Growing Old Disgracefully: A Deep Dive Into Grande Dame Guignol


agsploitation. Not the most flattering of terms, is it? For this writer at least, it conjures up a very specific set of images—antiquated wigs, smudged lipstick and eyeliner; maybe a facial wart and a set of rotting teeth—accompanied by the juxtaposed sounds of a cheery old-time record and a shrill, maniacal cackle. Scorned wives, axe-wielding spinsters, wicked stepmothers, gruesome grannies. Female Freddy Kruegers, if you will. Once upon a time, the film industry was replete with such roles for women ‘of a certain age’: cinematic relics who were prepared to lay their hard-earned reputations on the line for the allure of a paycheque and star billing. But how far back can this eccentric subgenre be traced, and does it hold any real pertinence in the modern-day motion picture?

“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up . . .”

We all know the line. It was catapulted into public consciousness by the great Gloria Swanson—prowling down the staircase of her decrepit palace like a panther fixated on its prey—at the climax of Sunset Boulevard (1950), Billy Wilder’s trenchant assault on the mechanics of Golden Age Hollywood. As the reclusive, washed-up silent movie star Norma Desmond, Swanson moulded a performance that was equal parts sympathetic and grotesque; heavy on vaudeville theatrics yet imbued with a stinging sorrow that made her breakneck plunge into delirium, and ultimate act of murder, all the more bitterly tragic. In a case of art imitating life, the then-51-year-old was considered to be well past her prime by studio heads (prior to making the film she hadn’t worked in nine years), but the actress most definitely had the last laugh when Blvd. became a critical darling and won her a much-deserved Oscar nomination.

Tremendously iconic as she is, Norma Desmond was far from the first unsavoury broad to ignite the silver screen: there’d been Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1938) meticulously illustrated Evil Queen; dognapping Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz (1939); nefarious Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (1940)—not to mention an impeccably-attired army of scheming femme fatales, such as Barbara Stanwyck’s fatally voluptuous Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity, 1944). But Desmond—or rather, Swanson—was perhaps the first to take the notion of a devilish, mentally disturbed dame to such bold and calamitous extremes, consequently laying the groundwork for the “psycho-biddy” caricature that would find itself cemented in popular culture by a certain sharp-tongued superstar twelve years later.

In 1962, Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? gave Warner Bros.’ flagging poster girl Bette Davis the role of a lifetime: a former child prodigy, now stark-raving ogress, whose primary gratification comes from taunting her crippled elder sister (fellow fading luminary Joan Crawford), confined to a wheelchair in the wake of an automobile “accident” years before. One could call Jane a cynical cash-grab after the runaway success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) at the start of that decade, but the potentially second-rate material was approached with shrewd artistic vision by its seasoned director and stalwart principals, whose notorious real-life rift transplanted splendidly to celluloid, worming its way into every spiteful sneer and churlish flash of contempt.

The chance to ‘ugly up’ proved particularly mouth-watering for Bette, who fashioned her eponymous ghoul—a flesh-and-bone incarnation of Psychos skeletonised Mrs Bates, with added ringlets and Marlboro Lights—into a three-dimensional freakshow; a blazing amalgamation of narcissist, manic depressive, petulant toddler, and female impersonator. It was a skin that Ms. Davis slipped into with relish, and one she returned to time and again during the latter stages of her career, in such tailor-made vehicles as Dead Ringer (1964), Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Nanny (1965), and The Anniversary (1968). Crawford tried to muscle in on the act, too, albeit with considerably less clout, the spectacularly enjoyable Strait-Jacket (1964) being her only memorable post-Jane gig; though in a sour twist of fate, MGM’s erstwhile empress was later immortalised as the indisputable matriarch of all harridans, by a scalding Faye Dunaway in Frank Perry’s bonkers ’81 biopic Mommie Dearest.

The tail end of the 1960s brought with it two quite different, but equally formidable, female fiends. As Martha (wife of Richard Burton’s George) in Mike Nichols’ slow-motion-car-crash appraisal of marital warfare, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Elizabeth Taylor gifted us one of the finest performances of the twentieth century, sputtering and slurring her way through one foul-mouthed, vodka-fuelled tirade after another as if her life—and career—depended on it. Burton made a terrific opponent, but it was the gargoyle-ish Taylor, with her wild, mascara-stained eyes and crooked lips—a ticking time bomb liable to detonate at any moment—who ultimately stole the spotlight. Then, in a more conventional but no less disturbing kind of horror picture, Ruth Gordon channelled the nosiest of all next-door-neighbours in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), her amiable, pint-sized Minnie Castevet proving so captivatingly kooky that it comes as a genuine kick in the teeth when her perverse objective is revealed. Fearless in their ferocity and freakishness, it’s no surprise that these showstopper turns have since been welcomed into the pantheon of all-time greats—or that each was bestowed a gilded statuette by the Academy.

Long considered Tinseltown royalty, having made her name in Paramount jewels such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Trouble in Paradise (1932), the alluring and versatile Miriam Hopkins continued to work right up until her death in 1970, which was preceded that same year by a top-billed swansong in Donald Wolfe’s dubiously-titled Hollywood Horror House. An unusual and at times unnerving little film, Wolfe’s narrative pilfers the base themes of Blvd. and Baby Jane—chiefly, the ever-changing tide of the entertainment biz and the cataclysmic effects of isolation—and stuffs them with a generous handful of hallucinogens. The unorthodox marriage of kaleidoscopic visuals and good old-fashioned histrionics is nothing to be sniffed at, though, and the brilliant Hopkins demands our undivided attention at every turn, gobbling up the scenery with a stamina that’s thoroughly commendable.

