Saturday, October 30, 2010

Seminal movies: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

It's not quite horror, at least, not in the traditional sense; and yet, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is an excellent choice for the Halloween week edition of TCM's Essentials, airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET.

(Edit: I misread the schedule. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? isn't the Essential; that would be the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane follows at 10:15 PM ET.)

Baby Jane is played by Bette Davis. At least, the grown-up version is; at the very beginning of the movie we see the original "Baby Jane", a child star of the late teens and early 20s. Unfortunately, as happens to so many child stars, they grow up to be unappealing adolescents and adults, and are no longer stars. To make matters worse, Jane has a sister, Blanche (Joan Crawford), who became a Hollywood star when she reached adulthood, a turn of events that must of ticked off Jane to no end. Blanche's career in Hollywood was all too brief, however, having been ended by a car accident that left her in a wheelchair.

You dirty rat!Fast-forward to the present, or at least the present as it was when the movie was released in 1962. Jane and Blanche are living together, with Jane taking care of Blanche with some help from a nurse. If you can call it "taking care of". Jane has become somewhat like Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd., retreating into her past career and expecting that someday in the future, she'll be popular again, if only she doesn't have the anchor of her sister tied to her. Blanche isn't just a physical anchor, stuck in that wheelchair; her films are still quite popular, showing up on the late-late show. The natural effect of all this is that Jane is insanely jealous of Blanche, who for her part thinks Jane deliberately caused the car accident that required all this "care". Indeed, Jane is treating Blanche terribly, not allowing her any freedom, and even physically abusing her when she tries to call for help and escape.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is fun on a lot of levels. Davis and Crawford both give performances that are seen today as over the top, but to be honest, they're not that far removed from Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond. The way Davis and Crawford treat each other is dated 50 years on, in part because a permissive Hollywood is able to show us so much more without our having to draw our own conclusions. That doesn't stop the movie from being an excellent character study, though. It's also helped by all the legend that's grown up around it. Jane and Blanche look as though they hate each other, and the rumor has it that Davis and Crawford really hated each other -- to the point that some of the violence we see on screen might have been real! Although it's dated, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is somewhat of a landmark in that it revived Davis' career, and its box office success set off a whole string of movies in the 60s for older actresses. Indeed, Davis and Crawford were set to be reunited for Hush, Hush... Sweet Charlotte. But as I mentioned back in January 2009, the story goes that Davis hated Crawford so much that in order to tick off Crawford, she brought a Coca-Cola vending machine to the set. Crawford, at the time, was still on the board of Pepsico, being the widow of the former CEO. True or not, Crawford wound up not playing in Hush, Hush... Sweet Charlotte. Crawford got to extract her own pound of flesh, too. Davis was nominated for a tenth time as Best Actress for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and was disappointed to lose to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker. Bancroft wasn't able to be at the ceremony. Who accepted the award in Bancroft's absence? None other than Joan Crawford.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has made it to DVD, and is well worth watching by anybody who has an interest in older movies.

No comments: