to say at the time, so I decided to forget about it. No big deal, really.

I never would have dreamed, in all my years of blogging, that my choice for film of the year would match the Academy's. Perhaps I should rethink what I had said about how the Oscars rarely reward the truly deserving. Warren Beatty's announcement faux pas aside, Moonlight winning Best Picture rights the wrong of Brokeback Mountain losing to Crash, anoints Barry Jenkins as a new directing talent (even if he did lose Best Director) and just plain makes sense. Bravo. Now Star Trek Beyond losing Best Makeup, on the other hand...

Bill Paxton was never flashy, but he was a reliable, down-to-earth presence in many high-powered action movies... and yes, he was in that Big Boat Movie, too. I think his best film might have been A Simple Plan, a suspenseful character study about greed and the ways it messes with your head. Also check out One False Move, another good thriller. He was a fine actor who had an excellent career.

I'm gonna try something different for the next two months: blogging about a new TV show as it airs. You may have heard by now about the forthcoming FX mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan, starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as, respectively, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Obviously, this is of interest to film buffs, so I thought I'd try writing about it, week by week. It airs on Sunday nights, so my reviews will be the following Mondays. I doubt it'll be difficult; I hope it'll be fun.

The Jack Lemmon Blogathon is coming at the end of the month. Le and I thank everyone who's participating. Looks like we got a fair amount of contributors. That's great. I'll also return to the Queens World Film Festival, so look out for that. Busy times ahead.

No links last month means you get more this month:

Kristina interviews a filmmaker who looks for the connections between film and fine art.

FlixChatter Ruth provides an update on her debut film in progress.

Phyllis loves Carole Lombard's jewels.

Silver Screenings Ruth proves Erich von Stroheim was no dummy, even if he talked to one.

Fritzi goes deep in her analysis of a Paul Robeson melodrama.

Le reads Buster Keaton's autobiography.

Paddy, meanwhile, reads three books inspired by Keaton.

Dick van Dyke on Mary Tyler Moore.

Glenn Close is reviving Sunset Boulevard for the stage.

Finally, this isn't directly movie related, but the next time you watch a video at home, try cooking up this recipe for caramel marshmallow popcorn.