Simon Abrams and I continue our exchange, here and at his blog Extended Cut, on American Horror Story's first season. We’re on the scent of the pilot episode through tomorrow and will be moving on to Episode #1, “Home Invasion,” starting Monday. Catch up with the entire conversation by scrolling down or clicking on the following links:
PILOT EPISODE POST #1
PILOT EPISODE POST #2
PILOT EPISODE POST #3
Have you ever seen What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969; Lee H. Katzin)? It’s a pretty spiky psychological thriller that came near the end of the run of a popular sub-genre in the ‘60s which featured older actresses, some of which could be said to have seen better days, pitted against each other, usually in an escalating and increasingly gory series of grotesque face-offs. (Wikipedia dubs the genre ”Psycho-biddy”, a term I confess I’ve never heard until today, though I am familiar with “hagsploitation” and “Grande Dame Guignol,” both of which are also recognized by the mighty Wiki.) In WEHTAA, Geraldine Page plays Claire Marrable, a widow who discovers, upon the reading of her late husband’s will, that she has inherited not the vast holdings she believed were his (theirs) but instead an apparently worthless stamp book and a mountain of debts. This news does not go down well in her estimation, so she immediately snaps and begins a cycle of killing off her housekeepers for their modest savings (which she then invests wisely) and hiring replacement models, grooming each successive one for the same treatment. The bodies, as it turns out, make for excellent fertilizer, buried as they are under a healthy grove of trees which our protagonist nut job cultivates with great satisfaction. Ruth Gordon is Mrs. Dimmock, the titular Aunt Alice, who smells a rotten egg and gets herself hired on as Claire’s latest maid so she can investigate the disappearance of her best friend, who happens to have been the most recent victim of her boss’s calculated temper.
Much of the juice of the movie comes from Geraldine Page’s simmering psychosis, which is never far from the surface, and it gets mixed up with all kinds of class entitlement and resentment of those who are beneath her station and yet relatively solvent (at least more so than she). Her bouffant slightly askew, she regards everyone from her hires to her saucy young neighbor (Rosemary Forsyth) with withering contempt, the smirk on her face usually replaced only with a look of horror when that neighbor’s pesky son and his dog get a little too close to her garden. Yet Page lets us underneath the icy stares and dismissive, bourboned scoffs to see the continually wounded pride that masks this woman’s sense of being abandoned by the world. It’s a performance that can be appreciated as “camp,” whatever that term means on this calendar day, but it’s rooted in real pain and the arrogance of a woman who can no longer gauge how far is far enough when it comes to self-protection.
I bring up Page because I’m convinced (as were a couple of my friends who have also seen the run of American Horror Story) that Jessica Lange’s conception of Constance Langdon is, if not a direct tribute to Page’s performance in WEHTAA, then at least a powerful suggestion of its influence. Even Constance’s honeyed, slightly out of time hairdo seems to evoke Claire’s rumpled attempt to prop up the last vestiges of the kind of style her previous life once afforded. In her first neighborly sit-down with Vivien in the kitchen, Constance fairly radiates a strange combination of warmth, regret and haughty propriety. And her wonderful speech about her failed attempt at Hollywood stardom is a rich and fascinating harbinger of further peeks we’ll get into Constance’s tortured psyche. I absolutely love how Lange teases every bit of vanity and disappointment out of the story she relates to Vivien about coming out to Hollywood (in the ‘70s, like Lange herself, I’m guessing) and being put off by the overly sexualized requirements of movie stardom, or even simple interest from the powers that be. “I came out here to be a movie star—did the screen tests and everything,” Constance offers, “but nudity was the big deal then.” (The emphasis is hers—I love the way she italicizes it, and her own refinement, by pronouncing it “new-dity.”)
After letting Vivien know that it was her refusal to indulge in the collapsing morals of the movie business rather than a lack of interest in her talents (we don’t ever find out much else about whether she was any good or not, or even how sincere her efforts were to get noticed), Constance tells Vivien of her resignation, how she had to take “that… little… butterfly of a dream and put it on jar on the shelf. And soon after came the mongoloid and of course I couldn’t work after that.” This is a brilliant bit of business, such a concentrated display of perfection of pitch and inference on the part of Lange, and it demonstrates why she’s going to turn out to be the best, most reliable bellwether of the shifting tones of American Horror Story throughout its first season. That short little speech encapsulates not only that “Old Dominon, born and bred” sense of propriety and entitlement she wants to convey to Vivien, but also the mix of friendliness and sense of station she wants Vivien to absorb as well. Even the imagery she uses, that of tucking away her dreams in little jars, is double-edged. It invokes the precious, old-fashioned manner of older women, grandmas, aunts beholden to the sentiment of knickknacks and even the practice of stocking preserves (jams, fruits, meats) in jars, women whose world Constance at least ostensibly harkens back to.
But those jars also reverberate with imagery we’ve already seen in the opening sequence when the twins meet their end, and which is also echoed in the opening credits-- that of jars filled with other things, like pickled body parts and hunks of tortured flesh that look an awful lot like mutated or somehow mangled fetuses. And it’s all topped off later with the perfect note of seasoning, when Constance endures, as she must, the righteous indignation of Vivien’s stern warning to Addy (“the mongoloid”) to stop coming into their house without permission. Vivien makes the huge mistake of firmly but gently putting her hands on the girl’s cheeks to emphatically make her point. Constance watches in the background of the shot, apparently taking Vivien’s side as to the seriousness of the matter, a façade she maintains until Addy is out of earshot. “Sorry about all this,” she says to Vivien, making a turn toward the door. Then she stops, the phony warmth dropping like a heavy mask, pauses briefly, turns to Vivien and says, “You touch my kid one more time and I will break your goddamn arm.” For the incredible range of Southern hospitality, humility, hubris and hostility Lange displays in this pilot episode alone I would have awarded her every statue on the table. The good news is, what she does in the pilot really is just the tip of the iceberg.
I have a couple more observations regarding the humor of the show, and also I wanted to talk a little bit about what we see in the pilot as far as the use of music and whether it bothers you at all. (I suspect it does, but we’ll get into that.) There’ll be time to do that briefly, I think, before we shift gears to the “Home Invasion” episode. But for now I’m happy to continue basking in the glow of Lange’s considerable achievement here. I’m convinced she is the one who set the bar for Murphy and Falchuk et al. in terms of the way the show develops over this first season. If she’s not as good as she is, then I’m sure that American Horror Story wouldn’t rise to the occasion in the way it eventually does.