Friday, September 27, 2013

Whatever Happened to Miley Cyrus?

It hardly seems timely to write anything about Miley Cyrus’ performance at last month’s MTV Video Music Awards. The former child star, as she has done for the past three years, put together an exhibition designed primarily to wipe away the image that remains of her in the public as television’s “Hannah Montana.” Her appearance, such as it was -tongue wagging before a live audience, barely dressed in a flesh-colored  costume, dancing with large stuffed animals – was tiresomely familiar to anyone with their eye on popular culture. After so long performing, her music might actually be more honest now while at the same time being more artificial. 

But Cyrus is by no means unique, which is one of the reasons that even her MTV performance had a relatively short shelf life in the storehouse of pop outrages. Both the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have spent the better part of a decade fashioning child stars and disposing of them. These stars – usually female, possessing some vocal talent and in the netherworld between child and teenager – usually figure prominently in television shows with a protagonist on the edge of “stardom.” Then they and their zany friends have relatively wholesome adventures, sing a few songs, and prepare themselves and their audience for the pressures of impending adolescence. For every Miley, there’s Selena Gomez, and iCarly, and Demi Lovato, and the Olson twins, and Amanda Bynes, and so on. Each one is packaged in a similar fashion, making their identities blur and their careers follow a familiar, depressing arc of stardom, fascination, decline and floundering before …

I was reminded of this watching “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” A 50-year-old movie starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, “Baby Jane” is a fun-house grotesque;  a meditation on the corroding influence of fame, stardom, abandonment, and role-playing. It’s the sort of movie that Hollywood does best when it wants to talk about how terrible a place Hollywood can be. (They would know, wouldn’t they?) It also offers a window into how terrible a place the world can be when we rely on false images to save us from ourselves, and how little consolation we can find within. 

“Baby Jane” opens in the golden age of vaudeville in 1917, with the sound of a crying child. Inside a theater, a crowd is watching “Baby” Jane Hudson, a sweet, blonde child on a stage dancing and singing. The audience can buy an exact replica doll in the lobby to take home for their very own. Baby Jane sings her trademark song, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” – a Victorian-era weeper about a child writing a love letter to her dead father. But Baby Jane’s father is at that moment alive, and we see that he is more or less managing her career. We are not surprised later to find that for all her talent, Baby Jane is a spoiled little girl. When she stages a tantrum after the show, a crowd of mothers and children waiting for her autograph are also quick to pass judgment on her and her parents.
Nor is she alone in the world – she has an older sister named Blanche, and a mother. Mother makes her only appearance at the beginning, when she tells the older sister that she’s “the lucky one” – presumably because she isn’t on stage. “I want you to be nicer to Jane and your father than they are to you,” she admonishes her. Implicit in the command is both the idea that Jane will need someone in the future, and that the mother won’t be there.  Lurking in the background is the idea that Blanche is luckier because she isn’t the one on stage. 

Then the scene shifts ahead to 1935, and we are aware that the roles have reversed. Blanche Hudson is now an accomplished, sought-after Hollywood actress. She has also taken her mother’s advice, because we learn from two studio hacks that Blanche is “taking care” of Jane – making sure she has roles, in spite of her lack of acting talent. But she’s “not doing Baby Jane any favors” by doing so, one man says, before asking the question, seemingly aimed at a large automobile – “Who do they make monsters like this for?” 

Is Baby Jane a monster, or is Blanche? We think we know the answer when we see two anonymous figures – one standing at a gate, another behind the wheel of a car, and we are led to believe that one has run over the other on purpose. We know Jane is a drinker now, and we feel that these two sisters will always be at each other’s throats. So we aren’t surprised later to find what has happened – the two sisters are, years later, unmarried and living in a forgotten Hollywood mansion. Blanche is crippled physically, unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair. Jane is crippled emotionally, still comically resembling the old child star, bitter and broken. Though it is the present, the title card tells us that this is “Yesterday.” 

“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is a question familiar to us. We learn of and discover media personalities, and then lose track of them. What happened to them? Why aren’t they still “around?” Did he or she die and I didn’t notice? The obvious answer is “Baby” Jane grew up. But why don’t I know what happened? How could someone with that much talent at an early age not go on to do something even bigger? The answer is understandable. A child prodigy may be a figure of immense talent who is capable of greater accomplishments as they age – one thinks of Mozart – or a gifted youngster who masters a very narrow skill at an exceptionally early age but is unable to progress beyond this. That is why being a child prodigy can be a blessing – unlimited wealth and attention that makes one “set for life,” or an impossible standard of achievement that one is burdened with for the remainder of his life. Normal people live under the sometimes mistaken impression that the best is yet to come. But what if it’s already happened? What then? What if you’re never allowed to grow up? 

One of the draws of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is its two real-life stars, famously dismissive of each other but both needing a hit to restore their careers in 1962. Joan Crawford will probably always suffer under the burden of “Mommie Dearest,” which makes her performance as the seemingly good-hearted Blanche that much more interesting. Bette Davis does her best to make us loathe the self-loathing Baby Jane, so that we laugh at her while at the same time being revolted as she serves up rats and parakeets for her sister’s meals.  Jane is still performing – as Blanche, by copying her voice over the phone and forging checks. Even then, she is nowhere near as gifted or as shrewd a performer as her sister. 

Something else is going on in a movie that is obsessed with performances. Even in private, the lives of these two women are, at best, illusions. Jane has a veneer of bitterness and brass that inadequately conceals her vulnerability and insanity. One of the unintended legacies of this movie is its appeal to camp, and that is partly because of Davis and Crawford and their careers built on strong, independent women through over-the-top performances. 

Baby Jane has not grown up, but she is Blanche’s caregiver. And even though she resents the role, there is a theatricality about it. In real life, for example, it would be ludicrous for Blanche to live on the second story of a house when she is stuck in a wheelchair. (Of course, she’s up there so Jane can presumably control her.) But by Blanche’s being above and set apart, Jane can make a show of taking care of her, bringing up the elaborate silver meal services to present her with food. And by doing so, she can presumably assuage the grief she still feels over what she thinks she did to Blanche in making her crippled. The only rule seems to be that Blanche never mentions the accident, until she feels she needs to. And because Blanche knows the truth, she will allow Jane to torture her.  

But by the movie’s end, we know that Jane didn’t really do anything to Blanche. Blanche has spent decades using the accident that ended her career to make Jane live in guilt. So Blanche is also playing a role, and a very sinister one at that. We now understand that the girl waiting in the wings, watching her spoiled little sister bow for audiences, was silently nursing her own grudges. 

Jane’s role as a caretaker is interesting too, in that it distinguishes the movie from that other Hollywood gothic, “Sunset Boulevard.” In it, the insane silent film star Norma Desmond needs caretakers in order to function in spite of the reality of her fading stardom. Here, Baby Jane need only look in a mirror and compare her face to the ubiquitous doll with her name, and she is fully aware of how far she has fallen. What good is fame, the movie asks, when a grateful public can rediscover your performances on television, only to have them interrupted unceremoniously by commercials for dog food? “All that happened a long time ago,” one of the non-show business characters assures her teenage daughter. The illusion of film makes the events of 30 years before seem ancient. 

Another facet of the movie is the act of “watching yourself.” We see Blanche admiring her own work on television, and we imagine that Jane doesn’t have that luxury. Instead, she has the dolls. One of the tragedies of child stardom is the loss of fame, and the vain scratching and clawing that results when someone tries to regain that attention. (In the act of former child stars trying to distinguish themselves as adults, their striving sometimes comes off as desperate, amateurish, and …childlike.) But why does a former star watch herself? Because presumably, no one else is. When the audience leaves after the performance, the performer has nothing left to do but become part of the audience – a potentially unwilling and unsatisfied consumer of the performance. The act of adoration was once reserved only for God – because He is the only one worthy of receiving it, and the only figure who can justify the need for it. 

Within the movie’s internal theme of acting, we see both sisters as not living up to their parents’ wishes – Jane, singing about her father, knows she is no longer everybody’s baby doll and that she can’t get that back, even if she goes out on the road again. Her talent, the one thing her father assured her she would never lose, is worthless. Blanche, because of her use of the accident against her sister, has betrayed the promise she silently made to her mother. 

The other characters share the stars’ marginality and brokenness. Elvira, the housekeeper who sides with Blanche, is black. In 1962, her race and her occupation make her somewhat disposable in society. In spite of this, Elvira stands up to Jane, telling her, “You gotta act like a grown woman, just like the rest of us.” The pathetic Edwin Flagg, played with wonderful pathos by Victor Buono, poses as an aspiring entertainer who longs for show business because he is really a man-child living at home with his mother.  His character gives Jane an outlet to resurrect her show business and romantic aspirations, but she realizes nothing will come of them. Flagg reaches the same conclusion, drunk when he thinks Jane has abandoned him, and running from the house when he realizes what kind of people Jane and Blanche are. 

What eventually happens to child stars? In the case of the Hudson sisters, death and insanity, we assume, as the camera draws back from the busy beach when the police at last discover what they’ve been witnessing. A bewildered circle of sun worshippers stare at an old lady singing a forgotten song, while a body lies nearby waiting for someone to notice it. With her last words, Blanche has just told us that her greatest fear for her sister is that Jane will be alone, with no one to look out for her. (That tells you what Blanche considers to be her version of “caretaking.”) But for our own real-life stars, we expect them to fall into lives of crime, drugs, failed marriages, loneliness and neglect, unless their careers continue. Then we still expect the same, only on a perhaps larger scale. We aren’t surprised when Michael Jackson orders his physician to give him more of a drug than a human being can stand, presumably because he is something more than mortal through the power of his voice. And we aren’t surprised to see him carried out of his mansion in a body bag, as though we knew that was where he was headed from the moment we first heard him sing. We allow ourselves to be outraged by Miley Cyrus, or spellbound by her, but we keep watching, because we expect something entertaining to follow – either a song, or a morality tale, or maybe both. We have reached a stage as a society when either one will serve to amuse us.  

It is the forgotten Elvira who inspires “Baby Jane’s” ultimate comment on fame. At the picture’s end, when a group of people at the beach -the same crowd that will moments later be Jane’s final audience – learn that Elvira’s body has been found, one of them remarks, “Sure is a rotten way to get your picture in the papers.” I’m sure Miley Cyrus, and legions of child stars along with her, would agree. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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