Dir: Roy Ward Baker
Cert: PG • UK: 95 min • Hammer • DVD
“Mother of three-10, 11 & 15-divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway.)”
By the 1960s, actress Bette Davis was finding work harder to come by, as the advert she placed in Variety in 1962 suggests (though she later claimed it was a joke). The two golden rules if you want to be a leading actor in Hollywood were: don’t be openly gay and don’t be a woman over 40. As they aged, poor Bette and her peers found themselves increasingly cast as psychotic crones and deranged bitches (see Shelley Winters in What’s the Matter with Helen?, Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling, Kim Novak and Corale Browne in The Legend of Lylah Clare, Olivia DeHavilland in Lady in a Cage and Joan Crawford in Berserk). These silly, low budget 1960s and 1970s flicks – sometimes called Grand Guignol, sometimes called ‘hag’ films – are a genre in themselves, and should be compulsive viewing for gay men and lesbians due to their screamingly high camp value and banquet of quotable lines.
When Bette couldn’t get any other acting jobs, she had to resort to that old stalwart, nepotism. The Anniversary was a cheapie Hammer film – the British company were co-owned by the Hyman family, who Bette’s daughter BD had married into. Bette turned her nose up at having Jewish relatives, prompting long-suffering BD to exclaim “God mother, be grateful, they’ve hired you when no-one else did!”
The Anniversary has all the elements of a perfect hag film – a big old house, dysfunctional family relations, sexual perversion, killer one-liners and a ‘past-it’ actress who gets to say most of them. Most hag films are easy to sum up in one line: Wild in the Streets is that film where Shelley Winters is on LSD, Berserk is Joan Crawford with an axe. The Anniversary is Bette Davis with an eye-patch.
In the film Bette plays nasty matriarch Mrs Taggart, whose husband is long gone, yet she still goes through the annual ritual of celebrating their wedding anniversary, forcing her relatives to spend at least one night a year in her poisonous company. Eldest son Henry never got married and spends his evenings adding to the extensive collection of women’s underwear in his bedroom. Middle son Terry has an inferiority complex due to the fact that when he was a small child he blinded Bette in one eye with a gun. Terry’s wife Karen is almost as shrewish as his mother, and the two women use him as ammunition in a never-ending grudge match. Youngest son Tommy is the ‘looker’ of the family and the only one Mrs Taggart seems to genuinely like … perhaps a bit too much – in one scene she gives him a kiss which goes beyond maternal love and becomes something rather more incestuous. “Follow that!” she triumphantly declares to his finance.
The film’s plot surrounds the fact that two of Mrs Taggart’s sons are trying to break free of her clutches – Terry wants to emigrate to Canada while Tommy has brought home a new (pregnant) girlfriend, hoping she’ll be the one who finally stands up to Bette (his previous lovers all dumped him after meeting her). Mrs Taggart isn’t letting her ‘chicks’ fly the nest so easily though, and she’ll employ her entire arsenal of tricks to get her way. This includes: announcing that all of her grand-children have just been killed in a car accident, trying to get one son arrested and inducing a miscarriage (via her glass eye). When she doesn’t get her way she resorts to pure cattiness. My favourite line in the film is when she asks Tommy’s girlfriend: “My dear, would you mind sitting somewhere else. Body odour offends me.” Bette manages to say some of the most appalling things by using a variety of techniques: “you are not a good mother, but it’s not my place to say so”, she tells her daughter-in-law, thereby making her feelings known anyway. And later in the film she chastises various members of the family by telling them what their dead father would be thinking of them if he were here. “But mum, he’s dead,” complains Thomas. “He still deserves to have his say,” Bette replies obliquely, making sure that “Dad’s say” is her say.
Like all hag films, the women get the strongest roles – Sheila Hancock and Elaine Taylor measure up well, although this is Bette’s film and she relishes the role, cackling with witchy glee at the outrageous things that she gets to do. Special mention should go to Sheila Hancock who plays Terry’s wife and (almost) gives Bette a run for her money. Sheila went on to play Mrs Taggart herself decades later in the 2005 West End stage version of The Anniversary. Hollywood’s loss was Hammer’s gain, and while most Bette fans tend to mention her earlier films: Dark Victory, Mr Skeffington, All About Eve – I’ve always had a soft spot for her later work. Hags rule!