Camp David

CAMP DAVID OCTOBER 2009: PETER LAWFORD AND BABY JANE

By • Oct 8th, 2009 •

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This month’s Camp David is in memory of ROBERT CUSHMAN whose scholarship in the field of film history helped the Academy of Motion Picture arts and science accumulate an incredible collection of photographs during the decades he headed that dept. Robert was more than a colleague he was a friend. He read this column in one of it’s earlier edtions when it was to have been a sample chapter in a book to have entitled WOMEN WITH ISSUES…..perhaps one day it will be published and it will also be dedicated to this wonderful man.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO PETER LAWFORD HAPPENED TO BABY JANE.

One of the most widely discussed yet under appreciated films of the 1960’s has to be Robert Aldrich’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

In spite of the fact that BABY JANE made millions for Warner Bros., not to mention restarting the careers of both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, the film itself is trapped in Camp adoration by gay men who have placed a reality check at the theater door when it comes to just how much Davis and Crawford really did hate each other, and just how impossible it was to get them to appear together on camera without bloodshed. I mean, how many times have you heard the one about Davis actually kicking the shit out of Crawford during the scene downstairs when Crawford tries to use the phone? In reality a stand-in was used and if you watch the film itself it is clear Crawford is not being kicked at all. These two highly professional talents worked together seamlessly and made a classic in the process. Then we have the director, Robert Aldrich, who has more than proven himself in every genre he ever chose to make a film in, and still BABY JANE is regarded as a guilty pleasure that can only come out at Horror festivals on Halloween, or drag balls at New Year’s Eve.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? was the beginning of what genre buffs now refer to as the era of the “Horror Hag.” Hopeless as that phrase has become, it does cover the territory well enough when we are discussing films like LADY IN A CAGE, DEAR DEAD DELILAH, THE ANNIVERSARY, DEAD RINGER, BERSERK and STRAIT-JACKET. The real beginning came a bit earlier with SUNSET BOULEVARD, and the unforgettable moment when Gloria Swanson descends her staircase in search of “those wonderful people out there in the dark.” The role was supposedly based on silent screen star Mae Murray. Miss Murray was in the audience when the film was finally previewed in Hollywood. Her take on the subject was priceless: “None of us floozies was that nuts.”

As the 21st century is well upon us it is time to place WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? back in the realm of serious filmmaking and reassess it as we have done time and again with Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. The comparison is certainly there if you wish to see it, as both Norman Bates and Baby Jane Hudson have been reduced to monstrous creations at the hands of family dysfunction. When Anthony Perkins was forced to make sequels to the Hitchcock film because, as he told those close to him at the time, “I want to make as much money as I can so my children will be looked after,” his character of Norman Bates (the role that forever became his doppelganger) was to become in these films a sympathetic pawn in the hands of others– especially his mother, the real monster of PSYCHO. Now if BABY JANE had been allowed sequels we might well have seen the character of Blanche become the real bitch of BABY JANE II, which would probably pick up at the beach after Jane goes for those damn ice cream cones–the ones she would not let Blanche have in the 1915 flashback.

Robert Aldrich must have realized just how much his work in this and its unofficial sequel HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE was a part of his legacy, as he requested that the songs from both films be played at his memorial. Aldrich had already worked with Crawford in the mid-fifties in AUTUMN LEAVES, which bears a number of similarities to BABY JANE in the dysfunction of Cliff Robertson’s character, traumatized by his father (an oversexed bully who ridicules his son from childhood and, as an adult, steals his young and willing wife away from him), leaving the scars for Joan Crawford (as the older woman starved for love as well) to heal. It was this relationship with Aldrich that probably led to insecurity on the part of Bette Davis who, as legend would have us believe, actually had a conversation with the director before filming as to whether or not he could work with Joan without favoring a former lover over Davis. Robert Aldrich apparently reassured Bette that there were no worries in that department.

In re-examining the film we must refrain from the diva-like behavior of its stars long enough to focus on just how well this film addresses the aging process, along with the trauma of family dysfunction, in the lives of two women living out their days in the worst place on earth to cope with the inevitability of losing one’s looks – Hollywood, and the motion picture business itself. All of the scenes where Jane goes forth on her own are cruel and spiteful; it is only because she is so wrapped up in her own reality that she can ignore the outside world for so long. The moment she can no longer do this is the “piece de la resistance” of the film. When Baby Jane sings “I’ve written a letter to daddy” into her own reflection, fantasy and reality come crashing together, allowing for the greatest primal scream in the history of movies as Jane Hudson finally gets her comeuppance many fold, to quote a similar moment in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.

