A Random A–Z of Film Themes: B Is for Baby (or Babe)
Those were the years before 9/11, when Cool Britannia was cool, Britpop was popular and happy hardcore was hardcore, when I never thought I’d find anyone as great as Jordan, and when a guy at school called me baby and I didn’t seem to mind. I don’t think his intentions were amorous. He was the school bully and, at secondary comprehensives, gay advances did little to advance the bully’s street cred. Rather, he used ‘baby’ to conclude an act of fraternal malice, one directed on occasion against me and my friends.
The act would begin just after lunch, before register was called. Approaching me, the bully would ask if I’d mind looking after something for him. Without waiting for a reply he’d pull back one half of my blazer and drop an item into the inside pocket. Nowadays the phrase ‘bomb bag’ would likely raise a few eyebrows at Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism unit, but in the innocent 90s it was just a small foil envelope, easily purchased at newsagents, that, when squeezed, would fill with air and eventually let out an ear-splitting pop. Like the proverbial gangster, the bully did not expect to be asked to divulge the contents of the package with which he had just entrusted you. It was enough to simply say ‘Oh, OK’ and sit back to await the inevitable (like the wimp that you were). Whether the explosion came before or after the teacher arrived was academic for, either way, it was followed by the perpetrator’s theatrical epilogue.
‘Hasta la vista, baby.’
After a few seconds’ deafness you began to make out the laughter, then realised how stupidly shell-shocked you looked, then tried laughing along. All the while you might be wishing that some other tough guy would give him a taste of his own medicine; maybe a Swayze-like hero announcing ‘No one puts Baby in a corner’ before dropping the offender’s arse with a Stone Cold Stunner™. But sat there in the classroom, limp like the punctured foil languishing in your jacket pocket, there was no denying the current state of affairs: you had been hasta-la-vistaed, baby.
So it is with a heavy heart, and a shade of embarrassed nostalgia, that I address filmic uses of this so-called ‘term of endearment’ over the years. Thankfully, I am not the only one to have been on the receiving end of a barbed baby. If the movies have taught us anything it is that Pamela Anderson was right to demand gentlemen refrain from its usage. So should ladies for that matter. Beneath its coochy-coochy exterior lurks a stinging insult, an ominous prophecy of doom, a patronising brush-off or simply the dubious honour of a roll in the hay with Austin Powers. By – as it were – bringing up ‘baby’ we must, like Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in the film of the same name, prepare ourselves not for the soft and cuddly but for the fanged and vicious, for a creature with chaos and destruction on its mind.
Don’t Call Me Babe
Many a classic Hollywood film is riddled with babies. As a pejorative, patronising, infantilising label for women it’s been around as long as Hugh Hefner’s decrepit willy. Baby, honey, sweetheart, sugar, etc. – such words served the double function of celebrating the woman’s physical attractiveness and drawing an imagined distinction between the world-weary, hard-bitten male hero and his seemingly innocent and naïve female counterpart. And therein lies the contradiction. On the one hand baby means wide-eyed innocence – ‘I’m as innocent as a babe,’ quips the fugitive Groucho Marx in Copacabana (1947) – while on the other, and as Groucho slyly notes, ‘I know some babes who ain’t so innocent.’ A word denoting youth and innocence, but also sexual awareness/obtainability, babe is a verbal manifestation of male prurience run rampant, the desire to seduce a ‘pure’, unsullied soul, but an unsullied soul agreeable to a little sullying. The best uses of the word play around with, and sometimes deconstruct, the cliché. ‘Baby, I don’t care,’ says a puffed-up Robert Mitchum, clutching co-star Jane Greer in a passionate embrace in the film noir Out of the Past (1947). It’s a wonderful example of old-school machismo, one that is soon blown away by the discovery that Greer is far from innocent. She is, in fact, the devious brains of the outfit, playing Mitchum for a sap right through (almost) to the film’s ending. As is so often the case in the old film noirs, it is the guy and not the woman who turns out to be the naïf. In Double Indemnity (1944), central protagonist Walter Neff’s (Fred MacMurray’s) habit of calling femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) ‘baby’ becomes more and more ironic as the film progresses. She plays him like a violin; her feminine charms are but a disguise behind which a ruthless and calculating seductress pulls the strings. And this is what, one would imagine, set heart beats racing seventy years ago. Not goody-two-shoes babies, but babes with a bite, who could riff on the innuendoes – ‘There’s a speed limit in this town, Mr. Neff’ – and put their money where their mouth was when the opportunity arose: action babes.
