(1) Themes of  “Passing” in John Cassavetes’s Shadows / (2) Aspects of The Story Cycle in P. T. Anderson’s Magnolia / (3) The Monstrous Feminine and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Themes of  “Passing” in John Cassavetes’s Shadows

John Cassavetes’s directorial debut, Shadows, appears to take the issue of race in 1950’s America as its main topic.  The family which occupies the central action of Shadows consists of Ben, Leila and Hugh, three siblings who live together in New York City at the end of the 1950’s.  These very different characters are each victims of a self-created persona.  Ben and Leila are light-skinned African-Americans, while their brother Hugh is darker in skin tone.  Ben and Leila “pass” as white, but not in the company of their brother.  In documentary style, Shadows follows the daily lives of these three siblings.  Using this technique, Cassavetes is able to convey that friendships and choice of social milieu reflect Ben, Leila and Hugh’s internal conflicts.

Shadows also mirrors Beat Generation New York City with a sound track informed by the rhythms of jazz music.  Cassavetes’s hand-held camera techniques, night filming of cityscapes and multiple party and club scenes all reflect urban Cold War Era motifs.  Cassavetes’s camera lingers on its subject’s ennui and indecision, chases them through parks and bluntly focuses on moments of seduction and brutality.  Instead of establishing a traditional storyline, the scenes render a collage motif of narration that Cassavetes is known for.  Some scenes appear as mere vignettes; others seem more about tone than information.

One scene in particular, shot on location in a diner, contrasts a view of Ben and his two buddies with Leila and her friend, David.  While not much happens to drive the plot of Shadows, the character of Leila is portrayed as smartly dressed and elegant, with an intellectual companion, while Ben seems the essence of the Beat Generation jazz musician: rumpled, dark glasses, self-conscious and cool.  Leila chides her brother and his friends about their lack of culture and afterwards Ben and his pals head off to the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art.  During this scene, Ben becomes enthralled with a statue of an African mask.  The image of the mask represents one of the major themes of Shadows.  After the museum caper is a party scene.  At the gathering, the absurdity of Leila’s intellectual crowd is revealed as yet another mask.

Through these glimpses of the sibling’s lives, Cassavetes manages to create an essential sense of an era of aimlessness and change.  While the three central figures that inhabit this landscape seem doomed to wander through it without much direction, by the end of Shadows, all experience an epiphany- and one that allows a realization that they are living as something they are not.  Or in other words, “passing” as something they are not.

Richard Combs addresses this quality of the film by stating:

The freshness of the performances and the looseness of the shooting style made an immediate impact; harder to categorize as ‘improvisation’ or ‘documentary’, however, is the way the idiosyncratic dialogue establishes a density of character, mood and social scene without explaining anything.  The main storylines jostle along in a happy serendipity which turns into a complex reflection on race and identity.  (Hiller 6)

In this manner, both the directorial style of the film, as well as its highly controversial topic, creates a movie with unprecedented style and content.  Shadows was considered “shocking” and “fresh” as the Criterion Collection trailer of the film proclaims.  The trailer consists of quotes from the European and American press stating how innovative and true to “real life” the film is.  Turner Classic Movies web site also provides information:

Shadows had its official American premiere in New York on March 21, 1961, and went into general release in April 1961.  Reviews hailed it as a dynamic and momentous step forward in moviemaking, with the Daily Variety reviewer stating,  ‘It may well be the standard bearer for an entirely new approach, a radical swerve, in U.S.-manufactured screen entertainment.’ (

The Criterion Edition of Shadows also presents a recent interview with the actress Leila Goldini who plays Leila in the film and who was a student in the Cassavetes acting workshop in New York, which supplied the actors who appeared in Shadows.  Goldini states that Cassavetes was primarily interested in capturing relationships between individuals in a particular instance and moment in time.  She relates that Cassavetes instructed the primary actors to interact with each other continuously off set as well as professionally, until their every day relationships informed their on-screen ones with an ease which illuminates their performance.  She believes that her friendship with Hugh Hurd created a sense of straightforwardness and affection on screen that allowed the audience to see them as brother and sister even though Hurd is African-American and Goldini is of Sicilian descent.

