In the pattern we’ve established, about every six weeks I go over to Rick’s and we just sit and watch movies on his finely-calibrated plasma set (this time I got to drive through a monsoon, which is about as much fun as you’d expect). We’re both cinematic omnivores, but Rick’s a better omnivore than me, by which I mean he’s more open to new experiences, which I sometimes approach with a sense of dread.
This time, we had lucked upon a theme for our choices: Cinematic icons at war with each other (that two of the movies were on my 100 list for this year was certainly a bonus). To set the groundwork for this, we began with Werner Herzog’s sublime documentary on his fractious relationship with Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend.
Kinski’s on-set tantrums were the stuff of legend, and Herzog was frequently the focus of those screaming fits; somehow they still managed to make five movies together that stand as classics of modern cinema. Herzog reveals that he met Kinski while the director was still a child; they both lived for a time in a boarding house, and found Kinski absolutely terrifying (but admittedly memorable). He then leads us through their movies and times together, revisiting locations and interviewing people years after the fact. Eva Mattes, his co-star in Woyzeck, and Claudia Cardinale, ditto for Fitzcarraldo, seem to be the only people who have nice things to say about Kinski. Apparently this is the sort of thing that happens when one fires a rifle into a hut full of extras.
Herzog, I think, has the proper range to gauge the truth about Kinski – a self-aggrandizing egomaniac who used his rages to make sure he was the center of attention at all times. Even then, Herzog continues, once his rage was spent, Kinski was capable of genius, and his hair-trigger temper kept everyone very professional, lest they trigger another outburst. Other footage, at festivals and behind the scenes, confirm Mattes and Cardinale’s tales that he was capable of great charm and warmth. My Best Fiend is an amazing odyssey, and if nothing else, it makes you want to watch these movies all over again.
The thing is, this was actually homework. Rick had been doing one of those falling-down-the-wikipedia rabbit hole affairs, checking for details on his new favorite actor, Oliver Reed, when he discovered that Reed had made a movie with Kinski in 1981 – Venom – and the idea of trying to keep those two in control during production led to us seeking it out. At the very least, I thought, Reed would eventually drink himself into unconsciousness…
Venom is one of those movies where you suspect the making would have made a better movie than what wound up onscreen. Based on a fairly successful suspense novel by South African writer Alan Scholefield, it was originally going to be directed by Tobe Hooper, who left over “creative differences” (by some reports, a nervous breakdown). Kinski apparently later crowed at a premiere party that he and the other actors ganged up on the Texan to make him quit. Director Piers Haggard replaced him (best known in these parts for Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Quatermass Conclusion), who later opined that the nicest person on the set was the black mamba snake.
The story concerns the kidnapping of a motel magnate’s son which goes rapidly south when one of the conspirators, the family’s chauffeur (Reed), panics and shoots a police officer, killing him. The officer was there to alert the family that the son – who has quite the menagerie in his room – accidentally picked up the black mamba from the pet store instead of a harmless African house snake. Now the snake is loose in the house, which is surrounded by the Police, and it’s in a nastier mood than the kidnappers.
Kinski plays Jaclen, the mastermind behind the crime. Susan George is his girlfriend, who’s worked in the household for eight weeks as a maid. Sterling Hayden, in his penultimate role, looks incredibly out-of-place as the boy’s grandfather, a retired big game hunter. Sarah Miles is a herpetologist whose major jobs are to A) tell us how deadly black mambas are, and how they can do everything except teleport through walls (and the jury is out on that one) and B) get taken hostage by Jaclen. All good actors (each with their own varying reputations for being difficult) that put in acceptable jobs, but the one I enjoyed was Nicol Williamson as the Police Inspector who gets saddled with this mess.
But Rick and I were there to watch the fireworks between Kinski and Reed. There aren’t many visible, which is remarkable considering that Reed basically spent the entire shoot annoying Kinski to make him blow. What shows up in the movie belies that, with Reed playing an increasingly desperate everyman who is in way, way over his head, and Kinski playing the calmest man in the house. There is one scene, when Reed makes one of his many trips to the liquor cabinet, and Kinski grabs his hand, stopping him – there is a true flash of hatred, and it looks like the split second before a massive bar brawl starts.
“Acceptable” is a fair adjective to use on Venom. You won’t begrudge its 90 minutes, but you probably won’t care to revisit it, either. The best illustration for its problems is the scene where Kinski forces Hayden to search a room for the snake (since he has experience with the nasty things), and as constructed, it should be very suspenseful – or it would be if it hadn’t been established in the previous scene that the snake has already slithered into the ventilating system. We know it’s not in that room. Still, Haggard should be commended for producing a movie that’s at least watchable, given that he had absolutely no prep time, a script that was already locked down, and a cast that wanted to murder each other on the good days.
All this was mere preparation, though, for the main event. A movie which Rick and I had managed to get through our entire lives without seeing, setting two screens icons against each other: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
If, like Rick, you’re familiar with the title but have no idea what the movie’s about: Baby Jane is a vaudeville singing sensation whose ignored sister Blanche becomes a beloved movie star in the 30s while Jane’s movies are… struggling. One night, there is an auto accident involving the two, resulting in Blanche confined to a wheelchair. Fast forward to the 60s, where Jane and Blanche have aged into Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Jane is taking care of Blanche, but is becoming increasingly unstable and abusive. Emphasis on the abusive, as during the course of the picture, Jane will cut Blanche off from the outside world and proceed to torment her.
Movies like this – psychological horror/hostage dramas -have never been my cup of tea, which is why I’ve avoided the movie all this time, but now I’ve seen it. And I can say I’ve seen it. It is a well-made movie, and it broke box office records at the time. Director Robert Aldrich (who has quite the varied and interesting filmography) uses the open enmity between Davis and Crawford for all its worth, but this isn’t just a carnival gladiator match, like Reed and Kinski; there is some real depth and acting here using all that hate.
Crawford does a marvelous job – audience sympathy obviously goes out to her, but she never quite makes Blanche likable, a choice that pays off on repeat viewings – but there is never any doubt that Davis owns this picture. She takes possession of the character of Jane and positively nails every single frame she is in to a wall. Davis had a great degree of leeway from Aldrich in designing Jane’s appearance, reasoning, among other things, that Jane never washed her face, just applied more makeup. Roger Ebert once wrote that the canniest career move Bette Davis ever made was growing older. He was talking about All About Eve, but the same reasoning holds here, The incredible grotesquerie that Davis breathes life and malevolence into is not to be missed (even if this type of movie is not your cup of tea). This is what total commitment looks like. Davis was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar that year, but it went to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker.
If more motivation to watch is needed, you can also toss in Victor Buono’s debut role as an unemployed musician desperate for the gig playing for Baby Jane’s fantasy comeback; their first scene together is like a miniature acting school, sidewise glances that tell us everything we need to know about what is going on in the characters’ minds.
This rather marks a high point for both actresses at this stage in their careers; the shelf life for Hollywood actresses is depressingly, frustratingly short, and for them the future held more of the same, but lesser. Davis in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (which I prefer quite a bit over Jane) and The Nanny, Crawford in Straitjacket and Trog. This was a high point, as sad as that might seem.