Maritime disaster pic The Poseidon Adventure (1972) may have afforded Shelley Winters one of her most iconic roles—and provided dynamite material for Bette Midler’s stand-up comedy routine—but it was Curtis Harrington’s back-to-back schlockers What’s the Matter With Helen? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (both 1971) that handed America’s ‘everywoman’ the juiciest characters of her career. In Helen, she’s a God-fearing do-gooder whose sanity slowly unravels after the incarceration of her only child; while in the superior, Hansel and Gretel-inspired Auntie Roo, she goes full-scale fruitcake, donning a droll half-smile and a playful glint in each pupil as she chases a pair of orphaned siblings around her extravagant Gothic abode. It was around this same period that horror maestro Pete Walker thrust British character actress Sheila Keith front-and-centre in a succession of grisly B-features—House of Whipcord, Frightmare (both ’74) and The Comeback (’78)—that made terrifyingly good use of her grave visage and nice-old-lady demeanour.

Interesting and competently crafted as these pictures were, they were undoubtedly the dawn of trashier times for the female-centric fright flick. It was “so long!” to the serious portrayals of mental torment (Piper Lauries Margaret White in Carrie (1976) notwithstanding) and “hello!”  instead to a streamlined, more obvious kind of perpetrator. For better or worse, this turnabout bled perfectly into the prosperous stalk-and-slash boom of the subsequent decade, with the likes of Friday the 13th (1980), Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981), Curtains (1983), Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1983), Blood Rage (1987), and even the big-budget Fatal Attraction (1987)—at its core a join-the-dots slasher pic—giving their menopausal monstresses a chance to rule the roost in what was principally a young’un-dominated field.

The birth of postmodernism at the dawn of the smart-talking Nineties brought with it yet another strain of cinematic crone: the charismatic antiheroine, somebody to root for as well as be revulsed by. Hot on the heels of uproarious turns by Anne Ramsey (Throw Momma from the Train, 1987) and Roseanne Barr (She-Devil, 1989) came a cardigan-clad, “cock-a-doodie!” bundle of bonkers by the name of Annie Wilkes; an astonishing Kathy Bates in Rob Reiner’s top-tier adaptation of Misery (1990), Stephen King’s cautionary tale about the perils of hardcore fandom. Bouncing between giddy, morose, maternal, and ruthlessly sadistic, Bates—who rightfully collected an Academy Award—really dug deep into the bipolar characteristics of James Caan’s uncompromising Number One Fan. A downright looney-tune she may be, but, with her childlike temperament and a vacant gaze that hints at a lifetime of loneliness, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit sorry for this wretched sad sack. Well . . . up until the feet-bashing, that is.

Next, in Robert Zemeckis’ eye-poppingly inventive Death Becomes Her (1992), Meryl Streep delivered a pitch-perfect embodiment of callous self-absorption when she headlined as a megabitch movie star who’ll stop at nothing to reclaim her expired sex appeal. The part proved a glorious opportunity for the oft-serious ac-tohr to flex her funny bones, and she was matched victoriously by a luminous Goldie Hawn (co-piloting as her long-time frenemy), whose transformation from obese layabout to scheming Jessica Rabbit-style seductress really has to be seen to be believed. Watching these players—neither of them particularly known for tapping into their inner reprobate—check their vanities at the door and crank the cattiness all the way up to eleven is nothing short of a lip-smacking delight. Their undignified retribution at the film’s climax, which shows them as having morphed into something more in line with the work of George A. Romero, is undoubtedly well deserved; but there’s no escaping the fact that we’ve fallen head-over-heels for this deplorable duo.

Two years on, husky-voiced screen siren Kathleen Turner—fast approaching the cusp of a career shift from beguiling sex symbol to industry-imposed ‘mother’ types—became an unlikely recruit into the wacky world of cult filmmaker John Waters when she fronted his candy-hued satire of bourgeois suburban bliss, Serial Mom (1994). As an all-American housewife with a dangerously keen interest in the propriety of her neighbours, Turner delivers the goods with triumphant zeal as she alternates between effervescent charm and clinically cool rage, serving up the kind of intrepid tour-de-force—alongside hearty helpings of meatloaf—that most actresses would kill to get a stab at. She’s Betty Crocker with a butcher knife, and boy, is she savouring it. The decade also presented ghoulish opportunities to the likes of Anjelica Huston and Bette Midler, both bringing their ‘A’ game—beneath globs of unflattering makeup—to Nicholas Roeg’s The Witches (1990) and Disney’s Hocus Pocus (1993), respectively.

And what of the new millennium? Is hagsploitation alive and kicking in the current climate? Well, yes and no. Times have undoubtedly changed for women in the movies—hurrah!—with gals now being gifted the chance to grow old gracefully alongside their male coequals, in parts that are sensitively drawn, multifaceted, and above all else, realistic.

That isn’t to say that the 21st century hasn’t produced its fair share of gorgons: take Gena Rowlands for instance, channelling late-career Bette Davis in The Skeleton Key (2005); Barbara Hershey sporting a serpentine scowl as the mother from hell in Black Swan (2010); Julianne Moore inhabiting an over-the-hill starlet caught in the throes of psychosis (Maps to the Stars, 2014)—and, of course, the phenomenal, swan-to-ugly-duckling metamorphosis of Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), a performance so frighteningly vivid that it transcends every last centimetre of prosthetic trickery. Even the magnificent and loathsome Mo’Nique (2009’s Precious), her rageful, hate-stricken face purposely lit so as to look perpetually villainous, could be viewed as somewhat of a veiled throwback to the hag-tastic days of old.

Ah yes, the days of old. There’s that music again. Cue the cackle . . .

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