Let’s talk about two cinematic gems: “Mildred Pierce” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”. These two films noirs are, in my opinion, linked by a common theme, that of failing parents who engender monsters of children.
“Mildred Pierce”, directed by Michael Curtiz in 1945, features Joan Crawford in the title role. The film begins with the murder of the playboy Monte Beragon. His wife, Mildred Pierce is summoned by the police and must tell her story, which is presented to us as a flashback.
Long before this murder, Mildred was a married housewife spending her days with her two daughters, Veda, the spoiled teenager and Kay, the tomboy. She leaves Bert, her unfaithful husband, and to provide for her daughters, becomes a waitress. Mildred works so well that she becomes the owner of a restaurant, and later a chain of restaurants. She makes a fortune and in the process meets a playboy, Monte Beragon. During a romantic weekend, her little daughter Kay dies from a severe pneumonia. Mildred buries herself in work and in the obsessive love she has for her eldest, Veda. She marries Monte, but goes bankrupt because Veda and Monte, whose needs for money and social recognition are limitless, siphon off everything she has built. However, did she kill Monte?
“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”, directed by Robert Aldrich in 1962, stars Bette Davis and… Joan Crawford, again. The film opens in 1917 with an insufferable child star, Baby Jane, who clearly supports the finances of her parents and sister Blanche – and who knows it.
1935, Baby Jane and Blanche move into the film industry, but now it is Blanche who is successful as an actress, while Baby Jane hardly finds roles because she is unbearable. One evening, the two sisters, who live together, return home after a drunken evening. Blanche goes to open the gate of the house while Baby Jane stays in the car. Baby Jane, rotten with jealousy, rushes at her sister, leaving her disabled for life.
1962: the two sisters live in recluse, Blanche (played by Joan Crawford) lives in a wheelchair, totally dependent on her sister Baby Jane (played by Bette Davis). Relations between the two women are appalling and Baby Jane, slowly sliding into madness, mistreats her sister a little more every day.
We can comment endlessly on the fierce competition that existed between the two actresses – Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – and who gave an undeniable body and veracity to their playing in this film – Ryan Murphy even made a mini-series, “Feud”. But the most important is the pernicious escalation of fraternal relations which is taking place and which obviously knows an outcome as unhappy as it is unexpected.
In both films, the twists and turns leave the viewer speechless. Most importantly, both films describe the relentless mechanics of ordinary family insanity and the annihilation of human beings. Insanity and annihilation that obviously take root in childhood.
Mildred is certainly the victim of the lover she has poorly chosen, but Mildred is mostly the victim of her offspring, whom she ultimately brought up badly. Veda is obviously her favorite daughter, and because of this, this latter is selfish and spoiled. She despises her mother who works like crazy and Mildred in turn knows only how to work like crazy to meet the delusional demands of a child and then of a young woman who ultimately never received an emotional education. And this terrible and monstrous child will dig the grave of this sacrificial mother.
Blanche and Baby Jane are, like Veda, terrible and monstrous children. Raised by parents-managers, their education came down to the material and social aspect of life. Earning money and cultivating fame were probably the only viatics offered to these two children and young women.
The values of altruism and brotherly love have never been transmitted, which explains this fierce competition until death between these two women in their fifties, even if they live together. They are both selfish and crazy, each in their own way.
These two films are breathtaking. The mechanics in both cases inexorably fall into place and that’s terrible. Failed parents give birth to monsters in either case, and that leaves much to think about the impact of education on a lifetime.
Baby Jane and Blanche’s parents didn’t love, after all. The story is said to be inspired by these child stars exploited by Hollywood studios, and more specifically by Shirley Temple. Praise be to God, inspiration is rapidly drifting from reality. Let’s remember that the concepts of complicity with the child and psychic development of the child were not furiously in vogue at the time – it came long after.
On the contrary, the material values of performance and competition transmitted by parents little sensitive to the emotional dimension of their children lead – in “Baby Jane” – these two sisters towards madness and death, and in real life to generations of adults seeing value only in money and professional accomplishment.
Mildred may have loved too much, but not in the right way. In 1945 began the reign of the child-king to whom nothing could be denied. Mildred probably sees Veda as a dream projection of herself, wishing to spare her material worries.
Should we wish our children a long road strewn with roses? I don’t think so, it’s illusory anyway. In my opinion, they must be armed so that they face the difficulties of life with the greatest possible intellectual, spiritual and emotional intelligence.
Mildred, in a frenzied desire to iron out any material difficulty for Veda, forgets that it was precisely the difficulties of life that forged and revealed her to herself. Is it to love or not to love? Of course, but beyond this questioning that is ultimately very simple to resolve, it is about loving well, in fairness. And it’s very complicated.
For this theme of education, which is particularly close to my heart, I took up the dress codes of Mildred Pierce, always so serious, always so busy that she forgets the main point: fair love.
January 22, 2021
Chloé suit – Dior belt and purse – Agnelle gloves – Manolo Blahnik heels