Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
I can't remember the last time I saw this picture in its entirety. I've seen the parodies and the drag homages a number of times fairly recently, but it's quite possible that it's been more than a decade since I watched the original.
Here's how the movie got back on my radar: A couple weeks ago, I saw Rain again and was feeling pretty sympathetic toward Joan Crawford. That got me in the mood to watch Mommie Dearest again, which I thought was hilarious when it came out and kind of boring and irritating* last weekend when I gave it another go. One of these days, I may write about that movie here, but don't hold your breath. It's a screechy, clunky, slog.
Naturally, Mommie D got me thinking about My Mother's Keeper, B.D. Hyman's awful, mean-spirited, whine-fest about growing up with Bette Davis for a mother, which I read and detested** when it came out in 1985. And B.D. Merrill (at the time) was the worst thing in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.
So here we are back in 1962.
And B.D. Merrill is still embarrassingly bad as the teenager who lives next door to former Hollywood star Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) and her sister, Jane (Bette Davis). No one ever really sees Blanche, because she has been confined to a wheelchair since the mid-1930s, the result of a car accident for which Jane was responsible.
In the days of vaudeville, Jane was famous nationwide as "Baby" Jane Hudson, precocious singer, dancer, and breadwinner for the Hudson family. Father Hudson accompanied Jane on stage, spoiled the pants off her, and was cruel to and neglectful of plainer Blanche. Mother Hudson is cowed by her husband and younger daughter, but is comforting to Blanche, asking her after one particularly stinging slight, to please, as the years go by, remember to be kinder to Jane than their father is to her now.
Blanche does not forget this exhortation.
Indeed, after talking pictures kill Jane's vaudeville career, Blanche finds her talent in the movies and becomes a big star. As part of her contract, Blanche insists that the studio find pictures for Jane, even though Jane can't act her way out of a paper bag, but Blanche made a promise. Now in her sister's shadow, adult Jane not only stinks, but drinks, and was stinking drunk the night of the crash that crippled her sister.
Back in 1962, Blanche is a virtual prisoner in her room with only a parakeet, a television, some books, a one-day-a-week maid named Elvira (Maidie Norman), and a summoning buzzer, to keep her entertained. Jane has become a blousy, overly-made-up, beslippered wreck, who is eaten up with jealousy when a TV station begins playing Blanche Hudson movies. This has been putting the color back in Blanche's cheeks and an extra drag in Jane's steps as she schleps three meals a day on a tray up to Blanche's room.
Concerned about Jane's increasingly erratic behavior (see parakeet), Blanche has been plotting to sell the house, put Jane in some kind of hospital, and move someplace where Elvira can take care of her full time. Elvira has had her suspicions about Jane for some time, particularly after finding out that Jane has been intercepting, opening, and writing obscenities on the wave of fan mail Blanche has been getting from the TV revival.
Eventually, Jane gets wind of her sister's plan and begins to hatch one of her own: one that involves starving her sister to death*** and reviving her own career. She puts an ad in the paper for an accompanist and attracts a creepy young composer named Edwin Flagg (an extra young, extra creepy Victor Buono), whose goal is to bilk Jane of every spare penny she has.
Blanche, who has already missed a few meals, has begun to put two-and-two together. While Jane is out picking up adult-sized versions of her old costumes, Blanche wheels herself into Jane's room where she discovers that Jane has been practicing and perfecting Blanche's signature. There are also a few conspicuous check stubs for items that Blanche did not purchase. Completely wigged out, Blanche painstakingly hauls herself down the stairs to the telephone and calls the nuthatch doctor and begs him to come over.
At the exact moment Jane returns from her errands.
It all goes south pretty quickly for Blanche from there. Jane hauls her back upstairs, ties and gags her, and calls the doctor back in Blanche's voice (actually Joan Crawford's; Davis couldn't imitate her) to say it was all a mistake and everything's fine. Jane also gets an opportunity to fire Elvira, who instantly becomes wicked suspicious and tries (and fails) to save Blanche. That part scared me pretty bad when I was a kid.
Things begin to spiral out of control for Jane. She's done one horrible thing after another and becomes completely unhinged. While Blanche is starving and dying, Jane takes her to the beach -- the last place the sisters were ever happy together. With her dying breath, Blanche tells Jane a secret that softens them both in a way you didn't think possible.
Bette Davis is truly excellent in this film. Her anger, jealousy, weird bits of delight, and even the crazy all worked for me. Joan Crawford is also remarkably understated for her and is very affecting.
But it's Bette's picture.
I know there's a lot of talk about their famous feud during the making of this film -- how much they hated each other, the pranks they pulled on set. I'm not sure how much of those rumors are true. It seems that after the film's success, the two developed a well-documented hostility toward one another: Bette was nominated for an Academy Award and Joan was not and when Bette lost, Joan went out of her way to rub it in her face. Not nice, but who cares?
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is one hell of a good movie that I shouldn't have waited so long to revisit.
* Honestly, I wanted to smack that kid around a few times during the picture.
** I was 20 years old and ripe, RIPE, for a book about a bad mother-daughter relationship, but hers made me feel so sorry for Bette Davis, that I felt like slapping Christina Crawford again.
*** To be fair, Blanche does lean on that buzzer a little hard.
The excellent 1990 spoof by French & Saunders.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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