The Watchers

The Watchers

Sunday, 13 May 2012

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)

Currently on tour around the country is a wonderful play called Bette And Joan, which shows the intense rivalry between screen greats Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as they filmed the 1962 classic horror-thriller What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? which was the only time the two screen legends worked together. Infamous for the backstage tricks the two actresses played on each other, the film is a brilliant, campy concoction, full of eminently quotable lines and brimful of great performances. 

The plot is straightforward: former child star 'Baby' Jane Hudson (Davis) and her actress sister Blanche (Crawford)  live together in a decaying Hollywood mansion. Blanche is wheelchair-bound after a drunken car accident seemingly caused by Jane  left her crippled. Jane is firmly in control and takes delight in mentally torturing Blanche, whilst planning a comeback of her own. Into the picture comes mamma's boy pianist Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) who sees Jane's comeback as a way to make himself rich. But when Elvira the domestic help (Maidie Norman) starts to get too close to the dark truth of the Hudson house, Jane takes an extreme course of action which leads to tragedy...

The screenplay, adapted by Lukas Heller from the novel by Henry Farrell, seems to be a pretty straightforward potboiler. However, the spark and verve from the two performances by Davis and Crawford- along with assured direction from Robert Aldrich- really elevate this film from mediocre schlock to a campy cult classic- in no small part thanks to the utterly enjoyable over-the-top performance by Bette Davis.

I contend that Baby Jane Hudson is Davis' second best performance on film (her first being the exquisite Margo Channing in All About Eve). Jane is a slovenly, sarcastic, bitter and downright cruel character and Davis plays her to the hilt. Face slathered with thick make-up, she slouches round the house spitting barbs to her sainted sister. With Edwin, she is coquettish and flirty (a deeply discomfiting sight). But there are moments of genuine class too; rehearsing one of her childhood vaudeville numbers, she catches sight of herself, haggard and old, in the mirror and breaks down. It's a performance full of fire and it's an absolute crying shame she didn't get her third (or fourth) Oscar for this performance.

I've never much been a fan of Joan Crawford or her movies, but I have to admit she is a perfect foil for Davis' borderline-hysterical turn. She suffers like a true martyr in a series of bizarrely sumptuous nightgowns and takes the barbs and dead animals from Davis like a pro. Towards the end, there's a rather beautiful scene where Blanche makes a long-kept confession and Crawford does play the scene extremely well. The other main performance of the film is that of Victor Buono, an actor who would later go on to be perhaps best known for playing King Tut in the 1960s series of Batman. This was his first film role and garnered a Best Supporting Actor nod for his troubles. He took over the role from Peter Lawford and is wonderful as the scheming little milquetoast, unaware that this gig won't make him rich at all.

The story on-screen is a torrid tale of rivalry, but the backstage story is no less tantalising. Despite various protestations from both actresses, Davis and Crawford couldn't stand one another. Their professional rivalry stretched back to the start of their careers. They were roughly the same age (although Crawford was actually older) and were up for the same kind of parts. The rivalry really seemed to kick off when Davis made a crack that Crawford had slept with every male star on the MGM set apart from Lassie! It seemed unlikely that the two would ever work together, but the deal was struck and the two divas faced one another. 

The filming of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? was beset by little tricks played by the actresses on each other. Crawford was the widow of Alfred Steele, CEO of Pepsi-Cola, so Davis arranged to have a Coca-Cola machine installed on set. In a scene where Jane has to haul Blanche out of bed, Crawford wore a weighted belt and Davis subsequently strained her back when she lifted the near-lifeless Crawford. In a scene where Jane viciously attacks Blanche, kicking her repeatedly, Davis made contact with Crawford's head, resulting in a deep wound which required stitches. You could hardly imagine anything like this happening on a movie set these days.

When the film was released, it was a smash, grossing nine million dollars. It was nominated for five Oscars, winning for Best Costume Design. As such, another horror-thriller starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford was announced - Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. However, due to either a craven act of cowardice on Crawford's part or Davis' manipulations being too much (depending on whose story you believe), Crawford withdrew from the picture and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. 

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? remains one of my favourite films of all time and is well worth a look. And if the film piques your interest about these two leading ladies and their feud (as well as the filming of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?) I would highly recommend Bette And Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine, which is an eminently well-researched and even-handed book about these two complex women.

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