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WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962)
Starring: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Nominated for five Academy Awards:
Best Actress, Bette Davis
Best Supporting Actor, Victor Buono
Best Costume Design (win)
Imagine if Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD had a sister who would become more famous than her after her career began to fade, and after both had hit rock bottom career wise, what that big mansion that Desmond lived in would look like as the two go head to head ferociously. In WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, which resembles that of Billy Wilder's classic to a slight degree, teamed together two of Hollywood's stressful head cases with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford who where just as much known for their talent as their very public feuding with one another over the course of thirty years. Not only did the movie bring them together for the first time, but it was the first time that one another met the woman who they would bash relentlessly. But watching the movie there is no doubt that each actress was a professional, even having to swallow their own pride and play wash ups which they basically where at that point.
The movie prologue opens in 1917 where we are introduced to Baby Jane Hudson, a child star who while on stage performing has big smiles for the audience who simply adore her. With curly blond hair and a candy coated voice, she appears to be a happy little girl, but as we soon learn she is a spoiled little mouthy brat whose father is nothing but a self absorbed rat who is only out to exploit her daughter's image and pay off on it. He could give a damn about his other daughter Blanche, who, unlike her sister comes across as bland and ordinary who always has to sacrifice happiness so her sister will get her way. The film skips to 1935 where both sisters have become film stars, except now it is Blanche who is the successful one, and Jane only gets work because Blanche's contract with the studio has a clause that for every picture she makes, Jane gets to make one picture. But Jane has absolutely no talent to speak of, as two studio heads note when they watch one of her recently finished films (the film the two men watch is actually Bette Davis's 1933 film EX-LADY, who Davis claimed was one of her worst and was prime for poking fun at). The two men discuss a party that will be held later that night at Blanche's house and hoping to convince her to allow them to cut Jane loose since she is costing the studio money, not only financially but also publicly, as Jane is a drunk and likes to brawl. The prologue ends with the two women (the camera doesn't show their faces), returning home, with one getting out of the car to open the gate while the other one sits in the car while watching her sister in front of the car and before the gates. She hits the gas pedals and goes speeding towards her sister but instead misses her and hits the gate. Jane (again, we don't see her), runs away screaming and sobbing.
The film then jumps to present day where Jane and Blanch are now two elderly women in their 50's and living together, alone, in an old mansion. Blanche is confined to a wheelchair due to the accident years earlier, and the world believes it was her sister Jane who who attempted to run her down, but nothing was ever proved since she was drunk that night and couldn't remember a thing. Blanche is a soft spoken woman who enjoys simple pleasures in life such as reading and tending to her small caged canary (symbolizing her own caged life in her room). Jane on the other hand is now a grotesque, deranged drunk who resents her sister on a day to day bases. She must look after her and take care of all her needs such as feeding and running errands. When a television station begins airing Blanch's old movies (the movie used in the film is Crawford's 1934 movies SADIE MCKEE), Jane's venom becomes even more furious, hollering that she also had a movie that opened the same year but it was never released in the United States. Jane is extremely bitter about the past while Blanch is always more forgiving and kind, despite being treated terribly. But Blanche has been biding her time before telling her sister that she is planning on selling the house and moving into a special home with her caretaker Elvira (Maidie Norman). But little does Blanche know that Jane has been aware of her sister's plan for quite some time, and isn't about to allow her house to be sold. Jane then goes full force like a hurricane overpowering her sister, systematically torturing her with mind games. While she is securing her home, she is also, under the false illusion that she is still a well known actress, planning a comeback and puts out an ad in the paper for a piano player. Con man Edwin Flagg (Buono), replies and soon enough Jane begins to fall for the husky fellow. Edwin is only in it for the money, knowing that the self-absorbed dreamy eyed woman has no talent to speak of and won't have a chance in hell of making it big with her act.
While Jane is polishing up her act, Blanche desperately attempts everything to contact the outside world but to no avail, and Jane ultimately restrains her and makes her a prisoner in her own home. By the time everything is said and done, old revelations are made, and Jane goes totally insane, returning to the days (in her mind), when she was loved by everyone.
Though the movie does run a little long (two hours and twelve minutes), and possessing several holes in the story that don't seem to follow logic (Blanche has several opportunities to call out for help but stays mum), the story is splendid tale about power, and instead of resorting to mindless gore it relies on genuine terror and suspense and succeeds beautifully. Director Robert Aldrich (who would team up with Davis once again two years later in the successful HUSH... HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE), handles both his actresses well and helps them deliver two of their finest performances of their careers. Crawford masterfully underplays Blanche and gives her heart and compassion, but doesn't turn her into a naive victim. We feel for her because she is aware she is being abused and we sympathize with her when she suffers. Davis on the other hand is wonderfully flamboyant, pulling every trick in the book with her performance (loud, dramatic, tragic, hysterical, hilarious). Though Davis does have the showier role and audiences will watch the movie for her and her wild antics, the character isn't totally without a soul and there are moments when we do feel for Jane as well. She herself is a victim, being that since she was a little girl she has been falsely told she had talent and that people love her (something many child stars suffer from, and few survive). There is a terrific moment at the end of the film when Crawford reveals to her what really happened on the night of the accident which crippled her. Davis, with big sad eyes stares down at her, You mean... all this time... and we could have been friends. I won't explain what Crawford revealed, but that one moment is the heart of the story in my opinion.
Buono, who unfortunately died early on in his career (and is best known for playing King Tut on the Batman TV series), has an enormous amount of presence in the film and remains one of the few actors who didn't require Davis's help to be noticed onscreen. To be honest, Davis takes second fiddle in the scenes they do share and Buono gives a bravura performance as the hustling con man. The best scene in the movie is when he plays the piano and Davis sings I've Written A Letter to Daddy in the most atrocious way possible.
The movie was a gigantic hit when it opened and was just as famous for the behind-the-scenes feuding of its two stars. Aldrich tried everything possible to make the two women happy, and his most accomplished effort was hiring on cinematographer Ernest Haller, who had worked with Davis several times in the past on such films as DECEPTION, MR. SKEFFINGTON, ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, DARK VICTORY and her two Oscar winning performances, DANGEROUS and JEZEBEL. He had also worked with Crawford in her Oscar winning role in MILDRED PIERCE. Each woman also got a percentage of the profit added on to their initial salary. But all that and countless of other efforts didn't always keep the two women on friendly terms, and there where many a time when they did argue and grate on each other's nerves (Crawford, who was married to a Pepsi chairman at that point, insisted that the beverage be served on the set. Davis walked in one day and hollered, Who do I have to f**k to get a Coke around here?). But though tempers flared, each actress was a professional and whatever indifferences with each other they had off screen, their onscreen chemistry is remarkable, and hopefully they realized that this movie, and their performances, where one of the many highlights of their careers. I would like to believe that both woman expressed appreciation to one another in a subtle fashion, since I know neither would come out and express gratitude. One without the other, the film wouldn't have that flair it needed, and because of that they produced one of the greatest, campiest gothic horror films of all time.
My Grade: A