Like a Sunset Blvd remake set in the House of Usher, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a darkly comic, corrosively Gothic psychological horror about the ugly side of Hollywood and its still-seductive allure with a pair of iconic performances from two women who tormented each other almost as much off-screen, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and a great director, Robert Aldrich, who nailed the difficult tone. It's a film that's held up, revealing new things to admire with every viewing, and it fills its two-and-a-quarter-hour running time without much repetition.
The film opens with a pre-credits sequence that jumps back twice in chronology before settling in to the present. Beginning in 1917, we're first introduced to the young, blonde, curly-haired Baby Jane as a child vaudeville star, famous for dancing and singing such hilariously revolting treacle as "I'm Writing a Letter to Daddy" ("his address is heaven above," it continues) and handing out life-sized Baby Jane dolls to her admiring young fans. She's also a spoiled little monster, under the direction of a fame-obsessed stage father who's also her pianist. Her long-suffering sister, Blanche, and mother watch, pinch-faced, offstage. "Someday," the mother says to Blanche, "you will be the one getting the attention, and I want you to be kinder to your sister and father than they are to you now."
Next, we're in a Hollywood screening room in 1935, where a pair of studio executives are screening a new film starring the now considerably less famous Baby Jane (Bette Davis). Her vaudeville days far behind her, Jane owes her unsuccessful B-movie career to Blanche (Joan Crawford), now a huge movie star whose contract stipulates that every film the studio makes with her must be matched with a film featuring Jane. Jane's films are flops, not even released in the United States, while Blanche has her own parking spot at the studio for her expensive car. The film we're watching in the screening room is really an old Bette Davis film, and though she's a much better actress than the character she plays, it's an unflattering clip of the very New England Davis butchering a Southern accent in one of her first parts. It's to Davis' credit she allowed this self-critique, and it's a clever addition to this movie about the movies.
Finally, we see the car accident that leaves Blanche paralyzed from the waist down and cuts her down in her movie star prime, and the credits roll. We're in 1962 now, and Blanche is confined to the upstairs of the family home, run by Jane. Jane is coming unhinged, an alcoholic plastered in pancake makeup, still under the impression that people recognize her from the vaudeville days, and driven violently angry by a popular series of Blanche's most famous 1930s hits aired by a local television station (which are actual Joan Crawford films) and her discovery of Blanche's plans to sell the house and get out from under the thumb of her abusive sister. Other than weekly visits from a sympathetic housekeeper, Elvira (Maidie Norman), who takes no shit from Jane, Blanche is cut off from the world, confined to her upstairs bedroom and dependent on Jane for everything. Jane's resentment of Blanche grows stronger, and she begins psychologically torturing Blanche.
Though this plot sounds like it would wear out its welcome over the course of a long film, the story constantly develops, and new, unexpected elements come into play. I'm especially fond of the subplot involving Jane's delusional attempts to resurrect her vaudeville routine, assisted by a pianist and small-time grifter who answered her personal ad (Victor Buono), who has some great scenes of his own with his elderly mother. The film keeps one-upping itself until we make it to the final, great scene on the beach, a scene on par with Gloria Swanson descending the stairs in Sunset Blvd, ready for her closeup.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a film about films, about what happens to once-famous stars when they're forgotten, about the relationship between performers and their audience, and the interesting facts and apocryphal tales spilling out in all directions from this film just reinforce its subject and themes. Davis and Crawford were very strong personalities, difficult to work with, who did not like each other, though they're both clearly committed to Aldrich's film. Crawford was the widow of Pepsi's CEO and a member of the company's board of directors, so Davis had a Coke machine installed on set. Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her role here and was considered a frontrunner for the award along with Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker. When Crawford found out Bancroft couldn't attend the awards ceremony, she asked Bancroft if she could accept the award on her behalf. Bancroft agreed, and she won, so Crawford got to take the stage instead of Davis. Blanche and Jane's neighbors in Baby Jane are played by Anna Lee and Davis' own teenage daughter Barbara Merrill. Lee was paralyzed in an accident shortly after the film. Her daughter was briefly married to Don Everly of The Everly Brothers, and their daughter was briefly married to Axl Rose. Merrill wrote a Mommie Dearest-style tell-all about Davis, inspired by that tell-all about Crawford. The book flopped, but Davis was angry enough to cut Merrill out of her will.
Finally, a few words about the director, Robert Aldrich. I'm a big fan. Aldrich married serious art to pulpy exploitation with the luxury of Hollywood budgets, crews, and distribution, and he proved himself a master of a variety of genres (war films, westerns, Gothic horror, film noir, police procedurals, Biblical epics, "the women's picture," action/adventure, comedy) while retaining his own off-the-wall personality. His filmography includes Apache, Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Knife, Attack, Sodom and Gomorrah, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen, Ulzana's Raid, The Longest Yard, Hustle, and even a comedy about women professional wrestlers with Peter Falk as their promoter called ...All the Marbles (why the hell haven't I seen that one?). He was a good man.
Silly critical debates about film as a medium have existed as long as the medium ("is film dead?" is one of the oldest), but one of the hottest debates of the 1960s was whether film was an auteurist (i.e., director-driven) art form or a collaborative one. Though the auteurist approach to cinephilia, criticism, and film studies became dominant, and though the most prominent anti-auteurist critic (Pauline Kael) became the most influential stylistic voice to emulate, a lot of the fighting and arguments about the various positions were silly and based on an often intentional misrepresentation of the auteurist position. Auteurists never argued that film wasn't a collaborative medium requiring the creative efforts of many different artists and craftspeople (and, unfortunately, business people). What they argued was that the best and most creative works in the medium were guided by a director with a strong personal point of view, style, and sensibility, and that that style and sensibility could be seen in the entire body of work. I happen to agree with this argument, and I'm much more influenced by auteurist critics than I am by Kael and her legion of imitators.