Flash forward to the present and witness the emergence of what film scholar Marc O’Day calls ‘action babe cinema’. While the femme fatales of old may have been a little more active than was common for female stars of the 1940s, they were nevertheless usually expected to face some nasty comeuppance or other at the picture’s end. Not so for the action babe. Films like Charlie’s Angels (2000), Tomb Raider (2001), Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), Kill Bill (2003, 2004), Resident Evil (2002) and the various X-Men productions feature attractive women grappling with villains and terrorists and generally blowing things up. Drawing on Yvonne Tasker’s work on gender and action cinema, O’Day suggests that such movies complicate the usual notions regarding gender and spectatorship (i.e. women are passive sexual objects to be looked at; men are active heroes to be identified with). Instead we have women like Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry and Angelina Jolie combining sexual spectacle with ‘action man’ heroics. Thus do these films offer a variety of pleasures, ranging from the lusty to the awe-inspiring. Of course, these representations owe a debt to numerous precedents, from the Pam Greers of 1970s blaxploitation pictures like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) to, even, the Pamela Anderson of Barb Wire (1996). And the infamous ‘Don’t call me babe’ tagline of the latter is not the only point of significance regarding this film. In a telling reversal of character types, Anderson’s character is actually playing an updated version of Humphrey Bogart’s classic tough guy of Casablanca, Rick Blaine. She may seem like a ruthless, unfeeling post-apocalyptic bounty hunter, but beneath that façade is a sentimentalist desperate to find her way out. ‘I think I’m in love,’ says a doe-eyed admirer at the film’s end. ‘Get in line,’ quips Barb. Wise-cracking aside, one suspects that this is the start of a beautiful friendship. Just don’t call her babe.
Whether we should see such films as a progressive development in terms of gender representation or just a very marketable commodity (and O’Day stresses the way in which product placement and general marketing tie-ins are commonly associated with action babe cinema) is open to question. The debates could be endless. But it is clear that violence as an act in itself has enjoyed a sexy renaissance. The recent spate of 2000s babe action films has provided a timely makeover for the action hero. As protests rage against Iraq and Afghanistan, and atrocity after atrocity is carried out in our name, the widespread presence of ultra-violent women on screen offers alternative pleasures for a jaded public sick of seeing men doing shit things to men. Rather than violence being associated with inhumanly muscular, macho men of the Rambo ilk, the action babes give it a bit more of a soft, sexy, emotional and decidedly human face. In this way, Hollywood can appeal to our baser instincts – our desire for butt-kicking – without dredging up thoughts of the Middle East or Libya or wherever the hell else we might be at that point in time. And women kicking men’s arses is also very cool. In Quentin Tarantino’s homage to blaxploitation Jackie Brown (1997), we see Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro watching a promotional video for various automatic weapons. In what I thought at the time might have been a self-conscious reference to the way in which the visual media (including Tarantino himself) sexualise violence, the stars of this video are scantily clad women brandishing Uzis, machine guns, etc. Yet in hindsight, one could almost say that this brief scene is a prophecy of Tarantino’s future filmic output. From Kill Bill to Death Proof (and to a lesser extent Inglourious Basterds), his movies of the 2000s feature women clad in tight suits or hot pants, or very little at all, brandishing swords or shotguns. The babe action hero might offer roles for female actors previously difficult to come by (unless you were Sigourney Weaver) but, at the same time, do more to sexualise, glorify and even sentimentalise violence than any Sylvester Stallone or Schwarzenegger could hope to manage. In the 1980s and 90s manly muscles were the toast of Hollywood. Male violence and male virility were promoted as one and the same. Now, female violence and female sexuality are explicitly painted as sisters in arms. Thus is the babe action hero a slightly disconcerting addition to our already well-stocked arsenal of dangerous, violent archetypes. Not as dangerous, however, as the next babe under examination.
