A salient line of dialogue from the rarely-mentioned 1996 comedy film THE FIRST WIVES CLUB really pinpointed the way women are treated by the Hollywood machine. In the film, Goldie Hawn — 50 at the time — plays an actress who finds that she is aging out of certain roles, and laments that Hollywood tends to discard women at 50. “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood,” she says: “Babe, District Attorney, and DRIVING MISS DAISY.”
If you’re a working actress, and you find the age of 50 approaching, it seems that your starring roles fall by the wayside. This has been an unfortunate trend in Hollywood for many, many decades, and tracing the careers of famous actresses of yesteryear will often reveal a tendency to saunter vaguely downward. The movies become lower and lower profile, and the roles become more and more sensational. This might be seen as lamentable, but the more stalwart of professional actresses continued to swing for the walls, and we have an entire subgenre of horror to consume thanks to some of these wonderful women. It’s here that we’ll find the now-moribund “Hollywood Hag” genre.
Also known as “psycho-biddy” films, Hollywood hag films are a phenomenon that still bubbles up from time to time (2006’s NOTES ON A SCANDAL likely counts), but is mostly relegated to the 1960s, when the starlets of the 1930s were aging out. Hollywood hag films were typically lurid horror and thriller films, often way over the top in terms of acting and melodrama, and most starring a once-famous Hollywood starlet, now past her prime. Some Hollywood hag films are lurid, some are awful, and some are outright classics. Many had full sentences for titles. It is a genre worthy of exploration.
The granddaddy of all Hollywood hag films is, of course, Robert Aldrich’s glorious 1962 grand guignol chamber drama WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, often called the first Hollywood hag movie by the sorts of critics who pay attention to such things. BABY JANE is a glorious film which can be viewed as camp and as serious drama simultaneously, and it certainly helps if you know the history between the two lead actresses. In the film, Bette Davis (54 at the time) and Joan Crawford (also 54, but who may have been as old as 59; her age is a matter of some debate) play a pair of sisters competing for fame. Davis plays a former child star, “Baby Jane” Hudson, whose adult career has hit the skids, and who has taken to drinking. Crawford’s character Blanche became an actress later in life. Blanche has stuck by her sister, although Jane is jealous of Blanche’s modest fame.
One night, Blanche is injured in a car accident, and left trapped in a wheelchair. Now in their fifties, the two women live together in a cavernous house, prodding one another, and letting their animosity and fear grow. Jane has become a monster who enjoys serving dead rats to Blanche, and Blanche has taken to signaling neighbors, looking desperately for a way out.
BABY JANE is held in high regard in the LGBT community, and might be considered something of a horror classic. Its high camp, ghoulish performances, and glorious bitchy cattiness are all irresistible, and the film is undeniably fun to watch. Also, it become far more titillating once you lean that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford actually hated one another, with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. The rivalry between Davis and Crawford is the stuff of Hollywood legend, and the awful things the women would say and do to one another feels like a school prank gone way, way out of control. Why modern Hollywood has not made a biopic about the rivalry is beyond me. The hatred these women had for each other is palpable on screen.
BABY JANE set a precedent: studios now saw that they could attain a lot of once-great-but-now-out-of-the-public-eye actresses for less money than some of the younger, hotter stars — assuming that the mere presence of a “name” would attract audiences. Pretty soon, there was to be a decade-long trend.
Davis would return to the genre in 1964 with Aldrich’s HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, which shares a lot of tonal similarities with BABY JANE, although the psycho rivalry was much more along the lines of GASLIGHT, and Davis’ rival was now played by Olivia de Havilland. Davis would continue to star in a few more like DEAD RINGER and THE NANNY, both 1960s psychological thrillers. Davis’ final film, 1989’s WICKED STEPMOTHER is perhaps a supernatural homage to the Hollywood hags, although Davis died during production, and the filmmakers had to go a long way to describe her absence — her soul was shunted into a cat, if I recall.
Crawford, meanwhile, would embrace the psychological thriller in a big way — falling in, as she did, with the legendary William Castle. Castle, famous for his showmanlike theatrical gimmicks, once said that Joan Crawford was a gimmick unto herself, and together they made indelible and wonderful films like STRAIT-JACKET (wherein she wields an axe) and I SAW WHAT YOU DID (a film about a prank phone call gone horribly wrong). Crawford would also star in BERSERK! before ending her career with TROG, a notorious stinker about a rubbery ape-man.
Bette and Joan weren’t the only ones who got to swing for the walls: the glorious Tallulah Bankhead tinkered in late-career thrillers with the 1965 film FANATIC, although it has the more delicious alternate title DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! The flick holds up pretty well, written, as it was, by horror legend Richard Matheson.
If you’ve ever wanted to see Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds duke it out, check out the 1971 film WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? In the film, the two women play the mothers of a pair of young male Leopold & Loeb-type killers, and who eventually come to blows. Reynolds, in one scene, cuts up rabbits. It’s also lurid and lavish in the 1970s mode, so it’s really a delight. Winters, reliable as ever, would also make WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO? in 1971, this time for American International Pictures, that glorious schlockhouse of B-movie legend.
Other questions about aunts had previously arisen in 1969’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE?, a film about Ruth Gordon and Geraldine Page matching wits. Page plays a bratty, rich socialite, and Gordon plays the housekeeper who would murder her. It’s been too long since I’ve seen it, so I cannot comment on it, but I recall liking it.
The appeal of the Hollywood hag films seems to be the real-life drama behind the actresses. We are watching movies about middle-aged and elderly women in distress, but we, as an audience, also see once-great stars clearly stooping to material that would, in earlier years, be considered beneath them. Horror movies and thrillers, back in the 1930s, while successful, were not where “classy” actresses would go; the big movies at the time were more adult melodramas and historical epics. But trends changed, horror became more lucrative in the ensuing decades, and actresses realized they could no longer find a place in old-fashioned family dramas. The Hollywood hag films are marked by a twinge of tragedy, and are most certainly flavored by a hint of schadenfreude. How far they have fallen. Look, ye mighty, and despair.
But then, like all matters of camp, modern audiences are also capable of wrapping back around again. We can see the high camp, the overacting, the melodrama, the sadness, and we can begin to appreciate that this particular form of lurid, turgid drama can be effective art unto itself. There is something kind of grand and glorious and unguarded about high melodrama, and it can certainly be considered cinematically artistic — provided one has an ear for both art and kitsch.
Are Hollywood hag films still being made? All the time. You just don’t really know about them. There are all kinds of low-budget, straight-to-video genre films being made all the time, many of which feature once-great actresses who are, like in previous generations, “stooping” to making the types of movies they wouldn’t have in their heyday. But the genre as a whole seems to have dissipated, and the glory days of Joan Crawford are well behind us.
But for that one marvelous decade, we had many, many hag films to enjoy. Go check some out.