1965 horror film The Nanny stages a disturbing battle of the sexes to keep women in their place.
10-year-old Joey Fane has been in a psychiatric facility since the death of his baby sister two years earlier. When he finally returns home he seems scared of the long-standing nanny (Bette Davis). Joey claims ‘Nanny’ killed Susy – and now she’s trying to kill him, too …
This page examines the key themes and techniques in The Nanny – with spoilers.
The social background to The Nanny
The Fanes are a well-set, upper middle class family. Bill Fane is a Queen’s Messenger – a courier with diplomatic status. Virginia (Virgie) Fane is a stay-at-home mother. She has few domestic duties, because Nanny takes care of the household.
It’s telling that Nanny stays on with the Fanes even though there aren’t any children at home.
Mrs Fane is childlike and weepy, and still struggles with Susy’s death. Mr Fane is more like a headmaster than a husband, and has little time for her meltdowns. Nanny’s real job, then, is looking after Mrs Fane.
This set-up – distant parents, a servant underclass – reflects attitudes of the time. This is an era when people ‘knew their place’. They followed the rules, and accepted the social hierarchy, even when it discriminated against them.
When we first meet the Fanes, they’re preparing to bring Joey home from the institute. But, despite not having seen her son for two years, Virgie is distraught. She won’t go with Bill to collect him, sending Nanny in her place.
The film takes this idea of the nanny as a stand-in mother to its extremes. The adults take turns shirking their parental responsibilities, repeatedly putting the kids at risk.
Creating the voice of authority
Because Joey is the film’s protagonist, we see and interpret events through his eyes.
Joey is a well-spoken but spirited young boy. His age, mannerisms and social standing make his a compelling voice in the film.
Moreover, his time away from the family, as well as his fears about the ominously eyebrowed Nanny, make him an unlikely underdog. Joey’s regimented childhood only compounds our sympathy for him.
On the whole, we accept a version of events that exonerates him:
- Mr and Mrs Fane unfairly blame Joey for his sister’s death.
- Nanny, a creepy and unattractive middle-aged woman manipulates the family. She does this to coddle Mrs Fane and keep a job that isn’t really needed.
- Nanny drowned Susy. Joey avoids eating or bathing around her, so that she can’t kill him too.
- There are whispers about Virgie’s mother dying, and Virgie herself being in an accident as a child. Is Nanny somehow involved?
- When Virgie gets food poisoning, the adults blame Joey. He insists Nanny is behind it.
Joey goes to impressive lengths to avoid Nanny. He demands she stays out of the bathroom while he’s bathing, and blocks his bedroom door so she can’t get in.
Joey’s predictions finally come true. First Nanny lets Virgie’s sister (Aunt Pen) die of a heart attack, then she tries to drown Joey. This seems like case-closed … but is it?
The lamps and mirrors that feature in many scenes offer a subtle counterpoint. Their presence is unsurprising given the story takes place almost entirely in the Fanes’ apartment. But as symbols, they also signify clarity and plain sight, as well as the distortion of mirrored images.
So, what is is that isn’t being seen, or is being mis-seen? Firstly, Joey’s innocence, and secondly, Nanny’s guilt.
Much of what makes 10-year-old Joey the film’s voice of authority also works against Nanny.
She’s as an older, unattractive women, which plugs into social hang-ups about witches and unmarried women. The fact that she’s childless (or so we assume for most of the film) is another source of suspicion.
Audiences at the time would have understood that Nanny’s social position makes her ‘less than’ her employers. We’re primed to trust them over her. Meanwhile, the way she babies Mrs Fane often seems inappropriate and creepy (rather than caring).
We still embrace social attitudes like these. At her peak, Bette Davis was one of Hollywood’s legendary A-listers. But while male actors get roles well into their twilight years, there are fewer opportunities for older women. Davis’s later roles cast her as just that – an old woman, grotesque and horrific: see also Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
We’re conditioned to mistrust Nanny because she doesn’t fit narrow gender concepts. She isn’t young, attractive or helpless … and that’s all it takes to make a cinema villain.
Could Nanny be innocent?
Eventually, Nanny is caught and put away for her crimes. Joey is reunited with his mother, and the bad feeling between them seems to vanish. Does this prove Nanny is a deranged murderer, or could there be a bigger crime under our noses?
Here’s another way to read the film’s plot points:
- There’s no link between the death of Mrs Fane’s mother and Virgie’s childhood accident. It’s tempting to join the dots, but there’s no evidence.
- Susy falls into the bath and (presumably) is knocked unconscious. In Joey’s version of events, she drowns when Nanny unknowingly turns on the taps. While awful, this is still an accident rather than cold-blooded murder.
- Nanny’s crime is leaving the children alone at home. Yet her social position makes it impossible to take leave, even though her own daughter is dying. As Joey says: “Nanny wasn’t supposed to go out. It wasn’t her day off.”
