Originally published January 9th 2017.
“Murder starts in the heart, and its first weapon is a vicious tongue.” You can’t sum up the macabre lunacy of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte any better. A film more well-known for what didn’t end up on-screen than what does, this concludes Robert Aldrich’s series of films created with Bette Davis (the other being What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). Hush…Hush is a more polished version of that earlier film in the genre known as “hagspolitation,” downplaying the former’s Grand Guignol theatrics in favor of a stark tale of insanity and nostalgia. Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray presents the film in the best light possible, one of the few.
Charlotte (Davis) has suffered for decades after being accused of murdering her lover (Bruce Dern). When she’s forced to sell her ancestral home, she calls on her estranged cousin, Miriam (Olivia De Havilland) to help her. Unfortunately, Charlotte’s thread on reality is pulled taut, and her continued claims that her lover haunts her threatens to cut Charlotte’s grip on sanity.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte was originally envisioned as a reteaming of Davis and her Baby Jane co-star, Joan Crawford. Crawford filmed for a bit, but theories range from her hatred of Davis to Crawford feeling the director and crew disrespected her. Crawford eventually took “ill” and was replaced by Olivia De Havilland. Like with Sunset Blvd (1950), every Hollywood actress was offered the part of Cousin Miriam, including Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, and Loretta Young. A bona-fida, A-list assemblage of icons are present, the aforementioned Davis, De Havilland, Joseph Cotten, Cecil Kellaway, and Mary Astor in her final film, a paen to the collapsing studio system. With each of them on their way out there’s an elegiac tone of farewell…or all them saying “Screw it.”
Despite playing a meek character with a tenuous grip on sanity, Bette Davis hearkens back to Vivien Leigh (herself offered the role of Cousin Miriam) from A Streetcar Named Desire. Charlotte, dressed in pigtails and nightgowns, is a little girl lost commanded to do what she’s told by Miriam. You’ll see a “Whatever happened to…” element of her Julie from Jezebel. We open with a party where a young Bruce Dern talks to Charlotte’s father (Baby Jane alumnus, Victor Buono credited as a “special guest”), explaining he’s leaving his wife for Charlotte. Our Julie substitute has ensnared a new beau, but things aren’t turning out like she planned. We never see Charlotte’s face and the camera alerts the audience to the obvious reasons why. Afterwards there’s a brutal sequence as Bruce Dern’s hand gets chopped off with a meat cleaver! The stump of his hand is actually shown! Isn’t great when a moment, so commonplace in film today, shocks you because you don’t believe we’d see it in a movie from 1964? After that you expect a blood-spattered Jezebel gone mad.
Aldrich masterfully keeps Hush…Hush’s various tones in check: film noir, thriller/mystery, horror. His use of shadows and light confine the characters, pointing towards their guilt or suspicion for reasons unknown. You’re never sure who to trust, and the lingering question remains: Is Charlotte really crazy? When Bruce Dern contemplates his decision to leave her, a portrait of Charlotte’s father looms large over him, lending an incestuous tone that’s never absolved.
With all these factors, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a better directed movie than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. Baby Jane is a fantastic movie, but so much of the previous film focused on the personas of two titans of acting being shattered. The entertainment is derived from watching them rip each other to shreds. Without Crawford that element is lost, for the better. Gone is the theatrics and we’re left with the story, protracted in comparison to the contained Baby Jane.
With Aldrich at the helm Davis’ role is as expected, but I couldn’t foresee De Havilland’s utterly terrifying performance as Miriam. Persona plays a factor as it did in Aldrich’s previous film, but it works better than it did in Baby Jane. Audiences knew Davis and Crawford were tough and catty, but De Havilland was the saintly Melanie Wilkes. She couldn’t harm a De Havilland sticks to what we know for much of Hush…Hush. She walks into the film, a country hat on her head, like a breath of spring to revitalize Charlotte’s cloistered world. When Davis finally rises up and calls Miriam a “bitch,” it’s the gasp heard round the world. No one calls Melanie Wilkes a bitch! As we know, “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist,” and Miriam pulls the greatest trick of all! De Havilland gives this role her everything, growling her lines with such ferocity that “do as I say” sounds like it’s being barfed up from the bowels of hell. I could never fathom De Havilland being frightening till now. She kills you with kindness, literally.
Davis probably believed taking a quieter victim role would help fans see her as someone other than Baby Jane Hudson, but De Havilland steals all the scenes. Davis is left combating the ghosts of her past, working more with the film’s horror angle. This works as a haunted house thriller and part of where I found this a slightly imperfect film is Miriam’s duplicity is revealed too soon. The film is over two-hours, but proving Miriam is a schemer an hour in ruins the subsequent events that push Charlotte over the edge. The reveal could have been achieved right before her death with the same impact.
The remaining cast is great, all employing a lethargic Southern drawl as if time is moving slower or sucking the life out of them. Mary Astor, in her final role, is given her own persona-splintering character as Jewel Mayhew, the wife of Dern’s character. Her duplicity is insidiously felt as Astor’s only physically present for about ten minutes. Her reveal, achieved in a subtle way which should have been reserved for De Havilland, also shocks, and yet Astor’s character blows into the ether with nary a word. She’s pulled her own trick and, to continue quoting The Usual Suspects, “like that, [she’s] gone.” Agnes Moorehead is fantasticly unrecognizable – it’s startling how much her Endora makeup changes her face – as Charlotte’s maid, Velma. Her squabbles with Miriam are fantastic, and Moorehead’s cackling voice makes you think of Bewitched. Joseph Cotten and Cecil Kellaway are our male characters and they’re good, but Aldrich is more of a female director so Cotten is the scheming lover and Kellaway the good-hearted reporter.
The two audio commentaries here are worth a blind purchase. There’s also a making-of featurette and a remembrance by remaining actor Bruce Dern. TV spots, a theatrical trailer and the requisite Twilight Time isolated score are included.
“She’s not crazy. She just acts that way because people expect that of her.” Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is about expectation. About Hollywood’s grand dames crushing the characters they’d played for decades on end. They’re not crazy; they’re just sick of being what audiences wanted them to be. Everyone casts aside their mantle of perfection to get down and dirty with glorious results.
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The Bette Davis Collection
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.