Combs also contends that Cassavetes’s pacing and camera technique give rise to a sense of intimacy which creates cohesion in his material:

There’s the helter-skelter camerawork that gives all possible leeway to the actors’ freedom of movement and expression, the rambling conversational sallies and challenges, the tenderness, hostility and loaded demands that people make of each other to ‘be themselves.’  But what Cassavetes essentially carries over is a tension between the hectic flux of experience, characters’ need to rush from one experience to another and a sense that the moment is already gone, the secret has been lost and the opportunity missed.  (Hillier 7).

Indeed, the final epiphanies of the characters seem to reflect a feeling of being left behind or choosing to abandon their previous stances.  Ben remarks to his siblings that maybe he’ll go to Vegas and look for work, as if not being able to “make it” in New York is a failure.  After he and his pals are beat up for flirting with the wrong women, Ben concedes that he doesn’t understand what is wrong with having a steady girl or why it is important to move around from bar to bar every night.  The last frame of Shadows shows Ben wandering off alone into Times Square.

Hugh, in a final and almost jubilant scene, decides that his friendship with his manager, Rupert, and his ability to perform somewhere is ultimately preferable to giving up his career.  He and Rupert jump a midnight train and continue on their journey.  Hugh’s resolve to continue doing what he loves even if his days of success have passed is probably the most upbeat resolution in the film.

Leila’s character, however, provides the most disturbing vision of the three.  Leila is portrayed as an independent young woman who becomes more troubled as the film progresses.  Early in the film, she learns what happens when she decides to assert her independence and walk home from seeing her brother off at the Port Authority.  As she ventures out into Times Square, Leila is confronted by images of women as objects and accosted by a passing man.  After her romp with Tony ends up in seduction, Leila turns traditional narrative on its head by announcing, “It was awful.” Also, during this unsettling exchange between Tony and Leila, after they have become physically intimate, a mask is seen hanging on the wall near Tony’s bed.  After she has slept with him, Leila suddenly abandons her position as flirt, modern young woman and freethinker.

Leila’s last scene in the film (added two years after the first version was made) is a date with a young black man, Davey Jones, who takes advantage of her confusion.  He tries to force Leila into a more stereotypical female version of herself by stating that he doesn’t like aggressive women and he is the one who must ask her out for another date.  He seems to “tame” Leila by telling her that when they left her apartment, with Tony lurking by the door:  “You know I saw the way he looked at you back there.  I also saw the way he looked at me.”  In other words, he calls Leila on her ability to pass as white and points out the problems that capacity creates.

The audience is left with a final questioning glance of Leila as a troubled soul who is caught between independence and conformity, passing as white or choosing to be recognized as black, trapped between being a woman who asserts her sexuality or one who chooses to be dominated for protection.  In the plot arc of Shadows, Leila goes from being protected by her older brother who “reads” as black, to considering a traditional relationship with another man who “reads” as black and will not abandon her because of race.   Leila seems to be caught between the decision to be a “prize” for the black character, David, or an “embarrassment” to Tony.

Throughout Shadows, Cassavetes directs the viewer toward the cultural confusion of the two characters who pass as white.  In a central party scene, Ben shuns the advances of a young black woman, much as Leila insults Davey and keeps him waiting for hours to take her out.  Hugh seems upset by the idea that Rupert is flirting with a white woman at the end of the same party.  Ben flees his brother’s gathering and goes to an integrated club, populated by both blacks and whites, the same scene which begins Shadows.  Before entering the club, however, Ben mutters, “Mary had a little lamb.  Its fleece was white as snow.  And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.”  If Ben is the “lamb,” then his mask of whiteness is one he acknowledges; his confusion is almost palpable.

It is obvious that despite the fact Cassavetes includes these incidences, he doesn’t intend to resolve them.  In the same manner, he refuses to settle the uncertainty of the characters who inhabit the world of Shadows.   Cassavetes focuses on human interaction during a particular intersection of race relations and Beat Culture, a time frame in American history leading up to the Civil Rights Movement and Second Wave Feminism.  Prescient for its era, Cassavetes brings up questions in Shadows that would be difficult to answer in the brief period of one day and two nights, the time frame of the film.  He gives us questions about the nature of race, identity and free will that are still debated fifty years later.

Works Cited:

Cassavetes, John, writer.  Shadows. Dir. John Cassavetes. 1959.  The Criterion Collection, 2004.

Hillier, Jim, ed.  American Independent Cinema: A Sight And Reader. London: British Film Institute, 2001.