If one can move past the rats and parakeets for din-din, and see beyond the clown-at-midnight facade of Davis, we move into the stuff operas are made of in the intense longing of acceptance both the sisters craved as Hollywood players, allowing only Blanche a spotlight from which to move up into the stars above Hollywood Boulevard. In a series of brilliant set pieces we see the Hollywood backlots of the early talkies where studio execs sit in screening rooms yelling, “Kill it!” to screen tests that might as well put another place-card up at Forest Lawn for the actors left hanging on the screening room wall. Jane Hudson made her share of early talkies and they use two of Davis’s early films, PARACHUTE JUMPER (1932) and EX-LADY (1933); it’s a shame they didn’t include THE CABIN IN THE COTTON where she utters one of her early howlers, “I’d love to kiss you but I just washed maw hair.” We are never allowed to see the women at this stage except in films clips. Crawford shines in her private moments sitting in front of the television staring at her own image in a scene with Edward Arnold. During it she mutters to herself, “I told Lloyd to hold that shot a bit longer. Oh, why didn’t he listen?” It is during these moments that the audience is allowed into the private world of these two sisters, both lonely and desperately in need of the outside world. Blanche remains indoors as her vanity prevents her from letting too many fans see her in a wheelchair. It is with the accident that put her there that the dysfunction began to erode the minds of both Jane and her sister, and it is not until the final reel that we fully learn the degree of guilt between them.

Perhaps only the casting of Joan Fontaine with her real-life sister (and bitter rival) Olivia De Havilland would have drawn the same amount of blood between real life and the make-believe world of Blanche and Jane.

Hollywood become a character as well. In one of the blacker moments in the early part of the film, Jane goes into the LA Times to place an ad, reminding the puzzled staff writer that he might just remember who is standing in front of him by declaring, “I am Baby Jane Hudson…You may have heard of me,” to which he replies with a sincere lack of conviction, “Oh yeah.” As Jane exits he then says after her, “Who the Hell is Baby Jane Hudson?” and so say all of us. In Hollywood the only thing worse than being dead is being forgotten.

It is with the revival of Blanche Hudson’s films at a local TV station that the drama begins to boil to overflowing as Jane reads and then tears up or writes profanity over the bags of fan letters coming to her rediscovered sister. The neighboring house has two more Blanche Hudson fans in a mother and daughter, played by Anna Lee and Davis’s real life daughter B.D. The character Anna Lee plays is called Mrs. Bates (considering this was made less than two years after PSYCHO, one can guess what Robert Aldrich was paying homage to here–or was it just an uncanny coincidence?) Bette Davis would live to disown her daughter for writing a warts-and-all memoir of life with Mom not that long after Crawford’s adopted daughter did her own poison-pen letter to Mommie. These two are also glued to the television during the Blanche Hudson festival. Overwhelmed, Mrs. Bates brings flowers over to Blanche, only to be told off by Jane and the flowers dumped into the trash, all this behavior brought about from decades of resentment going back to their childhood in 1915 when Baby Jane was the breadwinner and spoiled beyond redemption by her father. If PSYCHO had such a flashback we might have been allowed to see just what the other Mrs. Bates was up to with her gentleman callers at the motel while little Norman watched through keyholes and openings in the wall; this would have made him a victim as much as those he killed while assuming his mother’s role as avenger.

Hollywood History tells us that not only did Joan Crawford discover the novel for BABY JANE but brought it to the attention of Bette Davis in the first place, dispelling any notion of feuds to begin with. It seems Crawford had long been looking for a property to bring the two of them together in one film and at last this was it. The project could not have come at a better time since Davis was in debt to the tune of $30,000, with no nest egg except a guarantee of playing in Tennessee Williams’ NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, which turned out to be a living nightmare since the play’s leading man (Patrick O’Neal) hated Davis to the point of actually trying to strangle her before a run-through. These ladies needed each other at the time the film was made and it was only afterwards when the film was a hit and Davis was nominated for the Academy Award that things went toxic for the two divas, so much so that the second attempt to bring them together went so far south it would place Joan Crawford in the hospital, shutting down the production for weeks before a replacement could be found in–of all people–the woman with a sister-feud for real, Olivia De Havilland.

