Sitting proudly in the psycho-biddy film canon—there is one, you know—is 1971’s What’s the Matter with Helen?, in which Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds play incognito mothers whose sons committed a headline-seizing murder. According to a Los Angeles Times story that ran at the time, Winters’s behavior while making the film was so erratic that at one point she was threatened with replacement by Geraldine Page. You’d better duck now, because I’m about to throw something. When Page won her long overdue Oscar in 1986, for The Trip to Bountiful, presenter F. Murray Abraham was bloody right to call her “the greatest actress in the English language,” and the idea that this acting colossus would fill in for Shelley Winters is risible; that Page would sully even the soles of her shoes on a mid-level piece of genre kitsch is unthinkable. Yet what am I to do with the fact that nestled in the above-cited canon is 1969’s What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?
(You should know that the “psycho-biddy” designation is slightly off, given that the actresses poached for the genre—which was largely a 1960s and early ’70s phenomenon—tended to be in their late forties and early fifties. For accounting purposes, the only chronological “biddy” starring in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? is Ruth Gordon—seventy-two when the movie came out; Page was all of forty-four.)
Gordon’s character, Alice Dimmock, is the new live-in housekeeper for Page’s childless widow Claire Marrable, who says that she dismissed the previous help, Miss Tinsley, because the woman had a drinking problem. The truth is, Mrs. Marrable, who as the movie begins learns that her recently deceased husband hasn’t left her the anticipated fortune, has been making a custom of tricking her elderly housekeepers out of their savings and then killing them off and planting their corpses in her garden.
Selling herself as “a combination housekeeper-nurse-companion” and insisting that she, too, is a widow, Alice has taken the position with Mrs. Marrable to learn what happened to her friend Miss Tinsley, who seems to have vanished on the job. Alice isn’t in it alone: her nephew Mike (played by Robert Fuller with the right blend of competence and awareness that his character isn’t meant to be interesting) lives nearby and has his aunt regularly mail him postcards to prove that she’s okay. Mike also does some sleuthing at Aunt Alice’s behest: he inquires at Miss Tinsley’s bank and learns that her account is down to the nub and that $9,000 was withdrawn not long before the woman’s disappearance. You will forgive the movie for not explaining how Mike could have gotten this privileged information out of a bank, because you are just so relieved that this may be all Alice needs to hear to convince her to get the fuck out of the deadly house of Marrable.
What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? is plotted like an English mystery novel, complete with country-manor-house mainstays—a page has been torn from a book, a handwriting sample is purloined, a treasure hides in plain sight—but the setting is a vaguely mausoleum-ish house of modest scale sitting in the desert outside Tucson. The milieu has a gratifyingly disorienting effect on the viewer: whereas a dangerous encounter playing against the Manhattan skyline would offer the reassurance of a familiar building to run to if necessary, it’s really just Page, Gordon, you, and the tumbleweeds out there. Good luck.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), the black-and-white Bette Davis vehicles produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, master of the A-list tawdry, launched the psycho-biddy celluloid freak show, but unlike those films, Aunt Alice really does improve with repeat viewing. Neither of the lead characters is a dupe, and it’s (almost) a fair fight between them, which is enduringly tense-and-giddy-making. Conversely, once you know the plot twists in the two Davis movies, some of the air is let out of them, and it’s easy for the pleasure of tittering at their campest moments to become the primary inspiration for rewatching them.
Did you say you like camping trips? Please be assured that in Aunt Alice Mrs. Marrable storms around in a rigid swoop of hair, false eyelashes, and Pucci-esque frocks, and at times she literally cackles. Alice’s curly ginger wig becomes both a set piece, when Mrs. Marrable spies her grooming it in her room, and a key prop; in his admiring New York Times review of the movie, Vincent Canby says that in her wig Gordon looks like “a crazy, animated peanut.” There’s also a bit of outré innuendo fired off by a third-tier character—“I’d love to see what a souped-up motor would do for my car,” Mrs. Marrable’s niece Julia, played by Sharon Tate look-alike Joan Huntington, says to Mike, who is, of course, a mechanic.
Julia is Aunt Alice’s lone character motivated by sex. What Mrs. Marrable wants is as bald as Alice’s wig stand, but what about Alice? Is it just a friend’s loyalty that has her seeking the truth about Miss Tinsley? If, like me, you’re a person given to scavenging for levels of meaning that probably don’t exist, your interest will be piqued by Alice’s admission to Mrs. Marrable regarding her determination to learn the whereabouts of Miss Tinsley: “For many, many years she lived in my house. We ate together and shopped and traveled. She was my companion.” Well! To be fair, there’s exactly nothing in The Forbidden Garden, the 1962 novel on which Aunt Alice is based, by the unsung midcentury mystery writer Ursula Curtiss, to support the idea that Alice has come to resolve the disappearance of her true love. This is both disappointing and, given the title of the source material, a missed opportunity.
All this makes for rather superb viewing, and in a less lopsided world, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, with its archly witty screenplay by playwright Theodore Apstein, would be remembered as a thriller and not primarily as a lesser-known example of psycho-biddy, which, by the way, also goes by hagsploitation and Grande Dame Guignol. True, psycho-biddy does tend to pass the Bechdel test with flying cleavers, and these movies did mean paychecks for numerous actresses whose decorative shelf lives were considered over. (If you saw the Emmy-nominated Feud: Bette and Joan earlier this year, with Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, you know that Baby Jane continues to create jobs for older actresses.) But because there’s no comparable clutch of films starring middle-aged-and-up actors undone by aging and time—what about grampsploitation?—I’m going to remain testy about this.
In The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich, authors Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller Jr. say that The Forbidden Garden was retitled What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? for the screen to signal a kinship with the wildly successful What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but Page and Gordon’s movie, which Aldrich produced but left to Lee H. Katzin to direct, didn’t do much at the box office. I can accept several possible reasons why Aunt Alice was never in the public’s good graces: the heightened lead performances fought against the more fashionable realism of the movie’s time. It didn’t have any box-office-gold names attached to it. Although it was released in the late 1960s, it was a hundred-minute-long no-shtupping zone.
But there’s one possible reason for the film’s middling commercial performance and lack of a cheering section, then or now, that bothers me. For some people, there is galactic entertainment value in seeing a close-up of a shining star who has fallen to earth and hit the ground hard enough to be left with visible scars. Bette and Joan, Shelley and Debbie—all had been world-famous glamour girls; Geraldine and Ruth had never been, so in Aunt Alice there was nothing to see, folks, falling-star-wise. Those accordion-like bags under Crawford’s eyes in Baby Jane weren’t special effects, but they were sure meant to make the audience gasp.