“Shadows.”  TCM archives, Movie Database.  2009.  Turner Classic Movies. 10 Sept. 2009.

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Aspects of The Story Cycle in P. T. Anderson’s Magnolia

In their book The Composite Novel: The Short Story Cycle in Transition, Maggie Dunn and Ann Morris discuss the common elements of novels that utilize the short story cycle.  They seek to define the genre, look at how these works create a “referential field,” and examine certain patterns that exist across this type of novel.  It is the intent of this paper to examine the similarities of P. T. Anderson’s film Magnolia to the points Dunn and Morris make about a genre whose plot and characters inextricably interweave multiple stories into one narrative.

In a review of Dunn and Morris’s work for “Studies in Short Fiction,” Michael L. Storey distills the body of their work with the concise statement, “the authors devote . . . their study to an analysis of five ways that authors establish ‘whole-text coherence’ in the composite novel” (Storey 1).  This essay will examine the tricks that Anderson uses to create coherence in Magnolia, in the light of Dunn and Morris’s thesis.

The first determiner Storey cites is the “referential field.”  He states, “Place or setting as a ‘referential field’ (a term the authors borrow from Wolfgang Iser), is the traditional way of unifying otherwise disparate pieces” (1).   The authors themselves clarify this practice by defining it as a logical evolution of an older tradition they identify as “the village sketch tradition” (Dunn and Morris 31).  The authors believe the technique “was pioneered by the English Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village in 1824” (31).  Of course, this particular means of narration has evolved from the construct of small village to encompass a larger setting.  In other words, the village becomes a larger urban locale, as evinced by James Joyce’s Dubliners.  The authors continue:

Here the aesthetic of the composite novel works traditionally and effectively – story by story, against the backdrop of the village itself, and with the voice of the narrator providing an additional unifying perspective, a composite picture of ‘our neighborhood’ emerges. (31)

Dunn and Morris go on to cite different factors of plot and narrative which may interlock multiple stories in the reader’s mind, including:  a single narrator, the repetition of characters or images, and a setting that dominates all other action.  To apply the ‘setting’ construct to Magnolia is certainly possible as Anderson’s characters all inhabit Hollywood, California, and the character Officer Jim Kurring further defines the location as North Hollywood.  This fact is further defined by the opening of Magnolia.  After threes stories involving coincidence or fate have been told, music cues and the flashing visuals of the film’s opening: an unfolding magnolia superimposed over a map of Los Angeles which focuses on the area of the film’s action.

Anderson’s film meets all of Dunn and Morris’s criteria.  Furthermore, he locates the viewer in a particular world by using the story of its inhabitants and the visuals of particular scenes.  There is a narrator, whose voice-over bookends the body of the film with three stories of fate, which seem impossible to believe.  These stories serve to help the viewer understand the serendipitous nature of the interlocking stories about to unfold.   The introduction of these seemingly impossible situations also cues the disposition of Anderson’s ensuing plot.

The trope of repetition of characters most certainly applies to Magnolia as well.  Not only do the character’s story lines intersect in linear time, they weave together repeatedly until a pattern emerges.  Each individual travels through another’s chronicle until parallels emerge and one character’s history illuminates another’s current situation.  Anderson introduces characters whose paths meet, and some whose lives never intersect in the diegesis of the film, making the audience do the work of understanding their connection.  The irony of separate entrapment further drives Anderson’s urban landscape—a cityscape in which personal isolation is a common theme.  Isolation is another factor that connects Anderson’s work to Dunn and Morris’s theories of the story cycle.  In Magnolia, isolation becomes the “setting” which dominates all action.

Another feature Dunn and Morris use to define a composite novel or story cycle is that, as exemplified in Dubliners,  “the stories’ protagonists gradually become more mature, progressing from naiveté . . . to some degree of self-awareness” (39).  Anderson’s twining of characters helps the viewer to have an epiphany prior to the characters themselves.  This is seen between the individuals of Donnie Smith, the ex-quiz kid, now middle age failure and the young television whiz kid, Stanley Spector.

The movie also connects Claudia Gator and Linda Partridge, both drug addicts consumed with feelings of guilt and regret.  The cop, Jim Kurring, is similar to Earl Partridge’s nurse, Phil Parma, in respect to their service oriented professions, policeman and nurse.  These two characters are selfless and mirror each other’s desire to serve others.  In other scenes, however, the audience is shown contrasts. The selfish parents of the whiz kids contrast with Earl Partridge, who we learn abandoned his family, leaving the viewer to wonder which situation causes more damage.  The audience is also surprised with the information that the reprehensible T. J. Mackey, the motivational speaker who seems determined to avoid emotional contact with others, had nursed his dying mother as a fourteen year-old.   It is the tension between these parallel and contrasting stories that drive this plot and provide a cohesive, interwoven text for Magnolia.

Another technique of the composite novel cited by Dunn and Morris is the recurrent protagonist, “often one experiencing a rite of passage that leads to self-discovery and a sense of others” (Storey 2).  Magnolia contains not one of these characters, but many.  To further the sense of epiphany, Anderson contrasts these individuals with selfless ones.  For example, Big Earl Partridge and T. J. Mackey are contrasted with Phil Parma.  Stanley Spector is compared to his selfish father, Rick Spector.  The dedicated wife, Rose Gator, who has chosen to remain with her husband no matter what, will ultimately chose her daughter, Claudia, over her philandering, child-molester husband.

The characters in Magnolia experience epiphany in a similar time frame on one unusual evening, where an unthinkable event occurs: Earl Partridge, Linda Partridge, T. J. Mackey, Claudia Gator, Donnie Smith, Stanley Spector and Rose Gator all have life renewing revelations about themselves and others.

Dunn and Morris also cite “collective protagonists” and “Patterns and Palimpsests” as methods of unifying varied themes in the story cycle.  Storey distills this chapter into a succinct definition:

The metaphor of the palimpsest is meant to suggest that, as we progress from story to story, we can glimpse through each to see the similar patterns of prior stories; in effect each story is superimposed on all of the others. (2)

It is this definition of the collective novel that seems most appropriate to Anderson’s Magnolia.  That every character seems to breath the other’s air, feel each other’s pain, and that on a night of Biblical proportions, many of the characters of Magnolia are given the chance to start anew.  Anderson readily achieves this effect as so many of Magnolia’s characters seem to be an extension of or alternative to each other’s plot arc.

There are other techniques that Anderson uses to connect his characters.  Some are subtle and others outrageously unusual in the context of traditional filmmaking.  Symbols that connect the plot arc are buried in the visual world of Magnolia.  As, for example, the “eye” of television screens is ubiquitous throughout Magnolia.   The very first scene of the body of this film is a close up of a television with T. J. Mackey’s face.

The image of the television appears throughout the film, as we see Phil Parma watching T. J. Mackey and the show “What Do Kids Know” is broadcast in Claudia’s apartment.  Since many of the characters are linked to television, such as Stanley, Donnie, Jimmy Gator and even Earl Partridge, as his production company is responsible for the program, television is one means to link the characters.  The viewer is also brought into the studio to view the program first hand as a sort of postmodern take on what is real and what is figured as real, “the broadcast.”

Anderson takes this metaphor even further toward the end of Magnolia.  As Claudia sits alone in her darkened apartment snorting cocaine after her date with Jim Kurring, the TV is blank or dead for the first time.  The dark eye of Claudia’s television reflects the shadows of frogs falling outside her window.  Furthermore, at the moment that her father Jimmy Gator is about to commit suicide and is hit by a falling frog, his gun discharges and hits, instead, the blank eye of the television, as if that is the real villain of the tale.

In another scene which flaunts the rules of Hollywood film, Anderson breaks verisimilitude by having his protagonists sing along to a particular Aimee Mann song, “It’s Not Going to Stop” (and with her), as the camera pans from character to character in separate locations.  The film also reiterates the number three.  Magnolia contains three attempts at suicide, and from the first, successful attempt, a gunshot in a hotel room where blood is splattered on a picture of water lilies, to Jimmy Gator’s, which occurs in a room with a similar print of a magnolia.

There are three allusions to the Masonic Order in this film and also in three different instances the characters say, “The book says we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us,” referring to the Bible.  And of course, there is the ultimate link in Magnolia, the rain of toads.  This incidence refers to a passage in “Exodus,” Chapter 8: Verse 2.  There are three incidences of this number in the film: in the television studio, on Magnolia Boulevard and on a billboard.

In Magnolia, P. T. Anderson successfully weaves an interlocking narrative with many of the markers of the composite novel outlined by Dunn and Morris in their analysis of this particular genre.  Given the nature of film, however, Anderson is able to push these techniques even further with referential visuals, some blatant and some of which are deeply encoded.

