January 13, 2013

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, longtime foes in real life, finally crossed paths onscreen in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). This bizarre psychological thriller about the hostile, combative relationship between to sisters--both has-been actresses--was a big hit, and ushered in a strange new subgenre of macabre thrillers that revitalized the careers of a number of Hollywood's golden-era leading ladies (including Davis, Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyk).

There's something horribly undignified about seeing Bette Davis doing self-parody. The thing I most admire about Davis as an actress is her fiery strength. She always had the upper-hand (I'm thinking particularly of Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes or Margo Channing in All About Eve). In Baby Jane, she plays the titular character: a former child star whose career faded into the past about the same time her sister, Blanche, became a popular film actress. Now they're both retired and living together in an old house that allegedly belonged to Rudolph Valentino. It's sort of Sunset Boulevard meets Cinderella, and Baby Jane is the wicked warden who keeps her invalid sister under lock and key, playing all kinds of sick mind games on her (and cackling with unhinged glee at the idea of Blanche's finding her dead bird in the lunch dish).

Bette Davis is made to look grotesque and insane, and this certainly rekindled the embers of her career. Throughout the 1960s, she appeared in one demented-old-broad picture after another. In fact, the first Bette Davis film I ever saw was the 1964 Dead Ringer, about twin sisters, one of whom murders the other. (Sound familiar?) When you start at the end of a great actress's career and work your way backwards, it puts you at some kind of chronological disadvantage, but I'm grateful that Dead Ringer gave way to All About Eve and Now, Voyager and all the other inferior but still grandly entertaining vehicles. Baby Jane is sort of the kookoo icing on the cake, except I think I prefer Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte, the one where Davis played yet another crazy old lady, this time opposite Olivia de Havilland.

Joan Crawford shows a fair amount of restraint in Baby Jane. She had spent so much time with over-the-top performances, that it's sort of ironic to find her being collected, almost subtle, in perhaps the most nuttiest of all her movies. (All her mainstream ones, that is.) Crawford, who was a few years older than Bette, looks a lot nicer than her counterpart in this (partly because of all that make-up that turns Bette into the harridan she was always capable of playing.) And she balances out the histrionics for the most part.

But still, Baby Jane is an uneven, overlong affair that's been overly praised by some as a great horror-thriller. It's too perversely obsessed with bringing out old relics from Hollywood's glory days and exposing their wrinkles. It takes pleasure in that masochistic manipulation of two of our most iconic screen actresses. I won't be so naive as to defend their work on the grounds that it's pure art--most of it is camp, or schlock even--and it's because of this that we still remember, and love, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. They're not made to be very endearing in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. (Although I still laughed out loud when Bette called Joan a "bitch" and they muted the sound. And there are a number of funny--some intentional, some not--moments.) Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Victor Buono, Maidie Norman, Anna Lee, and B.D. Merrill (Bette's real-life daughter). 138 min. ½

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