Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

She threw a Bette Davis-sized temper-tantrum and is refusing to have anything to do with Hollywood until it can write a decent storyline for older woman. Rumour has is that the later characters of Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn have also joined in the picket line.

I mean, what the hell happened to decently-written roles for older women? When I first saw Baby Jane, which is about the bitter – and ultimately deadly – rivalry between two sisters, Jane (Davis) who was a child star and fizzled out in adolescence, and Blanche (Crawford) a superstar who may or may not have been paralysed by the bitter and vengeful Jane, I wasn’t too impressed. It didn’t help that I had seen one of Davis’s other later movies, All About Eve, in which she plays a spoilt, fading stage star, and was basically unimpressed that, while good roles, they both showed Davis’s character as bitter, dried up, miserable, vengeful.

Then I watched Katherine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which she plays a WASPy wife struggling to deal with her daughter’s engagement to a black man. She was easily the equal of her on-screen husband Spencer Tracey and portrayed issues of race and family with dignity and class that was appropriate for her age – not desperately trying to look youthful and glamorous for the fact she was well into her fifties.

It was then I realised that Baby Jane and Eve, while portraying older women as bitter, dried up etc, still portrayed them as fleshed-out, with motives and a backstory you could understand. They may not have been hugely likeable, their logic may have been somewhat warped, even sociopathic, but they made sense.

And they looked and acted their age. These were believable, Oscar-nominated roles for women well into their fifties. Who looked like they were well into their fifties, and acted like it.

I can’t think of a single movie today which portrayed aging so honestly and unapologetically, but still believable and fleshed-out – certainly not one which enjoyed the commercial success those three did. Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn are both talented actresses, but look years younger then they actually are, and constantly play glamorous roles – they are the ideal for aging women (never mind the fact that no-one gives a crap Jack Nicholson is bald and has a beer gut), not the average, the honest truth, or even some of the more bitter examples.

What does it say about Hollywood that it was doing better at presenting women who age with varying degrees of grace forty years ago then it is today? What does it say about audiences today for accepting much less believable standards then it was forty years ago?


  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    This is a very thought-provoking post. It actually never occurred to me that while the women in Baby Jane were fleshed-out characters with a good story, they also fit neatly into the stereotype of jealous aging harpies, seeking the glory of youth and finding no value in their later years.

    The same story could have been told of male child stars, since very few child stars of either gender successfully transit into adult roles. But it wasn’t. It was told of women, for a reason.

    I was just thinking about writing about the few good older women characters I’ve seen in the past 20 years, but realized most of them are in comedy (where you can break the rules because it’s supposed to be about losers). The only exception I could think of (and granted, my brain was stuck on TV at the time) was Kai Winn from Deep Space 9. Not only is she a fabulous, realistic villain… she also has sex in the final season.

    As for what it says about Hollywood and the audience that it’s gotten much worse in the past 40 years… I think it says Hollywood was once run by filmmakers who did not believe the audience to be mostly comprised of morons, but now it’s run by MBAs who know nothing about film but assume in their narcissism the audience knows even less.

  2. scarlett says

    I realise a lot of crap movies were made – I think film history is very nostalgic in its nature in the sense that it’s always looking back at the good things that were done and forgetting the bad. From what I understand, Baby Jane was the only film of merit Crawford did after forty or so. And the vast majority of meaty roles for women over forty – Baby Jane, Eve, Sunset Boulevard – did rely on that ‘dried up, embittered, delusional’ stereotype. But the fact that such movies even got made, whereas today…

    Let me put it another way. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was recently remade into a comedy starring Ashton Kutcher. Oscar-winning role for an obviously middle-aged woman becomes a forgettable comedy.

    I’m in the process of reading a biography of Louis Mayer, and it’s fascinating reading because he had such loyalty to the people he felt had been loyal to him. He invested a lot of money in movies for integrity’s sake. (That he happened to be delusional about these movies realistically making money in a changing environment is another issue.) I wonder if that was the attitude behind movies like Baby Jane and Dinner getting made, that someone in power thought it wasn’t fair that women who had delivered millions to the studio and won (multiple) Oscars got thrown onto the scrapheap for no better reason they they were ‘old’.

  3. Patrick says

    While I certainly agree that there is a dearth of good roles for older actresses, I’m not convinced that this represents a change in Hollywood. Remember that during the height of the studio era, Hollywood released hundreds upon hundreds of movies per year, far more than they release today in the age of the tentpole feature. So there would have been a greater number of movies that were exceptions to the rules, simply because there was a larger pool of films being made.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    Patrick, where are you getting that? I don’t know where to find a good comparison, but I always heard that we produce far more movies now than we did then. (I’m not challenging you, I’m just curious.)

    But in any case, what about independent films today? While the studios in the 60’s may have been more inclined toward more intelligent film themes than they are now, we do now have independent producers who also rarely churn out anything that features women over 40.

  5. scarlett says

    Patrick, I realise far less movies are being made, and movies in general are far more expensive so people take less risks – but BetaCandy has a point, there are a lot of independant producers and ultra-cheap movies out there who aren’t writing good roles for women over forty (who look it, no less) either.

    BetaCandy, I can’t quote you on this, but a book I was reading a couple of years ago on the history of MGM said in the studios heyday they were making 200+ movies a year. (I realise a lot of these would have been shorts and b-grades.) Obviously, they were the biggest studio so probably had the biggest output but it wouldn’t surprise me if close to 1000 movies were being made a year.

    If you go to http://www.the-movie-times.com and click on any of the annual breakdowns, you’ll see TOTAL US RELEASES are 300-400. That wouldn’t include the thousands of Bollywood movies made each year which AREN’T released in the US but I got the impression that Nick was comparing the number of movies being released in the US fifty years ago to the number being released in the US today. In which case he’s right, there are far less.

  6. Patrick says

    That’s a good point regarding independent films – after all, independents are supposedly where filmmakers takes risks that Hollywood won’t. So where are the indy films with good older female characters?

    One example of how many films the studios produced during the “Golden Age” can be seen in the studio process of block-booking: the studio would sell an attractive film to a theater only as a unit with four other films – either A-pictures of dubious quality or B-pictures. Part of the reason that so many movies could be made was that stars, directors and others were salaried employees of the studios, rather than being paid to take individual assignments as Hollywood does now. So the process of greenlighting and producing a film was highly regimented, more closely resembling the manufacturing of cars than the production of modern films.

    The demise of the studio system was one obviosu factor in the reduction of the number of films produced, and since the 70’s another factor has been Hollywood’s increased reliance on expensive blockbusters.

    I can’t find any ahrd and fast numbers for how many films were produced each year just now, but I’ll start looking. One thing to keep in mind is that four every classic film from the studio era, there are dozens of films that no one remembers.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    Thanks, Patrick. That all makes sense (particularly the stuff about the costs changing). Maybe I was confusing this issue with a comparisons between the 80’s and now – I believe we do make more movies now than then.

    My brain is a bit overtaxed lately. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *