Were You an Actress?
One cannot be a fan of the movies without harboring a certain schadenfreude, or shameful joy, in one’s heart. Just like any other creative endeavor, the lore of the cinema is shot through with scandal, madness, and tragedy, all as fascinating and vital to the development of the form as any bravura performance or gee-whiz technical innovation. The black threads are as essential to the weave as the golden ones. Thus are we drawn to Errol Flynn as both the heroic idol of his day and a notorious orgiast, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe as goddesses and pillheads, Woody Allen as the brilliant schlemiel auteur and the cradle-robber.
Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger’s bible of celebrity sleaze, is as central to movie culture as the Academy Awards, the Grave Line bus tour as much a celebration of the Dream Factory as the Hollywood Walk of Fame (and far more interesting).
As redheaded a stepchild of mainstream moviemaking as the horror genre may be, in all its seedy, exploitative glory, it also has a seldom considered place in the industry’s mythology, as the place where many of Hollywood’s former greats have gone to die. Old-school horror fans—those of us who, say, cut their teeth on Famous Monsters of Filmland rather than Fangoria, and rightly view the forthcoming Freddy vs. Jason as a cynical abomination—can tell you of the number of former A or at least A-minus stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age who wound up slumming in Z-grade monster movies just to keep working.
Who would have imagined that Crawford would end up in schlockmeister William Castle’s Strait-Jacket (1964)? Who could have pictured Basil Rathbone ending his career in movies with titles like The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967)? Or poor Bela Lugosi, once the king of terrors, shuffling his morphine-jonesing husk around while taking direction from Ed Wood? It’s hard to decide whether to decry the horror industry for treating these stars, and many others, with so little respect, or to thank it for allowing such fallen angels to keep working. So we do both, watching appalled but fascinated. Schadenfreude.
Sony/Columbia Pictures capitalizes on this spirit of shameful joy with its DVD release of Die! Die! My Darling!, a piece of noisy fluff produced by Britain’s Hammer Films in 1965 as Fanatic and released by Columbia under the more lurid title. The draw here is the final performance of Tallulah Bankhead, notorious for her electrifying performances (see Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat ), her flamboyant behavior, and for being a king-sized pain in the ass to work with. Bette Davis claimed that Bankhead was the only actress who ever intimidated her.
She was a walking mélange of Southern grande dame bitchiness, unapologetic hedonism (“Cocaine isn’t addictive. I ought to know—I’ve been using it every day for years”), and an in-your-face performance style that made her a gay icon for years, a poster child for “camp.” Columbia’s box copy for the disc calls the film “a campy, classic thriller fueled by Bankhead’s deliriously over-the-top turn as the ultimate Mother from Hell.”
Despite the hype, however, and the tacky title and fluorescent-green cat chasing the neon-pink mouse behind the title credits, Die! Die! My Darling! is actually a tame little picture, certainly by Hammer Films standards, and fans looking for Miss Tallulah to camp it up are going to be disappointed.
Based on a novel by Anne Blaisdell and adapted by Richard Matheson (The Omega Man and some of the best Twilight Zone episodes), the film is a foray into the madness of one Mrs. Trefoile (Bankhead), a widow whose only son, Steven, died six years before and who has since retreated into solitude in the English countryside. She has become a rigid religious fanatic, subjecting her small household staff to twice-daily prayer services and a diet of plain, tasteless food. Her devotion to God is matched only by her obsession with her departed son, and both are quietly destroying her.
Enter Pat (a fresh-faced Stefanie Powers), once Steven’s fiancée and now engaged to another man. Seeking closure on her former life, she goes to meet Mrs. Trefoile, to exchange some pleasantries and move on. Little does Pat realize that “moving on” is just not in Mrs. Trefoile’s wiring. Pat is a thoroughly modern girl who smokes, wears makeup, and (gasp) is not a virgin, all of which must be purged if she is to be reunited with Steven in heaven. Trefoile pulls a gun and locks Pat up, determined to get some old-time religion into the girl by starvation and force, if necessary. The household staff is no help whatsoever, as the handyman and housekeeper (Peter Vaughan, Yootha Joyce) are just waiting for the old lady to die, and the gardener (a blond Donald Sutherland, doing a prescient impression of Gary Busey) is a hopeless imbecile. Thus begins a repetitive cycle of escape attempts and foilings as Pat tries to get away.
It’s all very Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, except nobody gets fed rat tartare and Bankhead simply refuses to be Bette Davis. Rather than the out-there nuttiness we’ve come to expect from the cliché of the Bible-thumping fanatic—or from the reputation of Tallulah Bankhead, for that matter—she plays Trefoile as tightly wound and unraveling by inches. Powers complements the performance with a game turn in the thankless role of perpetual victim; Pat is a woman of strength and intelligence, even when it’s clear her situation is hopeless.
This is not to say that this film is a classic, by any means. Director Silvio Narizzano does his best to undermine Matheson’s script and his leads’ performances with a bagful of scary-movie tricks, and it is painfully obvious just how on-the-cheap this production is. But at worst, this is Saturday afternoon couch potato fodder, neither cheesy nor lurid enough to qualify for the cult movie status for which Sony is obviously gunning.
Still, Die Die My Darling! delivers schadenfreude. Early in the film, Pat walks in on Mrs. Trefoile as the latter is poring over an old scrapbook filled with glamour shots of a younger Tallulah Bankhead. “Mrs. Trefoile,” Pat asks gently, “Were you an actress?” Trefoile snaps the book shut with symbolic finality.