Anderson induces his audience to stay focused and engaged throughout a seemingly random course of events, which offer a heart breaking view of postmodern relationships.  The lives of his characters are linked to one another in ways they cannot see, ways that the narrator admonishes us to accept with these final words:

There are stories of coincidence and chance and intersections and strange things told and which is which who only knows. And we generally say, ‘Well if that was in a movie I wouldn’t believe it.’ And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that these strange things happen all the time, and so it goes and so it goes and the book says, ‘We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.’

Anderson uses classic literary technique to link his characters in Magnolia.  He provides characters whose paths intersect in order to present the idea that lives converge due to faith, grace, predetermined means, or perhaps even under the direction of a higher power.  He accomplishes this feat by using classical tropes of the composite novel, and also by breaking with convention filmmaking traditions.

Works Cited:

Dunn, Maggie and Ann Morris.  The Composite Novel:  The Short Story Cycle in Transition.  New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Storey, Michael. “The Composite Novel: The Short Story Cycle In Transition.” Studies In Short Fiction.  Spring: 1997.  August 24, 2009. <;

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The Monstrous Feminine and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

In the book Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin discusses the purpose and meaning of carnival in the world of the Renaissance.  Within the context of this work he examines the grotesque as it relates to the body, ritual celebration, and art.  Bakhtin examines these sources to uncover ways in which the body, and especially the female body, is portrayed.  His interpretation of the way women’s bodies were viewed and politicized, relate to the female grotesque and hag figures that began to appear in 1960s horror film.  Bahktin also discusses the female grotesque within the context of regeneration and rebirth, “For in this image we find both poles of the transformation, the old and the new, the dying and the procreating, the beginning and the end of the metamorphosis”(24).

In medieval carnivals, the grotesque body symbolized death and rebirth, and the female body represents the gateway in this cycle.  Bahktin continues:

She is ambivalent.  She debases, brings down to earth, lends a bodily substance to things, and destroys … But when this image is treated trivially … woman’s ambivalence acquires an ambiguous nature; it presents a wayward, sensual, concupiscent character of falsehood, materialism and baseness. (240)

Since Bahktin is discussing the world of carnival, he is referring to a comedic tradition as well.  He emphasizes the inversions which occur during secular carnivals, as the social world is reversed.  This tradition of inversion leads Bahktin to discuss the “woman on top” phenomena.  During carnival the roles of women were also overturned and they were no longer subjugated to men, but were placed in charge.  Kathleen Rowe discusses the “woman on top” as an unruly figure who symbolizes the overthrow of the established order.  Rowe sees Bahktin’s ideas about the female grotesque as relative to views of women who are both comedic and related to excess,  “It is this notion of the grotesque body which bears most relevance to the unruly woman, who so often makes a spectacle of herself with her fatness, pregnancy, age or loose behavior” (34).

When addressing the female grotesque, Bahktin also illustrates the concept of the pregnant hag by mentioning a collection of terracotta figurines found in the Kerch collection.  He states, “This is a typical and very strongly expressed grotesque … They combine a senile, decaying and deformed flesh with the flesh of new life, conceived but as yet unformed” (27).   Mary Russo addresses this concept from a feminist perspective: “for the feminist reader, this image of the pregnant hag is more than ambivalent.  It is loaded with all the connotations of fear and loathing around the biological processes of reproduction and aging” (63).