It is time to begin to give credit to these two stars for creating, together with Robert Aldrich, a masterpiece of suspense in the Hitchcock tradition, with such detail to the breakdown, as presented by Hollywood, of what are supposed to be “normal” family values within the American dream after World War Two. David Lynch has made a career out of mining the same territory while openly admiring this film for its artistry.

The process of aging is difficult at the best of times within a family as loved ones become a burden that leads to premature burial in a nursing home, and this was not lost on Jane Hudson when she discovered Blanche’s plan to sell the house they shared for years simply because Jane was a handful, to put it mildly. It was time to “take care of me” as Jane puts it to her sister.

The scene that always stays with me is one of the scenes between Blanche and her maid Elvira. At this moment Jane has been caught writing profanity on the letters marked for Blanche from the station when Elvira forces the issue of a rest home for Jane as “she is getting worse by the day.” Crawford plays this scene to perfection in close-up. “You didn’t know Jane as a child. It wasn’t that she was just pretty. She had something about her. She was special. I can’t just tell her, she will know. After all, Elvira, we’re sisters. We know each other very well.” Davis certainly had the plum role but it takes a great star like Joan Crawford to pull scenes like the aforementioned one to life and Crawford more than held her own with her old rival from Warner Bros.

This essay was originally prepared for a book project on women with issues for Fab Press a few years ago and read quite differently at that time. I became interested in it all over again when I discovered a casting choice early in the filming of BABY JANE that has gone unnoticed for decades and that is the role of Edwin Flagg (played so brilliantly by the late Victor Buono), which began filming with Peter Lawford, and was terminated by Lawford when he simply left the set and never returned. It is rumored that he could not reconcile the character’s flaws (ie: mother-dominated, possibly coded homosexual/loser living in Hollywood on welfare and his mother). It is interesting to notice that after the success of BABY JANE with its effect on the careers of both Crawford and Davis allowing them to continue on in films quite similar in tone to BABY JANE, that Davis made sure Peter Lawford had a substantial role in DEAD RINGER. Lawford plays a golf pro with a sideline as a gigolo, and a very butch one at that.

Peter Lawford’s career, as everyone that follows the Kennedy family knows, was dealt two death blows: one from Joe Kennedy himself (in making Lawford the messenger in a tactless response to Frank Sinatra) and the other from Old Blue Eyes himself, who blacklisted Lawford in Hollywood for the rest of his life. Lawford’s last days were tragic in ways that redefine the term. He was reduced to game shows and episodic television. His social life was ruined as only Hollywood can ruin it by making you a last minute replacement at posh dinners making you the z at an A list event.

My personal experience with Lawford came around 1979 when I was working for Paul Tiberio in Beverly Hills. Paul resembled Lawford and was frequently mistaken for him in public. One night Paul and I were in a landmark West Hollywood gay bar on Santa Monica known as THE FOUR STAR, which also booked entertainment from time to time on weekends. On this particular evening Peter Lawford came in, only to be told at the door that there was that guy that everyone thought was him, so Lawford came over to where we were sitting and introduced himself. I will always remember how polite and well-mannered he was in complementing Paul on how much they did favor each other and so on. Paul introduced me as a film buff who loved movies and when Lawford asked me what my favorite film of his might be I blurted out, “Well I just saw you in SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH.” Peter was taken aback by that because it was almost his first screen appearance (he has one line as a sailor at the bar). I spent the rest of our time together trying to make up for it by naming films in which he had a more substantial part. We discovered that he lived in West Hollywood and was there at the request of the woman who was booking a singer he wanted to hear.

After the initial shock of my discussing his cameo in the Holmes film, about which he remembered “What dear men Rathbone and Bruce were, and how much they were a team in films, like Laurel and Hardy, not to mention that black bird that could not be tamed during the brief scene in the pub, and how many takes were ruined by its missing its marks and running amok.” I mentioned what a favorite of mine THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY was and how good I thought he and everyone else was in it. Lawford smiled at the mention of this film and responded with, “You’re much too kind about me. I was a green kid who was in great company like George Sanders, who really hated acting even though he was meant to be one. I never understood why Hurd Hatfield was chosen; when I first heard about the film being made at MGM I remember Robert Taylor was being considered, since there was no man in Hollywood at that time as handsome as Taylor. Albert Lewin, our director, was a real intellectual and gave the film class, no question. The sets were stunning, especially the house they created for Dorian. That staircase–I still remember walking down it with Donna Reed for nearly ten takes before we got it to Lewin’s satisfaction. Hatfield was very professional and aloof during the film, staying in character I believe. Still, I will always wonder what Bob Taylor would have been like as Dorian, not that he would have understood the perversity of it one bit. I still see Angela. What a great actress she became after that film.”