On the other hand, I'm a rabid movie fanatic who loves a lot of films where the director is not the primary creative force behind the movie, and that is perhaps most evident on this blog. Genre is king over here at the Decapitated Zombie Vampire Bloodbath, and those of you looking for a stricter auteurist approach should head over to my general film blog We Can't Stop the Dancing Chicken (link to your right). (Though my obsession with directors is still present here, as evidenced by the names I include in the title of the posts.) This introduction is a long way of saying that I recommend perhaps that least auteurist of films, the adaptation of a successful stage play by a skilled journeyman jack-of-all-trades film director driven by its strong lead actors and story. Wait Until Dark is all of that, and a great entertainment.
Wait Until Dark was a hit 1966 New York play written by Frederick Knott and boasting Robert Duvall in its cast and Arthur Penn as director. The 1967 film adaptation replaced most of the theatrical cast except for Julie Herrod, but it's a great lineup of actors. Directing duties this time were assigned to Terence Young, a competent hired gun who could handle a variety of genres with skill and talent. Young directed three James Bond films (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball), several Charles Bronson westerns and action films (including The Valachi Papers, which I haven't seen, but I like to imagine the voice of The Simpsons' Charles Bronson imitation saying, "Valachi here. Where are my papers?"), war films, historical epics, thrillers, and romantic comedies, and it's to his credit that he keeps the theater-like intimacy of Wait Until Dark while also making it look and feel like a movie. The cast includes Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, and Jack Weston.
The film opens with a technique common to films adapted from primarily single-location plays in that it begins in a separate location with expansive cinematic space before moving gradually to the claustrophobic space of the primary location. Young also begins the film with very '60s, very cinema Art Deco opening credit typography. This is a bit of a trick to hide the stage-bound source material, but it's an effective one. Even though the bulk of the film happens in an apartment, Young shot the apartment scenes on location in Manhattan to give it even more cinematic texture. Even while in the apartment, characters are often looking through the blinds into the street (though some of these street scenes were shot on studio lots in Hollywood) and opening the door to the rest of the apartment complex, so using actual locations also masks the theatrical origins of the work.
Wait Until Dark opens with a young woman observing an older man sewing packets of heroin into the stuffing of a doll, which the woman will take from Canada to New York. When the woman arrives at the airport, she sees a man named Roat (Alan Arkin) waiting for her. Alarmed for reasons we don't yet know, she gives the doll to a fellow passenger, Sam (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), telling him the doll is a gift for a sick daughter in the hospital and that she doesn't want her other daughter to get jealous when she sees it. If Sam will take the doll with him, she'll come back for it later. He agrees. Meanwhile, the woman's contacts in New York, a couple of con men calling themselves Mike (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston), are blackmailed by Roat into helping him retrieve the now-missing doll from the apartment of Sam and his wife, the recently blind Susy (Audrey Hepburn). Sam is soon called away on business to New Jersey, and Susy is alone in her apartment as the three criminals con their way in to try and find the doll. Mike and Carlino are small-time crooks only interested in money, but Roat is a disturbing, truly creepy individual, and the suspense increases exponentially as the film progresses.
Wait Until Dark is not a groundbreaking masterpiece of world cinema, but it is a great example of lean, economical Hollywood storytelling, and a damned entertaining suspense thriller. Arkin is already a commanding screen presence in only his second film role, and it's fun seeing him play a scary, evil guy (albeit one with a goofy '60s haircut -- he's like an evil Lovin' Spoonful member). Hepburn is great, too, with the exception of her cloying, thankfully brief scenes with Zimbalist's patronizing husband character (Zimbalist is the film's weak link), and she captures that mix of vulnerability and strength that makes a great suspense thriller hero/victim. This was Hepburn's last film role for nine years (she took those years off to spend more time with her children), returning for another great role in Richard Lester's Robin and Marian in 1976. (Another fun Hepburn fact: She first met director Terence Young when she was a 16-year-old volunteer nurse at a Dutch hospital in World War II and Young was an injured British paratrooper.) Character actors Weston and Crenna also bring a lot to their parts, making these guys seem like real small-timers in over their heads. And the only returning member of the play's cast, Julie Herrod, is very natural and un-Hollywood in her part as the young neighbor girl.
As in most suspense thrillers, you have to suspend some disbelief. For someone who was blinded in a serious car accident a year before the film takes place, Hepburn and her eyes look remarkably healthy, and she fails to take advantage of a few spare minutes to knock on another apartment door and get the police, but these are minor quibbles. If you can't let things like this go, movies might not be a good time for you. Great cast, real scares, '60s time capsule, real suspense, lots of fun. Sign me up.
Dr. Mystery, aka Robot X, aka Raul "Sous Chef" Mendoza, aka Josh Krauter was killed in a brawl in a Pizza Hut parking lot after expressing his disappointment with the "Dippin' Strips" pizza. His skeleton was saved and inserted into an apesuit-wearing robot powered by an electrical current emanating from the still-beating heart of deceased actor Zero Mostel. He is also a limited liability company and writes the weekly advice column, "Pull Your Head Outta Your Ass," for the Vermont Luthiers Annual Newsletter.