Sunday, March 23, 2014

#178: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962)

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.

1 comment:

James Dye said...

Seconded on Robert Aldrich. I saw Ulzana's Raid at an Anthology Film Archives screening a couple of years ago, and I was knocked out. It's a violent Western about violence, and genocide committed against Native Americans (it's said to be Aldrich's "disguised" movie about Vietnam).

Another one worth seeing (well, they're all worth seeing) is Vera Cruz, which was the major influence on Sergio Leone's westerns. Unflinching violence, misanthropic characters, a setting in Mexico during that country's civil war against imperialist rule, a shipment of stolen gold - it was all there for Leone to discover.

All The Marbles is available from Warner Archives.