Night of the Living Babies
They may appear the sweetest little things on earth, but beware, the babe is deadly. Just ask Rosemary.
In 1968, a shocking, thrilling, horrific movie hit cinemas and chilled the pants off filmgoers. It has since been heralded as a modern classic and a significant turning point in the history of horror cinema. Rosemary’s Baby features a young, upwardly mobile couple, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) Woodhouse, and their dalliances with the devil. The couple move into a brand new flat and begin thinking about having a baby. Funnily enough, the nice elderly couple living upstairs are also getting a bit broody. But as signed-up members of a satanic cult, which seemingly has direct contact with Beelzebub himself, they’re keen to have Rosemary beget not Guy’s but the Devil’s spawn. This means the Dark Lord raping Rosemary (with the newly converted Guy’s blessing) and getting her up the duff. As we await the pitter-patter of cloven hoofs, we watch Rosemary’s descent into physical and mental turmoil. She is diagnosed insane and her closest confidants perish. It seems that the Satanists have it all sown up. Without giving too much away about its ending, Rosemary’s Baby is a film begging for a sequel, if only to find out what the little fellow is up to now. In hindsight Rosemary’s Baby can be seen, it is argued, to usher in a period of horror cinema in which the ‘monster’ is not a figure lurking in some old European Mansion (à la Dracula or Frankenstein) or a manifestation of communism (as is sometimes argued to be the case with 1950s horror and sci-fi) but is rather something found a little closer to home, in the bosom of the family. Robin Wood’s classic article ‘The American Nightmare: Horror of the 1970s’ argues that ‘the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses’. Horror is a projection of a society’s collective psyche at that point in time, its beliefs, its hopes, its fears. At a time when Vietnam was raging, government corruption (Watergate, The Pentagon Papers, etc.) was being revealed on a massive scale, and many people, young and old, were taking to the streets in protest, it is perhaps unsurprising that filmmakers started finding plenty of monstrousness on their front porch. The threat was not external, but resided in America itself, and, sometimes, within institutions that were once held sacred, such as the family. Thus we see American society disrupted from within as evil families, public figures and, importantly for this article, children rise up in the name of darkness. Fears of rebellion and ‘un-American’ behaviour amongst America’s young may have contributed toward a spate of films that presented babies, children and young people as either monsters (Rosemary’s, The Exorcist, The Omen) or the victims of horrendous murders (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween), such representations, as Richard Nowell demonstrates in his history of the teen slasher, Blood Money, having become widely recognised, and oft-parodied, slasher clichés already by the early 1980s.
But we digress. The subject is babies, and if ever there was a baby who could hold his head high amongst murderers, robbers and thieves, it was the baby in It’s Alive (1974). Thanks to some inadequately tested prescription drugs, Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) gives birth to a hideously deformed monster who, after killing several hospital staff, goes on to terrorise the local neighbourhood. This infant serial killer indiscriminately murders everyone from cops to milkmen, and then cutely bursts into tears. Even ridiculous topics such as these, however, may have been referencing real issues of the day. An article at AVClub.com notes that the film reflected ongoing fears over the use of fertility drugs after the thalidomide tragedy that saw a generation of deformed babies born.