I always remembered him fondly after that. A few years later his death was announced on ten o’clock news with a clip of him from what was his very last appearance on some sitcom playing himself, alone, sitting at the end of a bar nursing a drink; the image was unforgettable in its sadness.

It is rather ironic that Peter Lawford would balk at playing the personal references to his character in BABY JANE and yet in five years he would play a character named Steve Banks in the Harlan Ellison scripted THE OSCAR where fact and fiction merge with uncanny accuracy. As the films protagonist Frankie Faye’s career slides into the gutter he returns to one of the overpriced eateries located in the ever so posh Beverly Hills where he confronts former glamour boy/actor Peter Lawford whose own career is reduced to walk-ons and waiting tables to make ends meet. The painful dialogue between the two actors leaves little to the imagination as to just how fleeting fame can be in Tinsletown, and Peter Lawford didn’t have to give a performance because this was his life he was playing at.

Whether or not Peter Lawford would have worked in the role for which Victor Buono received an Oscar nomination we will never know. Buono became a sought-after performer on Television afterwards. Davis tried to get him fired as she thought him too young and inexperienced, however halfway through filming she confessed “I tried to get Bob to fire you but I am glad you stayed You are absolutely marvelous in the part.” Could this have also been partly because of Peter Lawford’s attempt to play the same role only to flee the set when the mama’s boy references proved too close to home?

Victor Buono’s own take on acting alongside Davis and Crawford was classic: “I felt like an altar boy being asked to the Ecumenical Council in Rome in an advisory capacity.”

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6 Responses »

  1. A remarkable motion picture that still entertains. And of course, knowing how the leads felt about each other brings to me images of the fin-backed alligator and monitor lizard going at it from “ONE MILLION BC”!

  2. Another sterling effort, Mr. Del Valle.

  3. I remember the sample chapter you wrote for the book…How fascinating…it’s changed a lot but still very interesting…I never knew that about Peter Lawford…Can’t imagine him playing a sexually ambiguous mama’s boy in the Buono role. As for Robert Cushman, he was indeed a wonderful man. It has been very difficult since his passing. Always enjoy reading your columns and am looking forward to reading your Poe book.

  4. What an excellent essay and insight into the weird workings of a long-gone Hollywood era. The film holds up very well after the decades; when I show it to Indonesians they are absolutely enthralled and flabbergasted by the intense familial conflict of the two sisters.

    Another much-overlooked small jewel is DEAD RINGER, which Paul Henreid directed in a very sure-handed, smooth-running fashion. Peter Lawford’s role, along with that of old war-horses like George Macready and Karl Malden, really plays well, even today. There is actually a nice little promo video on the making of this film on YouTube, by the way.

    I found your website when I was rooting around on Google for the quote from the Baby Jane song: “…she didn’t grow up – she just grew old…”

    Byron in Jakarta
    “It crawled into my hand, honest”

  5. David, I just watched The Star, featuring Bette Davis. Is there any truth that Bette Davis did the picture since it was unofficially based on Joan Crawford’s life? With this role, she would be “sticking it” to Joan Crawford? What were the exact scenes in the film that mirrored Crawford’s personal life? Do you see it any different in Hollywood’s treatment toward aging leading ladies?

    Unfortunately, some actresses don’t want to see what the mirror sees.
    I wrote a script that was actively pursued by an actress who starred opposite John Travolta.
    She was on Good Morning America discussing it in which she took it upon herself to mention it. The role she wanted was of the 20something when she was looked her age which was about 50.

  6. Franco

    I don’t think Crawford entered into the background material for THE STAR since it was made at a time in the fifites when Crawford was still making at least two pictures a year playing women sexually alluring of indeterminate age. Davis must have been attracted to this project simply because it was such a great role….the only similarity with Crawford was the one Oscar win for MILDRED PIERCE….and Sterling Hayden was Crawford’s leading man in JOHNNY GUITAR that had just wrapped….Crawford would never have worked in a dept store regardless of her circumstances……

    Now the truth of that film is still relevant today as you point out with the girl who played Travolta’s first partner in Fever…her career went nowhere right after that…I met her in Hollywood at the Ray Courts autograph show it was sad to see her mentioning that the girlon the poster with John was her…meaning she was his equal in stardom….very Baby Jane…..I have few stories like hers in my book….

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