50DMC #13: Favorite Female Performance

The 50 Day Movie Challenge asks one question every day, to be answered by a few paragraphs and a clip, if possible. Click here for the full list of questions.

Today’s prompt: What’s your favorite female performance in a movie?

For the female version of the favorite performance question, I finally narrowed it down to two options – Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, a performance that vaulted her into the top echelons of Hollywood out of almost nowhere and one that continues to enthrall me every time I see the film, and a Bette Davis role in a film that I only saw for the first time last year, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Both roles are explicitly cinematic in that Watts’ character is a wanna-be actress who turns out to be far better than you’d expect, which all plays into the central conceit of the film in a marvelous and initially unexpected manner, and Davis’ character is a former child vaudeville star who failed in Hollywood and has never recovered, turning her into a bitter old woman whose desire for past glory sometimes throws her over the edge of sanity. Both partake of camp to some degree, deliberately overacting to achieve a specific emotional effect. I ended up going with Bette Davis almost solely because high quality clips from Mulholland Drive get suppressed on YouTube. Them’s the breaks. (There is one from MovieClips on YouTube now – they must’ve just started putting them on – but it starts later into the scene than I would like.)

By the time Whatever Happened to Baby Jane came out in 1962, Bette Davis had of course already been a major Hollywood star for thirty years. In fact, she was one of Warner Bros. most prominent and dependable (in terms of quality acting and solid films, though volatile in personality) stars, and one of the better businesswomen to force her way through the studio system. In one way, it’s kind of amazing that Robert Aldrich even got her to do Baby Jane, the character is so ugly most of the time, and almost a self-parody, but it’s also absolutely perfect. Aldrich is able to use clips from Davis’s 1930s films as the young Jane’s failed acting attempts (I do wonder how good of a sport Davis was about that), plus the crippled sister that Jane psychologically tortures is played by Joan Crawford – the two were long-time nemeses in the 1930s and 1940s, and their hatred of each other played out on screen here as well as off. Reports are that Joan filled her pockets with rocks for the scene where Bette has to drag her, increasing her weight just to make Bette have to work harder. So some of their intense outlashes at each other are probably not acting at all. But the scene that floored me in this film is Bette at her campy best – and make no mistake, I don’t mean campy in a bad way. High camp is a wonderful thing when done right, and there’s no one better at it than Davis, and there’s no better example of it than this, when Jane experiences a psychotic break and becomes young Jane again, the vaudeville star of yesteryear. It’s grotesque and terrifying and moving and wonderful.