Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Camping Out with a Classic Trio

The last few months have been nirvana for DVD collectors of a certain persuasion, with special editions of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Mommie Dearest finally released, along with Valley of the Dolls 'out' for the first time in a special 2-disc campfest. I recently did my bi-annual DVD purchasing during Deep Discount DVD's great 20% off sale, and I picked up all three titles, granting them all top priority on my 'to-watch' list.

Baby Jane may be considered a hoot now, but DVD commentators Charles Busch and John Epperson recall how frightening the movie was to audiences upon the film's inital, box-office smash release in 1962 (and even later: I've always found Bette Davis screeching her way through "I've Written a Letter to Daddy" ("His AD-DRESS is HEAAVVEENNN above!!") so wildly 'out there' its funny (if weird), but during my high school years I had a friend over to watch the movie, expecting her to laugh along with me; instead she was terrified and got mad at me, claiming I'd just shown her the scariest movie she'd ever seen). With her pasty-white, heavily made-up face, Mary Pickford curls, and over-expressive features, the fifty-something Jane appears as a demented soul throughout much of the film, but Busch and Epperson note there are moments when Davis uses her considerable talents to add a touching vulnerability to Jane, thereby preventing the character from becoming a complete freak. In contrast to her costar's onscreen fireworks, Joan Crawford as Blanche wisely chooses to comport herself with a calm dignity, resulting in an impressive, mostly-restrained performance (her work is even more substantial when taking into account all the "dragon lady" roles Crawford devoured, eyes blazing, during the 1940's and 1950's). Alternately amusing and creepy, Jane is a cinematic sister act like no other.

An overabundance of charms are there for the taking in Dolls: the prudish 'almost' nude scenes, the bland, nearly non-existent male costars, the hair, Jacqueline Susann's cameo, Patty Duke bellowing "Neely! Neely O'Hara!!" at the film's conclusion and, of course, the Divas-Gone-Wild catfight between Duke and Susan Hayward, wherein the toliet bowl plays a vital supporting role. Patty Duke goes where no Oscar-winning young starlet has gone before: whether threatening to eat her costars alive during the dramatic scenes via her reckless, over-the-top shenanigans, or lip-synching and 'grooving' along in the swingin'-1960's-by-way-of-1940's-Broadway musical segments, Duke offers a demonstration of untamed overacting for which Dolls fans are eternally grateful (screaming "You better run!! You dirty little tramp!!" is the most subtle Duke gets in the film, and we love her all the more for "character choices" like this). Tough-as-nails Hayward proves two Oscar winners can play at that game, and gives Duke a run for her money in the ham department, while future winner Lee Grant falls into the ham-on-wry category, as hunky Tony Scotti's brittle sibling. Amid the overblown theatrics surrounding them, Sharon Tate amazingly manages to gives a quiet, sensitive performance as Jennifer, the beautiful, tragic sexpot, while Barbara Parkins uses her beauty and her distinctive, soothing voice to maintain an air of class and intelligence throughout the picture, while her wigs, wardrobe, and dialogue fight against her every step of the way.

There's a bunch of fun Valley extras for the gay-in-heart (suitably, the DVDs are encased in a pink box), the best of which is a great commentary track wherein Ted Casablanca queries Parkins-who still has that great voice- on all things relating to the filming and subsequent legend of Dolls. Parkins clearly is in-the-know (and has a sense of humor) regarding the film's camp status, as well as the movie's merits (mainly Tate's work, the film's theme song -"Gotta get off, gonna get, need to get off of this ride. . .", and Dionne Warwick's memorable rendition of it, which became a huge hit in 1968). The actress also has some interesting things to say regarding her brief time working with Judy Garland before the legendary star left the cast. Contrary to most reports stating Garland was too ill or incompetent to play the part, Parkins feels Garland was giving a brillant, Oscar-worthy performance, and it was only the superstar's insecuries of playing aging diva Helen Lawson that caused Garland's departure from the film. I thought Parkins might be stretching it when stating she was surprised the movie wasn't at least nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, until I remembered the other Fox film that year that actually scored a Best Picture nod (Dr. Dolittle anyone?).

Of the three titles Mommie Dearest remains closest to my heart, and not just because I first saw the film upon its release in 1981 with my mother (we once played out the sitting-at-the-dinner-table-from-lunchtime-until-dusk battle of wills scene but, as John Walters points out on the commentary, every kid used to go through this kind of stuff in un-PC times); fortunately I escaped getting the crap beat out of me with a can of cleanser, and I never had to clean up the garden in the dead of night- I guess I treated my mom with the respect she deserved. I'm not sure I agree with Walter's assessment that the film is "so good it's great" (specifically, I think the script is sketchy concerning the film's 1940's-1970's timeline) but I concur in his points that some of the film's humor is intentional, and that Faye Dunaway is too sensational in Dearest to have misgivings regarding her performance (although her work was highly praised by, among others, the noted and difficult-to-please critic Pauline Kael, and Dunaway was runner-up for the NYFC's "Best Actress" award, for the most part the actress has adamantly refused to address her career-defining role in the film). In her unforgettable portrayal, Dunaway empathizes with the struggles and fears Crawford faced as an aging movie queen, and adds rich dimensions to Crawford's complicated personna; her Joan Crawford is among the strongest emotionally-driven, complex screen performances. Take Dunaway out of the picture, and the film would still have some florid, campy moments, but Dunaway's the reason Dearest remains vivid cinema, still resonating with viewers 25 years after it's initial release. It's hard to think of another actress screaming "No wire hangers" or "Don't f--- with me, fellas!" with the conviction Faye brings to the lines. Dunaway made a total commitment to the role, bravely letting her "inner Joan" command the screen. Many feel Faye went too far in delineating Crawford's often-tormented existence (including the star herself, who once labeled her Joan a "Kabuki" performance during an Inside the Actor's Studio appearance, before quickly moving on to a discussion of her post-Dearest career); however, I think Dunaway's acting is remarkably true, bold, and forthright, and her work in Dearest remains the apex of Faye's film career. As Christina, Diana Scarwid is fine (you believe she's strong enough to take Crawford on), but Mara Hobel (as the young Christina) gives the most indelible supporting performance, matching Dunaway's powerful emoting during the infamous "attack" scenes (the "Wire Hanger/Bathroom Floor" rampage, the impromptu haircut, the midnight axing, etc.).

If you're tired of the special-effects-driven epics of today, which often feature scant opportunities for memorable characterizations, take a look at these blasts from the past and sate your need for some real, dramatic special effects offered by a bevy of glamorous, talented divas in some of their signature roles.


At 12:09 PM, Blogger StinkyLulu said...

Sad but true -- I've never actually watched Baby Jane. And I've been just swamped enough to have not screened this treasure pile of dvds.

But this post got me all interested all over again...


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