Have you ever wondered what Medusa’s voice sounds like? Was it soft like a kitten’s purr? Did it buzz like pink champagne? Did it crackle like fresh fire? I have been thinking about Medusa a lot. Perhaps because she is the foremost story of female anger and madness told. You probably know the shape of her myth if not the particulars. The head of snakes. The ability to turn men into stone just by one look. Ovid complicates her further by introducing rape into her backstory before being turned into the monster we know her as. But I’m not interested in Perseus cutting her head, destroying her vocal cords, scrubbing out what humanity she could have had. I’m more interested in what Medusa has to say for herself and if there is a way to rewrite her story and those of her spiritual descendants. Cinema is full of Medusa figures. But it’s when I watch Bette Davis that I feel Medusa regains her voice. And that voice is never more frightening than in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) which pairs her with her longtime rival, Joan Crawford.
Crawford and Davis were dramatically different actresses and women. Joan knew how to play the game and played it well. She was perhaps one of the most intelligent studio system actresses in terms of understanding the desires of the audience and the expectations that come with being a star of her magnitude. Which makes the fact that her legacy has been warped by Mommie Dearest such a tragedy. While Bette, in her active pursuit of artistry, would gladly lock horns with directors, producers and even Jack Warner himself (if she felt she could make the films she starred in better). Edmund Goulding, who directed her in Dark Victory (1939), warned Joseph L. Mankiewicz before he directed All About Eve (1950), “That woman will destroy you. She will grind you down to a fine powder and blow you away. She will come to the stage with a thick pad of long yellow paper. And pencils. She will write. And she, not you, will direct. Mark my words.” Although both actresses shared an immense drive, passion for film and incredible work ethic, I doubt they’d admit they had anything in common. Despite these differences, they found themselves in the same space in 1962.
As the 1960s rolled around, and the studio system was all but over, actresses that came up its ranks like Bette and Joan struggled to find footing. They were still dynamic, enchanting and powerhouse performers. But when has Hollywood ever been interested in the power of older women? Many of the grand dames of the studio system found a home in the horror films that traded on their legacies. In the minds of some viewers (and the system that was evolving around them), Bette and Joan became monsters, but they never played their madwomen as such.
It’s easy to look at the late-era work of the mothers of this genre as camp punchlines. As the wounded and wounding sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, it is also easy to pity them, and at times it feels the film does. Both actresses have different techniques and strengths and weaknesses and legacies. But my love for them is rooted in how they articulated the humanity in complicated women that society often doesn’t know what to do with.
The film concerns the dynamic between Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) and Blanche (Crawford), who became a movie star after her sister’s career in vaudeville waned. Blanche, unable to walk because of a gruesome accident, must be cared for by her vindictive sister in a Hollywood mansion that recalls the haunted homes of gothic, female centered novels like Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Blanche is kind, sweet natured and seems to honestly want the best for sister, despite the horrific treatment she receives including but not limited to serving her a rat for dinner. Jane is the id to Blanche’s ego. Jane is controlling, emotionally damaged and violent. What makes Jane truly frightening is her desire to be seen, at all costs, despite the male gazes disinterest in her because of age. What is fascinating about Jane and the women of The Feminine Grotesque is the source of their monstrousness. The female monsters of these films are monstrous because of being women.
The way Jane entraps her sister by completely cutting off her access to the outside world (and starving her) resonates on multiple levels. She identifies in her sister everything she lacked as they got older — glamour, beauty and a true career. Blanche was lavished and rewarded by the male gaze. Jane was scorned by it. It isn’t surprising that Jane regresses into her childhood. This is a time for women before knowing the power of being seen by men and the devastation of losing that power.
