Film Studies: Child stars always crash and burn - don't they?

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The Independent Culture

More than 40 years old now, but still unsettling, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is getting a re-release; and for many young people who never knew Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in their heydays, this grotesque movie may be a horrible way of "understanding" the two great stars.

More than 40 years old now, but still unsettling, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is getting a re-release; and for many young people who never knew Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in their heydays, this grotesque movie may be a horrible way of "understanding" the two great stars. In 1962, when the movie opened, Joan Crawford was 58 and Bette Davis 54. Or so they said. They were surviving stars, both of whom had been in their glory in the 1930s and 1940s, both of whom in their day had been sexy and attractive. But both of them, by 1962, went in dread of being discarded or forgotten, which is why they did this new kind of picture.

In 1956, in Autumn Leaves, Crawford had played one of her last fully romantic roles for director Robert Aldrich. She had enjoyed the experience, and in the hope that she might work with Aldrich again she suggested a pairing with Bette Davis. No, they had never played together before. Aldrich was tickled by the idea - he was close to genius sometimes (Kiss Me Deadly, Attack!, Ulzana's Raid), but also a ruthless seeker of box-office killings when his foot came down hard on the melodrama-exploitation pedal. One example of that is The Dirty Dozen; another is Baby Jane.

Aldrich found the novel, by Henry Farrell, about the grisly lifestyle of two former child stars, and he pulled his best charm to get the two actresses to sign on. It was clear that very few studios were interested in the project. They regarded Crawford and Davis together as just two old ladies. So the stars signed on at modest terms: Joan got US$40,000 up-front and 10 per cent of the producer's net profit; Bette got US$60,000 and 5 per cent of the profits. Those numbers let you know what everyone was expecting on a picture tied down to a budget of no more than $850,000 (that's why it had to be in a peculiarly harsh black-and-white).

I won't go too far into the film's story, but it's not giving much away to say that Crawford's sister is essentially bed-ridden and a victim, while Bette's part is more showy. And Aldrich elected to ask Davis to take on a particularly garish make-up. The actress was dubious - she had a hunch that it might make her a figure of mockery; and the look hinted at the way Aldrich would overdo every emotion. Indeed, he was intent on making a kind of pastiche horror film, influenced by Psycho (made only two years earlier), in which the audience was encouraged to scream in fright while also laughing at these two great stars. There was the potential for human tragedy in the story, but Aldrich preferred the malice of dinner turning out to be roasted rats. There, I've warned you enough.

What no one had guessed was that the picture would be a massive success: it grossed US$9m, which meant that both ladies did very nicely. Alas, neither actress was ever really offered a straight part again. Crawford did not make many more films, but they had titles like Strait Jacket, I Saw What You Did and Berserk. They were camp horror pictures. Davis did another bit of grand guignol with Aldrich called Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and then she was up to her scrawny neck in cheap horror.

Worse by far was the personal melodrama that overtook both stars. Crawford inadvertently helped pioneer a new kind of celebrity tell-all book, the vengeful memoir of a pained child. It was called Mommie Dearest, it was written by her adopted daughter, Christina Crawford, and it set lawyers thinking of legal non-disclosure contracts between parents and children. Davis came in for similar treatment from a daughter, and then Ms Davis in life took on a look that made the glaring eyes and ravaged skin of Baby Jane look tasteful.

So, when you've relishedWhat Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, I hope you might go to the video store and get hold of some of these: The Cabin in the Cotton, Dangerous, Of Human Bondage, Marked Woman, Jezebel, The Letter, The Little Foxes, Mr Skeffington, All About Eve and Now, Voyager for Bette Davis; and Grand Hotel, Mannequin, The Women, A Woman's Face, Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Daisy Kenyon, Sudden Fear and Johnny Guitar for Joan Crawford.

But there's another misunderstanding that goes along with Baby Jane - the assumption that all child stars came to demented ends. It's a notion that points to Judy Garland as a kid who got into movies so early she had no life, who was put on drugs (by her mother as well as her studio), and who hurtled through husbands and crack-ups on the way to an early and sordid death. Judy was gone at 47. We miss her; but as her fans read the many books about Garland it may occur to them that she was a massive self-destructive force who probably had no other destiny. If she had stayed in Grand Rapids, Minnesota (where she was born) and been a waitress, she might still have gone before 50.

So let me spell out a few tranquil correctives to the lurid model of Judy and Baby Jane. Jackie Cooper, who did The Champ, The Bowery, and Treasure Island with Wallace Beery before he was 13, is still alive at the age of 83 after a successful career as a TV director. Deanna Durbin is the same age and living in France, after years as a teen idol. Freddie Bartholomew, so perfect as Little Lord Fauntleroy and David Copperfield, went into daytime TV and then advertising and lived to be 68. Margaret O'Brien, maybe the greatest of child actresses in Meet Me in St Louis and so many other films, retired, worked for the government, and at the age of 67 still looks pretty and happy at awards ceremonies. Dean Stockwell, an inspired boy actor in The Boy With Green Hair, The Secret Garden and Kim, is an actor still and a real estate dealer in New Mexico.

I have saved the two triumphs for last: Joe Yule Jr is now 84, but he still likes to perform. He is one of the unceasing phenomena of American show business; he was Puck and Baby Face Nelson, he was the boy next door and married to Ava Gardner - and people have called him Mickey Rooney. And then there is Elizabeth Taylor - so beautiful a child in Jane Eyre, hugging Lassie or National Velvet, so often on the point of collapse or disaster, the survivor of so many men, and still with us at a mere 72 - and still with enough of the kid in her to be adorable. It looks suspiciously as if an early life in Hollywood bred stamina, guts, nerve and endurance, those qualities in film-making that can make beauty, charm and wit seem frivolous.