Certainly, childbirth and/or encountering a baby are often portrayed as terrifying experiences. One might recall Alien’s (1979) Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the oft-parodied alien birth that sees a little slimy chap burst through her stomach (and, in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, do a little dance). Or what about Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his encounter with one of the little bastards in Trainspotting (1996)? I’d imagine that coming off smack is hard enough without having to face babies down the bottom of a toilet bowl. They get everywhere (Baby’s Day Out). They can be complete pigs (Babe). Sometimes they talk. I’m not sure what drugs the creators of Look Who’s Talking were on when they thought it’d be fun to have babies talk to one another like grownups, but they shouldn’t have taken them. Babies talking like mummies and daddies – they grow up a lot quicker these days, don’t you know. Don’t we know it. It’d be a brave person to follow William Ross Wallace or that woman from taut baby-themed thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) in saying ‘The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.’ Nowadays – and despite the recent meteoric rise of MumsNet as a social and political megalith – it’s the other way around. Babies rule. We may be able to choose their sex, but we can’t stop them from murdering the milkman, or cussing or being in league with Satan, or generally causing some kind of unpleasantness during or after their birth.
Babies explode. Cue the eerie piano: a man pushes a baby carriage through the Lower East Side, New York City. He deposits the carriage beside a shop and beats a hasty retreat. Cut to the contents of the carriage. Not a real baby but a doll slowly opens its eyes. Then comes the gargantuan explosion. This is an early scene from Marathon Man (1976), the John Schlesinger-directed thriller set in 1970s New York. An exploding baby begins to unravel a web of deceit, corruption and murder centring on former Nazi war criminals involved in an illegal diamond trade-off. ‘These are the days of miracle and wonder’, as Paul Simon would have it, ‘The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio.’ Interestingly, Marathon Man’s hero, played by Dustin Hoffman, is also called Babe, Babe Levy. Beginning the film as a naïve, disconnected PhD candidate, Babe loses his innocence as he is dragged further and further into this shady criminal underworld. Surely one of the few pictures to feature a man named Babe (films about Babe Ruth like The Babe Ruth Story (1948) could hardly call him anything else), its crime story runs in tandem with a kind of coming-of-age narrative that sees its hero subjected to horrendous acts of violence (most famously at the hands of Laurence Olivier in the dentist chair scene). Like another famous Baby – Baby Houseman of Dirty Dancing fame – his experiences facilitate some kind of personal transformation. He is forced to act like a hero, like a proper adult. When they’re not being cute, insulting and murderous, babies are growing up.
And so we return to my school, circa 1995. Sat in history class I’m approached by a girl. ‘You know ___?’ Yes I know her; I fancy her. ‘Well, she really likes you.’ Really. I straighten my tie. ‘She wants you to ask her out, maybe after class?’ I nod. ‘But you can’t tell anyone. Don’t say a word.’ I tap my nose conspiratorially. She taps her nose conspiratorially. We part. History: just one damn thing after another. At last the class ends. I approach the girl, stand in her general vicinity playing it cool. I see her and her friend laughing about something. Then she walks off. The friend approaches me. She taps her nose conspiratorially. It is April 1, 1995. April Fool’s Day.
‘Hasta la vista, baby.’
When they are not writing silly things about other babies, babies like me are growing up.
Nowell, Richard. Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Cycle (London: Continuum, 2011).
O’Day, Marc. ‘Beauty in Motion: Gender, Spectacle and Action Babe Cinema’. In Yvonne Tasker, ed., Action and Adventure Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 201–218.
Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and Action Cinema (London: Routledge, 1993).
Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
And that’s all I have to say about that. Next up: C is for camera. I’ll take my Super-8 through some serious film self-consciousness.
Finally, as a member of the grammatically challenged club, I am grateful to Seb Manley for sorting this aspect of my work out. While I would not blame Seb for my opinions, nor for any silly metaphors, lazy phrasing or overused adjectives, any part of this piece that reads clearly, fluently and grammatically is thanks to Seb’s keen eyes and fair hands. Seb is a proofing pro. You can find his website here: www.manley-editorial.com.