BITCHES IN HEAT
runs August 3-23 at Grand Illusion
THEY JUST DON'T make bitches like they used to. At least that's the idea behind this three-week celebration of the she-devil in American cinema. Harking back to a time (1935-1966) when feminine evil often translated to box office gold, the wonderfully, indelicately monikered Bitches in Heat series presents six of Hollywood's most spectacularly heinous harridans. Not surprisingly, that list includes Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, and, of course, the Wickedest Witch in the West, Miss Joan Crawford.
This still being Hollywood, bad deeds (and bad girls) rarely go unpunished, but in these six featured films, nobody buys the tearful transformations and anguished pleas for forgiveness foisted upon their gloriously amoral protagonists. These ladies don't even know the meaning of shame, so why would any shot at salvation be more than a ploy, one of a million pulled from the cunning repertoire of a born self-preservationist? Actual redemption would be entirely unsatisfying, and—worst of all—dull.
The chronological series begins with 1935's The Devil Is a Woman, Marlene Dietrich's final collaboration with mentor Josef von Sternberg. Alas, the censors of the day declared that the song "If It's Not Pain, It's Not Love" be banished to the cutting room floor, but the message still comes through loud and clear thanks to Dietrich's absolutely merciless Concha Perez (a.k.a. Satan With Great Gams). Also in the first week, Barbara Stanwyck practically invents the film noir femme fatale in Billy Wilder's masterful 1944 rendering of James M. Cain's Double Indemnity. During week two, Bette Davis is, of course, all about evil in All About Eve (1950), the definitive take on Hollywood—and female—ruthlessness. Just the chance to watch Davis deliver lines like "I'll admit I may have seen better days . . . but I'm still not to be had for the price of a cocktail like a salted peanut" on the big screen is worth a thousand words from the lips of lesser divas. (See film calendar, p. 79, for further series details.)
Finally, the legacy of these giants of cinematic bitchdom necessarily includes their enormous impact on drag culture. In that spirit, the series also grants honorary membership to John Waters' scatological 1974 terror-fest Female Trouble, featuring the always larger-than-life Divine. Of course, Gloria Swanson would never have dirtied her turban on Baltimore's mean streets, and Joan Crawford would undoubtedly sooner eat dog shit than, well, eat dog shit, but Divine shows she's got the smarts, the awesome disregard for morality, and— perhaps most importantly—the etched-in-ink eyebrows needed to join their ranks. Perhaps that film anticipates a 2002 sequel to this summer's fest: Bitches in Heat II: On Wheels, anyone?