Movie Review by Curt Solash
Psychological black comedy/mystery
Warner Brothers 1962
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Best Black and White Cinematography
Best Black and White Costume Design
Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress - Bette Davis
Best Supporting - Victor Buono.
Other nominations: Cannes Film Festival, Directors Guild of America, Golden Globes, British Academy Film Awards
Two aging sisters, both former show-business stars, live in a decaying mansion awash with lies, secrets, suspicion, mutual hatred, torture, and sadism.
A seriously underrated and critically maligned film at the time of its release, a reappraisal shows it to be a tour de force in acting, directed with much nuance and attention to detail, and a whopping good story, entertaining and outrageous.
It's been called camp, kitsch, black comedy, an embarrassing comedown for two former Hollywood stars, and many other things. I call it funny, perverse, crackling good entertainment, and an unforgettably good time
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were long past their glory days as Queens of Hollywood, maybe even on the skids. The scuttlebutt is that Miss Crawford ran across or came up with the idea for this film - two sisters, former show business stars, living in a decaying mansion full of skeletons in closets - and pitched it to director Robert Aldrich. After peddling it all over Hollywood, to no avail, Warner Brothers finally agreed to distribute the film. Davis and Crawford were regarded as completely unbankable at this point. It would be nice to think as a bit of gratitude, given the millions these ladies made for the studio in the 1930's and 1940's, but Hollywood doesn't know from gratitude. the ladies were offered a very low salary and part of the profits. It was that or nothing.
Well, to the consternation to all concerned, it swept the world and became a major hit. One reason is a really ingenious story line. It starts during World War One, when Baby Jane Hudson (Bette, of course, played by a child actress) is the Toast of Vaudeville, whose success is supporting her family, including sister Blanche (Joan). Jane knows she's the breadwinner, alright, and lords it over the whole family; domineering, cruel, demanding, spoiled, never letting anyone forget that she is the Alpha Dog in this arrangement.
Fast forward to the 1930's, and the power balance is a little different now - Blanche is a major Hollywood star. Bette is also making movies, but is considered devoid of talent and basically hopeless. It is great fun when an early scene from one of each actresses' movies appears in the story. Joan's from one of her successes. Bette's from one of her programmers before developing her craft. It is assumed that Jane is very jealous of Blanche's success and one night when the two are driving home from a party, Bette tries to run Joan down with their limousine and cripples her. Or so it appears.
Now, we flash to the present (1962) and it's bizarre to say the least. Joan is a comparatively well-groomed paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair and Bette has turned into a grotesque, half-mad hag who must care for her disabled sister. They live in a highly sadomasochistic relationship, with bitterness and anger aplenty.
Let me, at this point, stress another reason for the success and high quality - the superb acting that both actresses evince. Joan Crawford, with the less showy role and considerably less screen time, shows steely determination and underplays beautifully as the helpless sister who slowly realizes that she is in mortal danger as her sister's mental condition deteriorates. Her fear for her life grows slowly and realistically in proportion to the increasing sadism and torture her sister metes out. Hers is a convincing, poignant performance.
Bette, on the other hand is anything but repressed. Her performance is funny, mannered, often bizarre, but disciplined, nuanced, and very subtle when called for. She supposedly invented the makeup herself, an old woman perversely done up and dressed as the Baby Jane of forty-five years before. This is a drunken slattern who just applies another layer of makeup over the previous day's. If one can get past her outrageous appearance, many things about her performance are superb. She successfully portrays someone with the brain of a perverse child yet sharp as a needle and causes the viewer to feel revulsion and pity at the same time.
Part of her delusional state is her plan to revive her vaudeville act. One of the finest scenes shows her drunk, demented, but never stupid, doing her number in front of a mirror when suddenly, briefly, she sees and understands what she really has become and she crumbles during this brief flash of lucidity. It is an amazing scene and shows her great bravery in being willing to tackle such a freakish role. No one else, I believe, could have done it as convincingly - or had the balls to attempt it. As Charles Laughton once told her, "Never stop daring to hang yourself, Bette." And she never did! It should be mentioned that, insanity not withstanding, she knows everything that's going on in the house at all times. Things are not what they seem, but more on that later
Of course, things go downhill. She hires a ne'er-do-well to coach her (the wonderful Victor Buono) She kills Joan's maid. Buono discovers Joan trussed up and being starved to death by Bette and tries to call the police. Bette tries to escape with Joan and the two are ultimately found on a beach. Bette completely in another world, where she's the sweetest of them all Joan almost dead.
The ending is somewhat equivocal. What happens now? Will Bette be committed? Does Joan recover? It does reveal the truth that Blanche was the one who tried to kill Jane and has been largely responsible for her insanity due mostly to guilt. The ending struck me as full of pathos, lyrical, poetic - almost operatic.
If this sounds like fun. and it is, what makes it even better is knowing what went on behind the scenes and how it influenced what happens on the screen. Most of this is well-known Hollywood folklore, but it bears repeating. Bette and Joan utterly abominated each other. Although both started on their best behavior because both needed a hit, it degenerated very soon.
Joan had weights hidden under her clothes for a scene where Bette has to drag her across the floor and Bette severely injured her back.
For the sequence where Bette kicks her around the parlor, Bette was really kicking...hard!
Davis also has an opportunity to be cruelly realistic. imitating Joan's phony upper-class diction on the phone.
For the few in this universe who've never seen it, "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane" offers a good mystery story, torture, sadism, outrageous humor and perversity and two actresses like no other, and as different from one another as can be, in roles that, to a large extent, correspond exactly to how they were in real life: Joan, composed, controlled, phony and Bette, loud, often offensive and full of anger, but down to earth, honest, genuine. Both were more than a little nutty, too, increasingly, as time went on.
Thought not everyone's cup of tea, it's a rousing good show to be appreciated on many different levels and richly deserves its reappraisal.