The first season of Ryan Murphy’s Feud focuses on the competitive relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. These two Grande Dames of Old Hollywood certainly loved chewing scenery as much as they loved walking over each other, yet they only worked on one movie together: Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, a thriller about two once-famous sisters living out the end of their lives together in an old house. Partially fueled by the stars’ tabloid notoriety, Baby Jane became a big enough box office success that it fueled a whole sub-genre of horror movies: the psycho-biddy thriller. As the formula went, an aging formerly-glamorous actress is living a life of relative wealth and/or privilege, but eventually descends into madness and torments everybody around her. Joan Crawford would continue this with William Castle’s Strait-Jacket while Bette Davis would follow up with Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte. Neither of these were as weird or as camp as today’s entry.
Director Curtis Harrington started his career in film criticism by writing a book on Josef von Sternberg before direction his own avant-garde short films. He integrated well into the underground film scene, snagging gigs as the cinematographer on Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment and acting in Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Dennis Hopper had his first lead role in Harrington’s Night Tide, a thriller about a mermaid in an amusement park. He even directed a couple of films for Roger Corman intended to integrate Russian Science Fiction film footage.
Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters are the Grande Dames of What’s The Matter With Helen?, playing two women whose sons went on a probably homosexual thrill killing spree. Winters’s Helen isn’t exactly heterosexual herself, falling in unrequited and unexpressed love for Reynolds’ Adelle. After their sons are thrown in the slammer, Adelle and Helen have to get the hell out of Dodge and head out to Hollywood to teach dancing skills to wannabe Shirley Temples. But, the past torments Helen. An anonymous stalker may be sending mails hinting at their murderous sons. Or, maybe there’s something we don’t know about Helen’s dead husband? Helen clings to her deep Christian faith and her bunnies as two life rafts in a sea of uncertainty. It’s too bad that she seeks solace under the wing of Sister Alma (Agnes Moorehead), a greedy radio evangelist seeking to make money but not to actual offer salvation.
Meanwhile, Adelle is having a ball. She’s out doing business with a fabulously over-the-top Micheál Mac Liammóir, a gay man in furs who fusses over every syllable he utters. She tap dances to her heart’s content while wearing sailor outfits with short shorts. She organizes a dance recital where a group of kids dance to the tune “Goody Goody” that Helen pounds out on the piano. It’s only when she begins dating Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver, Duel) that things begin going sour again.
What’s The Matter With Helen? is one fabulously weird set piece after another. Moreso than Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Helen feels like a proto-drag movie. Every single performance is calculatedly over-the-top as if the movie is a satire rather than a thriller. Shelley Winters said she knew she was playing Adelle as a lesbian with an unrequited love, Debbie Reynolds is just a bit too simpleton, Lammoir is in a different world entirely. And then there’s the little touches, like a 9-year-old singing Oh You Nasty Man while dressed like Mae West, Reynolds’ sailor outfit, and everything having to do with Agnes Moorehead.
A friend posited that one aspect of gay culture is obsession with the flaws in celebrity and wealth. In What’s The Matter With Helen?, Harrington supplies the film with enough weird money to choke. From the little kids being trained to imitate celebrities to big gaudy stage shows to gay elocution coaches to the dresses, everything here is glamour that is intentionally three shades off from normal. It feels like some cracked commentary on our views of modern fame, celebrity, and infamy. The final result is a gas.