About 30 minutes into the film, we find Jane sitting near the piano in a room of hushed darkness. She numbs herself with alcohol. Her gaze is far away, perhaps stuck in the loop of a memory she wishes to slip into. It is an accurate portrait of depression that grows more harrowing as the scene progresses. The horror of the scene comes from the increasing childlike nature Davis imbues Jane with. The childlike mannerisms and faraway gaze, coupled with how she presents herself, adds layers of pathos to this horror. This is a sad monster unaware of how broken she is. Her reverie is disrupted by a voice. Not just any voice, her voice. Her childhood voice singing “A Letter to Daddy”. She creeps toward the large, life-like doll made in her childhood image from all those years ago as if it is her singing, reaching out through time and space. This doll, which Jane still resembles and patterns herself after, makes the image of her decrepit and aging all the more harrowing. Jane picks the bow from the artificial bevy of blonde curls. She sings in place of the silence, continuing “A Letter to Daddy” where her imagined, past voice left off. We cut to Blanche upstairs hearing Jane sing. Her face is full of concern and sadness. Back downstairs, Jane continues to sing. Her voice creaking and croaking with age. The song is a lullaby for her madness. She steps into the light. “I’m much too young to know.” She sees herself truly in the mirror. Dull hair forming unkempt blonde ringlets. Makeup thick as a mask. Layers upon layers of foundation and garish lipstick and eyes ringed with kohl. These layers can’t mask that Baby Jane is a baby no more. This mirror image propels Jane into reality. Jane shrieks and covers her eyes. Shielding herself from the facade, the image of herself in the mirror broke. Baby Jane is a hall of mirrors reflecting the careers and expectations audiences have of these actresses. Which they seem to be very aware of, especially for Bette when it comes to the beauty politics of her character.
In The Feminine Grotesque, the markers of femininity are weaponized by or against the lead character. Physicality, sexuality, dress, and tellingly, makeup are weapons that empower as much as they wound. For Baby Jane Hudson, Bette made an actorly decision that underscores the way weaponized femininity wounds. Jane’s greatest sin is that she did something society hates women for: she got old. She grows delusional in an effort to hold onto the only time she ever felt she had any power. As Baby Jane, Bette made a point in layering on her makeup until it almost seems mask like. In her memoir This ‘N That, Bette says, “I decided to do my own makeup in Baby Jane. What I had in mind, no professional makeup man would have dared to put on me. […] Jane looked like many women one sees on Hollywood Boulevard. In fact, author Henry Farrell [who wrote the novel the film is based on] patterned the character of Jane on these women. One would presume by the way they looked that they once were actresses, and were now unemployed. I felt Jane never washed her face, just added another layer of makeup each day.”
The role turns literal the way people have seen Bette since she set foot in Hollywood: monstrous. There is something about her that truly frightens people, particularly men. Bette relishes the fear she evokes, at times seeming at war with the camera, daring us to look away. In watching Bette embrace the ugliness of the character, I am reminded of the long-held belief that she was never beautiful. Often when men discuss her looks — and it is usually men interested in why she was successful despite the fact that they didn’t desire her — sexism is at the heart of the issue. James Baldwin, in his amazing essay collection The Devil Finds Work, makes bold claims about Bette’s lack of beauty. But in his hands, it becomes clear that when we talk about Bette’s looks, it isn’t so much about whether she’s pretty or not, it’s about how she disrupts boundaries and expectations of female stars during classic Hollywood more than anything else.
Baldwin writes, “So, here, now, was Bette Davis, on that Saturday afternoon, in close-up, over a champagne glass, pop-eyes popping. I was astounded, I had caught my father, not in a lie, but in an infirmity. For, here, before me, after all, was a movie star: white: and if she was white and a movie star, she was rich and she was ugly.”
Let’s get this out of the way: Bette Davis was never ugly. Here are some counterexamples:
But she was willing to contort her body, layer on bad makeup and dowdy clothes in the name of her art. She was wonderfully aggressive, artistic and honest in ways society has always punished women for. So it isn’t so much that Bette is ugly or truly monstrous. Fear is ultimately at the heart of appraisals of her beauty. The same fear that turned men to stone when gazing upon the face of Medusa. Bette and her performance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are ultimately illustrative of something I’ve come to learn as an adult: there is nothing more frightening to our culture than a woman aware of her own power and willing to wield it.
Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She has been published by The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Movie Mezzanine and writes regularly for Vulture. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien and her website madwomenandmuses.com.