Thursday, April 18, 2013

Classics: A Review of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

This better include a 401k plan
By the 1960’s, the Hollywood studio system had reached its end, ushering in a new era of independent productions and fresh faces. While the end of the studio system meant greater freedom for rising stars, it also meant the end of an era for many icons of the system’s Golden Age. As a result of the emerging changes in the industry, many fading stars quietly stepped aside and retired from the business. Some actors, however, refused to accept that their best years were behind them and chose to cling to any work that they could find, accepting bit parts or work in minor films that did not utilize their talents. Fortunately, a select few actors managed to reinvent themselves and establish second careers that enabled them to become icons to a new generation. In one instance, not one, but two careers were revived through an unlikely collaboration between legendary rivals. The resulting film was the horror camp classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which launched the comeback careers of leading ladies Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as mistresses of horror.

The film begins with a flashback to ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson’s childhood as a successful, vaudeville star in 1917. Her time on the stage proves to have been the high point of Jane’s life, as when the scene flashes forward to 1933 it is revealed that she has grown up to be an out of work actress with the start of  a drinking problem. As Jane’s life has begun to decline, her older sister, Blanche, has become a Hollywood success, and the family’s new meal ticket. After clips are shown of yet another of Jane’s failed screen tests, the two sisters are seen arriving home from a Hollywood party. One sister remains in the car as the other exits the vehicle to open the front gate of their house (their faces are never shown in this scene). Suddenly, the sister in the car puts the vehicle in gear and runs the other sister down. The scene fades out as footsteps and crying are heard off screen. The film then flashes ahead to 1960 as the sisters continue to live together in their old house. Jane is now a slovenly alcoholic who shows signs of mental instability, while Blanche attempts to remain optimistic despite the fact that she is confined to a wheel chair.

As the film progresses, Jane declines further into mental illness and keeps Blanche a prisoner in the house while she attempts to revive her childhood career. The plot quickly becomes a struggle between reason and insanity as Blanche tries to break free from Jane, who has surrendered to her illness and retreated into memories of her childhood. Despite the fact that Jane is clearly the villain of the story, Davis manages to gain the audience’s sympathy through her portrayal of a woman whose life has passed her by. By the same token, Crawford holds her own against Davis (who has the arguably more interesting part) by maintaining a restrained performance that adds realism to the often hysterical plot. Although the film is technically classified as horror, there are enough moments of cynical humor, outlandish plot twists, and criticisms of Hollywood to qualify Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? as a black comedy.

Because the film has a relatively simple premise, its true strength lies in the interactions between its characters. Both Davis and Crawford add layers to their caricatured roles as a faded movie star and her deranged former child star sister. For instance, while Crawford seems to be a helpless victim at the film’s start, she imbues Blanche with enough warmth, and later resilience to make her a character that audiences can identify with and feel for. Similarly, Davis’ mix of beaten woman and wounded child provides Jane with a complexity that is rarely found in horror villains. The supporting cast is equally excellent, with Victor Buono’s hilariously smug turn as pianist/gigolo Edwin Flagg proving especially memorable.

Although they had once been the undisputed queens of the silver screen, by 1960 Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were struggling to find work. When Hollywood’s Golden Age ended, the predominance of strong female parts also ended, resulting in a lack of opportunities for actresses who were too old to play ‘pretty young things’ and ingénues. Landing a part became so difficult for Davis that at one point she placed an ad in a Los Angeles newspaper that described her as an actress with “thirty three years experience” who “wants steady employment in Hollywood”. The studio scoffed at the idea of casting Davis and Crawford, even in decidedly unglamorous parts, with Warner Brothers head Jack L. Warner saying, “I wouldn’t give a plugged nicked for either one of those two old broads”. Regardless of how Warner and other studio executives regarded the pair, director Robert Aldrich saw an opportunity to draw audiences while simultaneously thumbing his nose at Hollywood and the ‘monsters’ it often creates.

What's for din-din?
The pairing of icons Davis and Crawford led to fireworks both onscreen and off, just as the director hoped. Early in their careers, Davis and Crawford formed a bitter rivalry, which some reports indicate started when Davis had an affair with Crawford’s then husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and which was undoubtedly further fueled by their fight for box office supremacy. Although Crawford generally avoided discussing other stars, Davis candidly shared her feelings towards Crawford saying, “Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it’s because I’m not a bitch. Maybe that’s why she (Joan Crawford) always plays ladies”. The actresses’ off-screen resentment carried over behind the cameras during production, resulting in a series of mean-spirited pranks between the two. Regardless of any tension behind the scenes, both women were able to maintain professionalism in front of the cameras and produce career reviving performances. Following the success of this film, both Davis and Crawford went on to have successful careers in horror that introduced them to another generation of film goers.
It's like looking into the future, isn't it?

Through its combination of Hollywood nostalgia, camp hijinks, and genuine terror, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? became, and remains, a classic. The film’s success led to a series of imitations and parodies that have ensured its place in popular culture. This film proved to have a lasting influence upon the film industry that resulted in numerous similar tales of child stardom gone wrong and old age gone psychotic. It also revived the careers of two Hollywood legends, ensuring that fans will never need to ask, “whatever happened to Bette and Joan?”. I highly recommend this film to fans of horror and black comedy. Give this film a try and you’ll learn what really happened to Jane, and much more.

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