Oh how I love the much maligned, deeply misunderstood Jessica Lange, Gwyenth Paltrow vehicle Hush. It makes me think fondly of that underutilized, older film genre where aging screen beauties lose their marbles over young ingenue upstarts hogging all that flattering lighting and (gasp!) playing their daughters.
Though critics hated it, directors like Robert Aldrich and producers like Ross Hunter would have been so very proud. The title alone would intrigue them: Hush. Especially Aldrich who, along with directing the hags gone wild masterpiece, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? made the memorably titled and funny/scary Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.
But, as said, Hunter would also be thrilled. As Aldrich directed Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Olivia De Havilland in broad Grand Guignol (though it should be noted that the brilliant Ms. Davis insisted on her bizarre, overly drawn makeup in Baby Jane) Hunter was gloriously fashioning the gracefully aging Lana Turner. Producing the Sirk masterpiece, Imitation of Life as well as Madame X and Portrait in Black, he allowed the still fabulous-looking Turner to swish and swat around in lavish, sometimes trashy melodramas in all her powerful, iconic glory. She may be getting older, but dammit if she's ready for her creepy close-up. She's not going down so easy. Instead, as she bellows in Imitation, she's going "up and up and up!"
Which is exactly what Lange channels while strutting her good looking, older stuff in Jonathan Darby's Hush (it should be noted that a younger Lange resurrected Turner's role in The Postman Always Rings Twice). Lange's still glamorous (Hunter), but she's also insane (Aldrich), ready to serve little Gwynnie a Baby Jane bird for lunch. There's no bird, but there are rats and later, a little incident of spiking a cake with horse hormones. Oh naughty Jessica!
Lange plays the beautiful Martha Baring, an affluent Southerner who runs Kilronan, a chi-chi horse-breeding estate in the Kentucky countryside. A flirtatious, charming woman with a fiddly-dee Southern-belle demeanor, she's also a formidable foe, full of ambition and pathological control. She gets what she wants and will take any measure to get it. She began her life a stable girl, shoveling shit while enduring rough passes from men who were, most likely, beneath her. Bagging a rich man and wiggling her way into matrimony, she bears a child. But soon after her husband dies. And how do you think he dies?
Many years later, she of course, only wants the best for her son Jackson (Johnathon Schaech), an obnoxiously handsome but baby-ish man (well, we're supposed to think he's something special—he's not) who lives and works in New York City. Martha's ideas of motherhood are not standard mommy work and she smothers him with affection that more than borders on sexual. She's also obsessed with his spawn and chilly towards his girlfriend.
Nevertheless, the birthing receptacle for Martha's plan is Jackson's girlfriend, Helen (Paltrow), an orphaned New Yorker who, as played by Paltrow, possesses an innate class and grace not typically seen in movie orphans. Little Orphan Helen is brought to Kilronan for the dreaded motherly visit, fretting over her clothes and hoping Martha will like her. But Martha, though hospitable, is instantly jealous of the lovely young woman, even setting up situations where Helen will be deeply humiliated. Still, with her sugar-dripping Southern charm, Martha endears herself to Helen, and Helen leaves Kilronan with the security of a newfound home. Oh but how wrong she is.
When Helen discovers she's pregnant, the film turns on the Aldrich/Hunter switch and nearly blows a fuse with all its female lunacy. But it also becomes great fun. Honing in on the unbelievable and hilarious stratagems of Martha, we know why Helen's pregnant: Martha poked a hole in Helen's diaphragm.
So Step One of Martha's machinations is accomplished (you expect a scene where Martha is literally, checking off a list a la Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear). Step Two has Jackson and Helen marrying at Kilronan. Step Three gives Helen the trauma of a lifetime. Fumbling with her keys to her New York apartment, she's rushed by a masked intruder and slashed on her visibly pregnant belly. He flees without causing any additional harm, but since he didn't steal anything or attempt rape, we can only wonder who's behind this odd assault.Hmmm...
Particularly since the now flipped-out Helen agrees to ditch her career and move with hubby to mommy's—assisting Martha in running Kilronan (Step Four). Now living on the posh estate, the not-so-dumb Helen starts figuring out just how weird her mother-in-law is, even learning that this blonde, genteel lady is actually a murderous psychotic. Quite a load when you're pregnant.
