Review: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Bette Davis plays former child star ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson, a spoiled brat who hit it big in vaudeville in the early 1900s, and made life miserable for everyone else, especially her sister Blanche. Moving to the 1930s Blanche (Joan Crawford) has by now become the bigger star, and Jane a bit of a has-been struggling to get work. However, after an incident with a car one night, Blanche ends up paralysed and fully in the care of sister Jane. Thirty years later we pick things up again, with the relationship between the two sisters so tense and bubbling with jealousy, spite, and suspicion that it’s not long before things completely boil over into insanity. Meanwhile, Jane attempts to revive her dormant career. A debuting Victor Buono turns up as an unemployed piano player who lives with his mother, who answers an ad Jane has placed for an accompaniment to her new act. Look for Davis’ own daughter (with Gary Merrill) Barbara Merrill as a young neighbour of the aging sisters.

Although I’m much more partial to his subsequent “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, I can see why this 1962 black comedy from Robert Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen”) has endured, not to mention inspired a TV miniseries on its notorious making (The not entirely convincing, but always fascinating “Feud: Bette and Joan”). As a film, I don’t actually think it’s all that great, but I don’t think that quality has a damn bit to do with why people remember this one. This is all about long-time rivals Bette and Joan having a slow-burning catfight, pretty much. It’s funny, “Feud” seemed to want to make us feel sorry for the stars, and the fact that everyone was calling this a ‘B-picture’. Then of course it made a lot of money. The thing is though, not only is it absolutely a B-picture (with A-grade stars somewhat on the wane), but I don’t see a damn thing wrong with that. If it’s done well, it’s just as worthy as something ‘classy’ in my book.

In a way, I think this film is a look into the future for Honey Boo Boo (probably an out-of-date reference now, I guess but it occurred to me nonetheless). Watching the film again around the time “Feud” played on TV, it seems obvious to me that at least one of the film’s stars (That would be Miss Davis) knows exactly what this film is and plays it for what it’s worth. And what is it worth? I think this one works best for film buffs, rather than actually engrossing you in the story or characters as in “Sweet Charlotte”. That’s just fine though, because it ends up being entertaining just the same…in a creepy, sleazy, slightly pathetic kind of way. Some consider the film to be a horror film. They are wrong. This is a black comedy, whereas “Sweet Charlotte” at least had a Southern Gothic flavour to it. So no, this is very different experience to what you may have been led to believe by others. Bette really does steal this one, in what probably can’t be called a good performance, but she sure goes all-out for it. I’m not kidding about that Honey Boo Boo parallel, by the way. Just look at the creepy as hell opening scene with a ghastly child version of ‘I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy’, which is creepy enough before you find out that they’re selling Baby Jane dolls outside the theatre. Bette does a version of the song as a grown up later on, and it’s…well, it’s really something. Davis isn’t remotely subtle, but she and the film really give you an idea of what might become of a former child star of meagre talent and far too much indulgence. The film is uncomfortably and hideously claustrophobic at times…and that’s not a criticism at all. It’s also been expertly shot in B&W by Ernest Haller (“Gone With the Wind”), easily the best thing about the film from an artistic point of view. I may think that the latter “Sweet Charlotte” is superior, but this is just so weird, campy, creepy, and possibly a little jaw-dropping that you can’t turn away. The scene where Davis kicks the crap out of Joan Crawford is one of cinema’s finest moments, no joke. It’s also indicative of what works here and on what level it is pitched.

I also should mention the excellent, Oscar-nominated debut by Victor Buono, who makes an immediate impression and nearly steals it from Davis. He certainly steals every scene he’s in, but probably isn’t in the film enough to steal the whole thing. The one true flaw of the film is actually Joan Crawford’s performance (Something “Sweet Charlotte” didn’t have to contend with since she wasn’t in it). It’s laughable to me that “Feud” would make such a fuss about Joan Crawford being snubbed for an Oscar for the film, whilst Davis and Buono earned nominations. Buono was excellent and Davis was by far the most memorable of the two actresses in the film. Crawford overplays the ‘woe is me’ crap here. As a disabled person myself, I find her hysterical panic/excitement at a new visitor to the house to be ridiculously insulting. It made me feel there was something false about the character that would be revealed…nope, it was just a silly performance by Crawford. She comes off entirely phony, and frankly rather irritating and whiny. I suppose she’s attempting an underplaying to Bette’s overplaying, but it’s strangely distracting anyway. This film isn’t even close to high art, but she’s the only real problem with it.

You have to see the film at least once. An interesting experience for what it is, even if its charms aren’t really on the level of story or character. I’m not even sure I could call this a ‘good’ movie in the traditional sense, and a weak Joan Crawford performance keeps this from being even better than it is. Still…you need to see this, it’s a ‘classic’ if not quite a classic. Based on a Henry Farrell (“Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”) novel, the screenplay is by Lukas Heller (“Flight of the Phoenix”, “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, “The Dirty Dozen”).

Rating: B-  


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