What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford,  Victor Buono, Wesley Addy, Julie Allred, Anne Barton, Marjorie Bennett,  Bert Freed, Anna Lee, Maidie Norman, Dave Willock, William Aldrich, Ernest
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? – 1962

Director Robert Aldrich
Screenplay Lukas Heller
Starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Maidie Norman, Wesley Addy, Julie Allred, Anne Barton, Marjorie Bennett, Bert Freed, Anna Lee

Almost more famous for the feud between its two stars than the story it tells, …Baby Jane? is a movie that is an essential stop for cinephiles. The story is about two sisters who are former stars, each at a different time in their lives. They are old now, and one confined to a wheelchair after an accident they were both in decades earlier. Bette Davis plays former child star “Baby” Jane Hudson. Joan Crawford’s Blanche crept out of Jane’s shadow to have a successful acting career as an adult, while Jane receded to a lesser actress in lesser films.

The film makers employ a decent deceit here, grabbing footage of each actress’ earlier work and using it as though it were part of the story. We see both Davis and Crawford in their early prime while men sit in unflattering judgement of their acting. This is one of the earlier instances I recall seeing where a studio had done this, and it adds an eerie authentic feeling to the story.

Cutting to present day, or “Yesterday”, as the film suggests, we see the sisters, living together miserably in the large family mansion in Hollywood. Even in the early 1960’s this house seems haunted and ancient, especially when compared to the vibrant house right next door. Bars on the windows give a feeling that they are almost more to keep people in rather than out.

Inside we see Jane as an woman whose garish makeup shows a stunning lack of self awareness. She even has a little heart drawn on her gaunt cheek, as if she’s daring someone to tell her she’s not as cute as she was half a century earlier. When she has no one to impress, she slouches and shuffles her way around the house in slippers.

She holds scorn for everyone she doesn’t view as a potential fan. The maid, Elvira (the exceptional Norman) who is there more for Blanche than anyone, gets outright hostility. Most of her anger is reserved for her wheelchair bound sister.

Blanche, alone in her room most of the time, feels like a prisoner who is paying for her own cell. She puts on a feeble brave face. She defends her sister to Elvira, even though everyone knows Elvira wouldn’t do the same. Life is in a holding pattern when Blanche decides it may be time to sell the family home in order to just live somewhere else for a fresh start.

That’s when the bitter, angry wheels in Jane’s mind start to turn…

Davis is exceptional in her layered performance. Her body language varies from scene to scene as her hopes rise and fall. This really is more her film than anyone else’s even if Crawford is pretty good as someone battling with her own fragile grip on reality. Of the two, Davis is given the reins and she lets it fly. Crawford, unfortunately, is relegated to just reacting, which puts her at a disadvantage throughout.

This movie doesn’t play so much as a battle of wills as it is an exploration of one person’s dominance over another. The story starts with Baby Jane on top, then Blanche takes the lead. Now, with both of them outside of the limelight, living in misery, with a touch of Grey Gardens-type denial. Her advances towards Victor Buono’s Edwin Flagg would be funnier if it didn’t feel so tragic. Despite the obvious age difference, she holds no real understanding of his possible predictions, as she is so lost within herself.

The escalation of violence reaches a pretty advanced state compared to the standards of the day. It’s not what one would consider gratuitous for the day, but it is somewhat shocking when we consider the only thing close to it previously is Psycho two years prior.

The subtext of the story is layered enough that it manages to encompass the reality of both of its leads. It made headlines at the time, as both women had their issues with bad press. It gives a foreshadowing of the rest of their lives, as their stars continued to fade. It’s a sad reminder of how rough a life it is for a fading female movie star in advance of Searching for Debra Winger. Then we get to add the mystery of the last act on top of everything.

This is not a brilliant film. It’s a great film for its time, and it has a sobering message for those wondering how great entertainers have it when the limelight fades and the jealousy has time to grow.

(**** out of *****)

From the original Ebert review (****) – “The film functions among other things as a demonstration of the need both women had to appear before the camera.

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