In What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, released in 1962, Bette Davis, in the guise of Baby Jane Hudson, is one of the most flagrantly grotesque characters in film.  The character of Baby Jane fits the descriptions of the female grotesque discussed by Bahktin, Rowe, and Russo.  Although she is a childless hag, she performs from the site of both child and crone; she simpers with the excess of a spoiled little girl in the body of a grotesque witch.  Jane Hudson is insane, slovenly, cruel, and malicious.  She takes great delight in slowly starving her crippled sister by offering her dead vermin to eat.  She murders, embezzles, and drinks.  And perhaps her worse transgression is that she is hideously unkempt, fat, and sports gruesome make up which emphasizes her age while she wears the clothes of a child and acts the part as well.  She is so unstable and ghastly that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane becomes a parody, a farce.   Davis’s performance leads the film into the world of camp, and fans found it so delightful that Baby Jane spun an entire genre of exploitation films starring middle-aged actresses of the time.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is often classified as a Grand Guignol film, after the infamous Parisian theater of Pigalle, which featured plays that shocked, splattered the audience with blood and animal parts, and featured gruesome plots with unexpected twists, usually involving murder or scandal.  The tiny theater, open from 1894 until 1962, specialized in meticulously recreated, horrific “splatter” murders, tortures and plots involving street characters such as criminals, prostitutes, and other outsider figures.  Ironically, the year the Guignol closed its doors, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s over-the-top performances in Baby Jane sparked a trend in shock and horror films which featured the macabre, and were inhabited by American actresses who had passed the “prime” age for classical Hollywood narratives. These films contained an element of camp, featuring trangressive female characters that murder, shock, refuse to grow up, and most importantly create a spectacle of themselves. They meet not only Bahktin’s criteria for grotesque female images, but also Rowe’s description of the comedic unruly woman or woman on top, as well as Russo’s description of figures who represent our fear and loathing of reproduction and aging.

Davis and Crawford went on to do other exploitation films, including Davis in Dead Ringer (1964) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), also starring Olivia De Havilland and considered by the critic Robert Sklar to be the first American splatter film, since it begins with the dismemberment of a hand, and then a beheading.  Davis also stars in the British thriller, The Nanny (1965), produced by Hammer Studios.  After Baby Jane, Crawford appeared in Strait-Jacket (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), and a British version of the genre made for Hammer Films and entitled Berserk! (1967).  Many of these films featured titles that mimicked Baby Jane, especially in terms of added punctuation.  Tallulah Bankhead made Die! Die! My Darling (1965), Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon did Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters starred in What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971), and even Elizabeth Taylor succumbed to the genre and starred in Night Watch (1973).

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the film that launched this genre of middle-aged actresses in horror movies, is one that abounds with images of the grotesque and the comedic.   Bahktin maintains, “the most important of all human features for the grotesque is the mouth.  It dominates all else.  The grotesque face is actually reduced to the gaping mouth; the other features are only a frame encasing this wide-open bodily abyss” (317). Almost every scene of the film features Baby Jane singing, yawning, drinking, eating, and speaking expressively or disdainfully.  The viewer’s first encounter with the film is the sound of a child crying.  The screen is still darkened, as a male’s voice chides, “Want to see it again little girl?  It shouldn’t frighten you.”  What follows is the visual of the girl and a Jack in the Box, a clown-like grotesque, which appears to be shedding real tears.  The scolding voice and doll image which begins the narrative also become the main tropes of the film.  Baby Jane speaks in a disdainful voice that scolds her sister, the maid, and the neighbor, all female.

An image of a life-size Baby Jane doll enters the diegesis before the actual human figure of Jane Hudson appears; the viewer sees the doll in the theater lobby prior to the child’s Vaudeville performance.  On stage, Baby Jane sings with her father in an exaggerated pantomime of an older, more mature girl.  Her father then urges the audience to take home their very own Baby Jane doll.  The idea of performance haunts the film, since the viewer will learn that Baby Jane’s sister, Blanche, goes on to become a movie star while Jane remains fixed with the emotional maturity and talent of a child.  In the very early scenes of the film we discover that Jane is a spoiled brat, cruel to her sister, and that Blanche seems determined to get revenge.  The next setting presents a movie producer and director discussing the adult Jane’s lack of talent, followed by a mysterious scene of a woman gunning a car toward a figure in its headlights.  The opening credits come up over the figure of a broken Baby Jane doll.  The doll signifies not only Jane’s repressed maturity, but also her status as “broken.”

The trope of the Baby Jane doll in the film is significant.  It is an image of consumerism, as both Jane and the doll have been commoditized by her father.  Jane is such a prize that she is allowed to berate her family: the viewer sees her as a little monster.  The doll also symbolizes Jane as a damaged entity; the “real time” narrative begins over its shattered image.  The grotesque clown of the Jack in the Box presages the bizarre figure Jane will become, a devouring, childless hag who destroys and murders.  The doll is also seen in one of the most bizarre segments of the film, the scene where Baby Jane seeks to reprise her Vaudeville role.

When the movie begins in real time, we see Blanche in a wheelchair watching one of her old films.  Downstairs, Jane is reading papers, now made-up like a hideous clown.  She swizzles booze, yawns protractedly to show a gaping maw, and, rising, lurch toward the door.  Davis never seems to walk in this film, but progresses in a desultory, wallowing shuffle.  Davis appears to take great delight in the grotesque nature of her character, as she plays her role beyond the edge of camp and past all boundaries of good taste.

Crawford’s character, Blanche, is the protagonist of the diegesis: dainty, passive, excessively kind to her sister, and long suffering.  Both roles encompass stereotypes from the era of the silent film: the madwoman and overtly feminine victim.  The movie is shot in black and white, and captures the look of silent film; with its dark spaces and exaggerated lighting, Baby Jane echoes both Film Noir and German Expressionism.  The confined female as associated with a caged bird is a literary trope appropriated by this film.  The wheelchair-bound Blanche, who is trapped on the second story of the house, keeps a small songbird as a pet.  But this symbol of entrapped femininity is defaced and destroyed when, at the beginning of her rampage, Baby Jane serves Blanche the dead bird on a silver tray garnished with sliced tomatoes and parsley.  Baby Jane is under the impression, which is correct, that her sister is about to institutionalize her and sell the house to move in with their kind, loyal, and soon to be murdered black maid, who is incidentally named Maidie.  In a turn of events contrary to classic literature and film, and certainly contradictory to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s text, The Madwoman in the Attic, Jane Hudson becomes the madwoman in charge, with the “good sister” locked in the attic.

Baby Jane is trapped between the self she was, as reflected by a perfect porcelain doll with blonde ringlets, and the hag she sees in the mirror.  These two Janes, reflect Bahktin’s concept of the pregnant hag, and contrast the decaying flesh of the crone against her younger, perfect image.  The two selves are the source of her madness: the beautiful, spoiled child on the stage who is a commodity, and the hag in the mirror who subsists from her crippled sister.  When Jane drinks, she talks to the doll and the doll sings to her.  When the adult Jane dresses in the Baby Jane costume she is a simpering, caricature of femininity.  When she is her older self, Jane is in charge and murderous.  Jane kills Maidie, frightens off the kindly neighbor, and continues to serve her sister dead vermin until she is half starved.

After she takes control of the household, Jane publishes an advertisement for an accompanist to facilitate her “return to the stage” to reprise her vaudeville persona as Baby Jane.  The ad turns up a money-hungry mooch, Edwin Flagg.  As Baby Jane performs her act for the pianist, she lifts her skirt, moves like the child-puppet of her former self, and opens a gaping mouth to sing.  Edwin Flagg looks amused, then disgusted, and finally horrified.   Flagg plays along until, one drunken night of “rehearsing,” he finds the nearly starved Blanche trussed up in the attic and runs screaming from the house to find the police.  Jane flees, dragging Blanche with her, to wind up on a beach in plain view with all of Los Angeles searching for them.  In a bizarre plot twist, Blanche informs her sister that their situation is her fault; she was paralyzed in the crash while trying to run over Jane—who has always thought she was the culprit.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is not a critically acclaimed film, but it contains Davis’s most over-the-top performance, which helped to invent a horror sub-genre and create a cult classic.  What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, creates a trangressive female character that breaks down stereotypes of classical Hollywood performances.  In a medium designed to showcase youth and beauty, Bette Davis, was willing not only to act her age, but also to flaunt it.  Jane Hudson exemplifies Kathleen Rowe’s “woman on top” who overthrows the established order with camp and comedy as her weapons.

With the release of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962, Bette Davis at fifty-four not only revived her acting career by playing a hag, she also opened the door for other actresses to join her at the Monster Ball.   Defying Hollywood characterizations of women, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? also helped to pave the way for cult and camp films, before these genres were clearly defined.  Baby Jane Hudson is the personification of Bakhtin’s grotesque female body, containing the new and the old, the child and the hag.  She is drunken and loathsome; she is comedic and empowered.  Baby Jane exhibits agency over the boundary between life and death.  “She debases, brings down to earth, lends a bodily substance to things and destroys” (240).  Baby Jane is a witch and a monster, but she is also the hero of the film, which leads us to believe that sometimes the monstrous feminine is much more appealing than the stereotypical feminine characters that Hollywood had previously served up on its silver platter.

Works Cited:

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984. Print.

Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter.  Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1995. Print.

Russo, Mary.  The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, and Modernity.  New  York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

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