- Joey can be cruel and sociopathic. At the start of the film, he pulls off an elaborate prank in which he pretends to hang himself.
- Later he drowns a doll to scare Nanny (it works). But he refers to overly-specific details about how Susy’s body was found: “not like that,” he tells Bobbie.
- Moments after claiming Nanny has tried to drown him, Joey climbs through Bobbie’s window in his towel and calmly watches TV.
Joey isn’t a reliable narrator. It’s quite possible that, if he didn’t kill Susy himself, he at least shares some of the responsibility. At the very least, he hears Susy falling into the bath tub and chooses to ignore it.
Mad, bad mothers
The film’s central judgement isn’t just about Susy’s death – it’s about motherhood and female behaviour (see also Run).
Society says women should dote on their children, but Mrs Fane is frightened of Joey. She still struggles with the death of her other child, and is more concerned with her own emotions.
Likewise, Nanny’s true failure is also in motherhood. As her daughter tells her:
“You were too busy looking after other people’s children, weren’t you. You had no time for your own.”
Nanny has neglected her own (illegitimate – another crime!) child all these years. Her daughter resents this so much that she refuses to speak to her. She also refuses to mother an illegitimate child herself – and dies after a botched backstreet abortion (the procedure was only legalised in the UK in 1967).
Nanny’s punishment – for leaving the Fane children alone, for being a neglectful mother, for being of a lower social class, for being unattractive and unmarried – is to lose all her children.
When she returns from Amanda’s death bed, Susy has drowned, too. The trauma is so painful that the two events merge in a kind of psychological rupture.
Meanwhile, Nanny develops an unnatural maternal relationship to the Fanes. She babies Mrs Fane (feeding her, brushing her hair) and even thinks of it as her true responsibility in life.
In fact, it’s Mrs Fane’s needs that motivate Nanny. Nanny wants to silence Joey because one day, someone will believe his lies. Then Nanny will have to go, and no one will be left to look after Mrs Fane.
Together, the two women represent a fractured view of idealised motherhood. Mrs Fane is pretty and docile. Nanny dotes on the children. But as individual women, they are ineffectual and frightening.
A psychological reading: sexual dominance and growing up
Another way of reading the film is through the psycho-sexual dynamic, and the Oedipal complex. This term, introduced by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in 1899, is controversial. At its simplest, it refers to:
“a boy, aged between 3 and 6, becoming unconsciously sexually attached to his mother, and hostile towards his father (who he views as a rival).”Source
This tension runs throughout The Nanny. And, as a story of latent sexual desire, other interpretations become possible:
- Joey may have either killed Susy (or allowed her to die) to remove competition for his mother’s love.
- Likewise, Joey always argues with Mr Fane because they’re subconscious sexual rivals for Mrs Fane.
- Joey’s demands that Nanny not see him bathing, and not cook for him, match his developing sense of independence. He wants to assert his own dominance on the female realm (the way he chooses his own bedroom, for instance).
- Joey must get rid of Nanny so that he can have mother all to himself. The film ends with him telling Virgie that he’ll look after her now. With both Bill and Nanny vanished (or vanquished), he assumes both their roles.
Joey’s role in the household is as a miniature male guardian. He pulls the women into line (like father, like son) and controls their sexual tendencies or desire:
- Joey stops Bobbie flirting, calling the other boy a “dirty old git”.
- Later, he asks Aunt Pen if he can sleep with her (i.e., in her bed).
- When he hides in the Dr Medman’s surgery with Bobbie he jokingly tells her to take her clothes off and get on the couch …
A coming of age
The Fanes, and their apartment, represent a dying era. They’re cold, regimented people who rely on class and gender to keep their place in the world.
Joey’s upstairs neighbour, 15-year-old Bobbie, stands for the liberated 60s. With her short hair and smoking, she represents the exciting world happening (literally) outside his window. She also represents the sexual desires that lie ahead; together, they play-act a kind of adulthood.
This – and the decades to come – unravels much of what defines people like the Fanes. Women’s work slowly moves beyond the home, and becomes more valued. Legal abortion, plus access to birth control, levels their healthcare and employment rights, and reduces the social stigma of women’s sex lives.
All this makes Nanny’s fate even more poignant. After a lifetime of servitude and self-denial, her reward is to lose her final, surrogate child – Mrs Fane. The lesson is unwavering and emphatic: know your place – and stay in lane.
The Nanny (1965), directed by Seth Holt.
What to read or watch next
- Rosemary’s Baby, The Others (old women, witchcraft)
- Peeping Tom (horror, 1960s)
- Séance on a Wet Afternoon (British noir thriller of a similar era and vibe)
- All About Eve (women and ageing)
- Rebecca (women, madness, obsession)
- Bride Wars (gender expectations)
Picture credit: Katarzyna Kos