Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review: I’ve always had a major interest in stories about the dark side of Hollywood. It’s a town where some dreams are made, and many dreams go to die. My favorite film is Sunset Boulevard, the dazzling 1950 Billy Wilder masterpiece about an aging silent movie star who wants one more crack at stardom. My second favorite film is Mulholland Drive, David Lynch’s surrealistic nightmare about an idealistic actress’s quest for fame and fortune.
The sad truth about Hollywood is that few actresses manage to sustain their careers into their fifties and sixties. Some turn to television, others turn to character parts, and many drop out of the acting scene altogether. Where do these aging actresses go when they retire from acting? 1962’s What Ever Happened to Babe Jane? presents an eerie, morbid, highly entertaining response to that question.
The story behind this classic camp drama is almost as much fun as the movie itself, so much so that Ryan Murphy produced a glorious limited series called Feud that’s all about the clash between its two legendary stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The two actresses were competitors over many decades of their careers, Davis having the upper hand when she won two Oscars in the late ’30s, Crawford back on top when she won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce in 1945 while Davis’s career was on the wane.
Their talents, and their bitter rivalry, came to a head in What Ever Happened to Babe Jane?, the one film they made together (they did also act together on Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but Crawford left early in the production). And what a gem of a film it is. Reflecting on themes introduced in Sunset Boulevard, and paving the way for two-character-suspense-pieces like Misery, this Oscar-winning film is a marvelous vehicle for the two stars. Playing the the weak, crippled sister who’s at a loss for how to defend herself, Crawford strips herself of all the glamor of roles’ past. She’s appropriately haggard in this, anxious and increasingly emaciated as she fights off her wicked sister.
But the real star of the show is Davis, who truly rids herself of all vanity, and creates a memorable character in Baby Jane that’s sad, hilarious, and chilling. It’s one thing for Norma Desmond to be stuck in her silent era fame. It’s another for a grown Baby Jane well into her fifties to still obsess over her glory years as a child star. When she sings her most famous song “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” not once but twice, first by herself in the dark, and second for an opportunistic house-guest, she’s on her own planet, happy and centered, but nowhere near reality. She’s as troubled inside as she looks on her caked-on-makeup outside, and Davis commits to every scene, every moment.
Davis received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance, beating out her co-star Crawford for the recognition, and their feud stayed front and center at the ceremony. When Davis lost Best Actress to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker, Crawford was there to accept the award on Bancroft’s behalf. Reportedly she tapped Davis on the shoulder before heading toward the stage, and said, “Excuse me. I have an Oscar to accept.” Whether it was all just a game between these two, or genuine real-life contempt, they undoubtedly had chemistry on the screen. And its power is always on full view in What Ever Happened to Babe Jane?
Watching Like a Writer: One element of this classic film that stood out for me is how long it takes for Crawford and Davis to appear. There’s not just one extended prologue, one set in 1917 that depicts Blanche and Baby Jane as children; there’s a second prologue, one set in 1935 that shows Blanche has reached far more success in her acting career than Baby Jane. We don’t get to the 1962 contemporary story-line until twenty minutes into the film!
This got me thinking about prologues in my writing. Sometimes I like what prologues can do. Other times I think it’s best to start in chapter one and immediately focus on my protagonist. I know many agents and editors agree with the latter. You’re supposed to hook a reader on the first page, and sometimes a prologue prevents that. Either way, I think the two extended prologues do well in the film to develop the two central characters and build tension. The question is how well it works in fiction.
Exercise! Look at the novels you have written. Could any of them benefit from a prologue? When do you think a prologue is important to a story? And when is it unnecessary?
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