Film review by Jason Day of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, the thriller about two sisters who used to be movie stars but are now locked in an abusive relationship.
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Years after the two of them were stars, ‘Baby Jane’ Hudson (Bette Davis) and her paralysed sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) live alone in their Hollywood house. Jane is mentally and physically abusive toward Blanche, who in response indulges in passive aggressive displays of defence and poorly executed escapes. When a penniless pianist (Victor Buono) answers Jane’s newspaper ad to help score a musical comeback, both sisters see an opportunity to get away.
Review, by Jason Day
Now I’m usually the first one to kick off about pedants getting my goat, but one thing that annoys me about Whatever Happened To Baby Jane is a relatively tiny and meaningless point that no one else has probably thought much about or even noticed.
The character of Blanche Hudson, a film idol of the 1930’s but now a stay-at-home legend, earned a packet of money from her career. But she chose her home in what looks like a suburban LA street, rather than a movie star mansion away from the prying eyes of nosy neighbours like Anna Lee. Like most other Hollywood top dogs did then and still do now.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, both synonymous with old Hollywood fame, had been on a marathon of movie mediocrity in the later part of the 1950’s, when neither could pull decent scripts flies let alone audiences. I bet they didn’t worry about things like locations.
Canny producer/director Robert Aldrich revitalised both of their careers with this blockbuster smash, as camp as camp can be and all the more entertainingly quotable because of it.
It’s difficult to pull a camp off successfully without relying on garish colours, devastating witticisms and themed songs on the soundtrack. It’s also an attitude, or a viewpoint. Baby Jane has all of that and more.
From portly Victor Buono in a stand-out piece of supporting panto as a simpering pianist out to scam poor Baby Jane, to his cockney charlady mother/’sekitery’ (Marjorie Bennett) twittering away in the background about his ‘qualifiCAYTIONS’, there’s even a trippy trip to the beach for death and a mental breakdown. Its all grand and silly.
Such light-hearted moments are punctuated with a nasty seam of horror and human and animal cruelty. These scenes are too tame to shock audiences now but needless to say when Jane is about, lock up your budgie.
Of the human torment, Aldrich revels in showing us what a passive-aggressive woman and a depressed psychopath (both egotistical delusionists) get up to and how they end up after 20 years in the same house together. When all you have for distraction is booze, a live-out housekeeper and a neighbour asking questions over the hedge, you just have to sit back and let the fun and mayhem roll.
With Blanche’s pettiness (frantically ringing her buzzer when there is no emergency) and self absorption (indelicately droning on about her past successes to a woman who has experienced significant failures) and Jane neglecting her sister and later physically abusing her (she kicks her down the stairs. Davis quipped that this was the most fun she ever had with Crawford), there was never going to be a happy ending in the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital.
At least it explains Jane’s walk. Lead footed or scuffing her slippers on the floor, a zombie has more life than this old broad. Or maybe Aldrich was just more interested in pushing the erstwhile rivals for effect. After all, the film is celluloid viciousness.
At this time, Hollywood’s horizons were shrinking as TV encroached on its turf (TV is omnipresent throughout the film, a foreboding apparatus), so if old time legends of Davis and Crawford’s stature are prepared to debase and abase themselves, why hold back?
Aldrich doesn’t and this film affords us a chance to see great stars down on their luck being given a quality shot at the big time again. By the end, it has a benevolent feel to it.
NB: Davis received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for this film. The fact Crawford didn’t kick-started the rollercoaster of fun chronicled in the TV series Feud.
Of the two actresses, Davis edges the better performance, keeping in with the tone of the whole movie. With her alabaster, clown-white face, she is unrestrained in her vulgar, childish evil. You expect her to say ner-ner-ne-ner-ner at the end of every sentence. Its more of an extended, creepy stand-up skit but ghoulishly amusing.
Crawford, with the ‘nicer’ character, has less to be flashy with but she gets across with panache and skill some quite complex thought processes and coping strategies as ways of manipulating and placating a very disturbed person. Doubly caged in the house and her wheelchair, she reels around in terror, shrieking abnormally.
Aldrich, Davis, writer Heller and some of the supporting cast re-teamed a year later for (in my opinion) the less successful Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Crawford, for reasons that have passed into movie legend, did not. Theatre star Tallulah Bankhead tried to copy the Baby Jane format with Die, Die My Darling!/Fanatic (1965)…and failed.
Davis’ real life daughter B.D. has a small role as neighbour Anna Lee’s daughter.
Cast & credits
Director: Robert Aldrich. 133 mins. Seven Arts/Associates & Aldrich.
Producer: Robert Aldrich.
Writer: Lukas Heller.
Camera: Ernest Haller.
Music: Frank De Vol
Sets: William Glasgow.
Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Anna Lee, Wesley Addy, Marjorie Bennett, Maidie Norman, Julie Allred, Ray Hudson, Ann Barton, Gina Gillespie.