Now this all sounds preposterous and stupid and in many ways, it is—the viewer will figure out the picture's "mysteries" in the first 10 minutes. And yet, Hush is so wonderfully entertaining, it becomes, in its own ridiculous way, profound. Had the film worked its gothic, bitch-fest, hormonal antics harder, Hush could have been a classic. But its themes of incest, female competition and male stupidity are so markedly perverse; you can't help but cheer it on. Its certainly more subversive than typical female-centric films (think of Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon in Stepmom--ugh!).
Had the film been shot in a noir-ish black and white or surreal Technicolor, it could have been even scary in moments. And how great would both actress' look in some old fashioned film stock?
Which brings me back to the actress.' Though supposedly Paltrow and Lange won't even mention this film to the closest of friends, they're not giving themselves enough credit for rising above and beyond the material presented. Lange's murderous Blanche DuBois is pure entertainment, and she delivers her nasty quips closer to that other grand dame, Tallulah Bankhead. I love the scene where, Paltrow clad in oversized tee shirt has broken her water while trying to flag down truckers on a highway (yes, here's your chance to see Paltrow getting passed up by truckers). Lange snips: "Do you think you're some alley cat, dropping your litter by the side of the road?" Lange chews up the scenery with such deep mastication, you can practically feel her spitting it out on your face.
But she doesn't entirely diminish Paltrow who, all coy and sweet at first manages to swell in ego along with her waistline. Swaggering around like she owns the world, she, by film end, delivers a speech that's so over-the-top, soap opera and laughable, but so kick-ass, you'll be damned if you don't believe a word she's saying. And no one, no one, except for Paltrow looks that good after being drugged with morphine, horse medication and induced labor. "I feel great!" she snarls at Lange.
Though Schaech is a drip (you really can't believe Paltrow would marry this dork), its to be expected around these strong, uber-blonde gals who worship at the alter of Grace Kelly, Vivien Leigh and Aileen Wuornos—simultaneously. Hush is just so old-world female that certain viewers will be oddly charmed by the experience. Though its certainly not a great picture, as say, the very womanly/insane Straight-Jacket or Queen Bee were (not Aldrich or Hunter projects but damn near close), its still divining the spirit of such films. Keeping the girly/geriatric/mental breakdown tradition alive, Hush is all woman and importantly, all fun.
Columbia/Tristar studios present Hush in both Widescreen anamorphic (1.85:1) and
standard Full Screen (1.33:1). The film plays best in its widescreen presentation where Andrew Dunn's cinematography highlights the rolling splendor of Kilronan and the golden tones of the actress' skin and hair. The whole film feels golden, in fact, aside from some glaring scenes that were clearly filmed later. If you pause and zoom on an earlier scene in the park, you'll notice that Paltrow is noticeably thinner, almost emaciated (even while pregnant) and that she's wearing a wig (which solved my theater experience queries of whether or not Gwynnie was undergoing chemotherapy.) Nevertheless, her wig looks crisp.
The picture is soft, but defined and without many flaws save for some slight edge enhancement that never takes you out of the melodrama. As said, the golden tones are enhanced nicely, while other colors stand out vividly. Taken from a superb Sony HD transfer, the picture delivers very natural fleshtones and solid blacks. All in all, the print looks excellent.
Columbia/Tristar studios present Hush in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0. 5.0 is the most acceptable track. The mix is impressive, with the film's ultra dramatic score beautifully rendered. The film is suspense-filled (though you'll catch on to what's going on) so the surround sounds are especially important. Here, they are presented with a discrete but effective mix where split surrounds work nicely with the spiky dialogue. For instance, the aggressive music, highway sounds and car screeches involved in Paltrow's escape attempt are aided by an excellent mix that parcels out each sound distinctly and dramatically.
The dialogue (and there is some dialogue here) also works naturally with good spatial integration. You won't have a hard time deciphering Lange's Southern-isms—even when she's talking under her breath.
Not much, sorry to say, but given Paltrow and Lange would like to forget this film ever existed, it was probably not encouraged. No commentary or making-of mini-doc's here. Instead, we get the funny theatrical trailer and an alternate French dubbed track in Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0. I have watched this film in French and its a kick. The French probably love this movie.
An extremely fun, subversive and underrated woman's picture that could benefit from its more gothic predecessors, but is nevertheless massively entertaining. Watching Lange and Paltrow spit at each other is a surprisingly engaging experience and the story, though pure melodrama, falls almost in the so-bad-its good category. But its really not that bad. If it's aware of its camp factor, then it's grandly succeeded. If it's blissfully, earnestly unaware, it's still a camp treat. Like Showgirls (though not quite as good) Hush is occasionally stupid, but charmingly, oddly refreshing. I predict a slow moving cult to follow.
Read More Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun