Film review, by Jason Day, of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland.
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An English journalist (Cecil Kellaway) travels to Louisiana on a hunch that he might be able to crack an odd but notorious murder committed nearly 40 years before. Back then, Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) killed the fiancee (Bruce Dern) of her friend Jewel Mahew (Mary Astor). His investigations begin as Charlotte’s kind cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) returns home after a long absence, as developers threaten to demolish Charlotte’s home to make way for a new road.
Review, by Jason Day
With the US TV series Feud detailing the legendary off-screen spat between movie legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and my aunt having bought tickets for us to see the play Bette & Joan at the theatre in my hometown, it’s the right time to revisit the films that bookend this most monumental of movie meltdowns.
Despite being models of professionalism during production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1963), the surprise box office hit that reinvigorated their careers, Crawford felt slighted when Davis received an Oscar nomination. As revenge, Crawford actively campaigned on behalf of co-nominee Anne Bancroft (for The Miracle Worker), who went on to win.
Whether that was because or despite Crawford’s tactics who knows, but Crawford went on to accept the award on Bancrofts behalf, rubbing salt into the wound for loser Davis but creating such incredible publicity that producer/director Robert Aldrich worked to re-team them in this, a follow-up movie with a twist. That twist was that the roles were switched: Crawford would play the tormenter, Davis the victim.
But Davis never forgot a slight and her retaliatory moves against Crawford eventually cost Joan her role, with Aldrich pleading with Olivia de Havilland to take it.
From such mad-ass beginnings it is not surprising he fashioned a ghoulish, grossly over the top movie. If Aldrich wanted to ‘top’ Baby Jane he certainly succeeded (Charlotte would also go on to be a box office smash too).
From the camera swooping in on key objects such as an open window during an argument, Victor Buono’s turn as Davis’ antebellum father delivering his side of that argument as if he is about to expire, the use of extreme close-ups, an axe chopping off Bruce Dern’s hand by an unseen assailant, Aldrich opts for feverish and overdone from the get-go – and that’s just from the first reel!
So it’s a uniformly exaggerated approach to acting, from Joseph Cotton’s unbelievably drawling Southern drawl, Davis screeching with alarming frequency and Agnes Moorhead twitching and jerking around the sets.
De Havilland is muted in comparison, employing the same warm diplomacy she used in Gone With the Wind (1939). Rather like Melanie Hamilton-Wilkes, here she is passively manipulative on the surface, a surface that belies machiavellian murderousness underneath.
She is also splendidly dressed throughout the film (by Norma Kock) in outfits that show off her enviable figure. She even emerges from sleep in a flowing ballgown.
A wonderfully over-accented, greasy Moorhead provides the best performance out of this rogues gallery of grandstanding. As Davis’ loyal but slovenly housekeeper, she uses fantastic physicality throughout, slowly sliding her way up the staircase as Cotton and de Havilland challenge her. She was Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actress.
Although I respect Davis for her past performances, at this point in her career she was demeaning her talent. Baby Jane was good for laughs and Davis was fine entertainment then but producer/director Aldrich has swapped high-panto for a gory sadism (Dern’s corpse makes a reappearance near the end of the film, shorn of hand and head).
Davis pitches her acting (probably with Aldrich’s blessing) several levels above everyone else, ramping up her wild eyes and scenery chewing, but the jocular tone of Baby Jane has deserted her. The effect here is cheap and desperate.
Thank heavens cameraman Joe Biroc is on form, providing the penetrating black and white cinematography and helping Aldrich set up some neat shots. Davis can’t bear the scornful looks of her community and, during a dream sequence of a past dance, they are all wearing featureless masks. Later, a close-up of the town gossips’ mouths recalls a similar scene in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
This was the last film for Davis’ former Warners gal pal Mary Astor, as her teenage nemesis Jewel and 3 of Aldrich’s children appear in bit parts.
Cast & credits
Director: Robert Aldrich. 133 mins. The Associates & Aldrich/20th Century Fox.
Producer: Robert Aldrich.
Writers: Henry Farrell, Lucas Heller.
Camera: Joseph F. Biroc.
Music: Frank De Vol.
Sets: William Glasgow.
Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, Cecil Kellaway, Mary Astor, Bruce Dern, George Kennedy, Victor Buono, Wesley Addy, William Campbell.