Saturday, October 29, 2016

Bette and Joan's Acting Duel: 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?'

A rare color shot from 'Baby Jane.' B&W signified drama.
Can you imagine 'Pyscho,' 'Manchurian Candidate,' or 'Virginia Woolf' in color?
What more can be said about Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Well, here’s my two cents. The 1962 film classic has been loved and loathed, quoted and parodied, badly remade for TV and periodically threatened with a big-screen remake starring God knows who. Don’t bother, Hollywood! Baby Jane’s original stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, are the kind of movie lightning that doesn’t strike twice.
Davis and Crawford on the set of 'Baby Jane.' All smiles here.
Like Psycho, which came out two years prior, Baby Jane was a bleak, black-and-white flick shot on a low budget with big stars, and upturning plot conventions that threw audiences for a loop. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? gave the careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford a new lease on life.
It’s also movie legend that Bette and Joan absolutely loathed one another. I believe the rivalry/jealousy/disdain between these dueling divas is what gives Baby Jane its incredible tension. Just as their real-life marital tensions ignites Richard Burton and Liz Taylor’s George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Davis and Crawford’s animosity is most apparent. On its own, Baby Jane is a top-notch, well-crafted suspense thriller, with a terrific supporting cast. However, it’s the two Hollywood legends, as twisted sisters in sibling rivalry, who take this film into another realm. Their rivalry turned into a grudge match two years later when they tried to re-team in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. But that’s another showbiz story!
Baby Jane Hudson was the star of the family--at first!
For the uninitiated, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is the gothic showbiz saga of sisters Jane and Blanche Hudson, played by Davis and Crawford, respectively. Jane is the vaudeville child star and breadwinner of the Hudson family. Flash forward to the 1930s and now Blanche is a big, fat movie star and Jane is a no-talent lush. Coming home from a party one night, there is a car accident—“incident” would be more accurate—leaving Blanche crippled.
No, Joan isn't re-writing her will! Blanche sees Jane's handiwork.
A quarter of a century later brings Baby Jane to the present. Blanche is still in that wheelchair and Jane is now not only a drunk, but deranged to boot.  And when Jane gets a whiff of Blanche’s plan to downsize, which includes putting Jane away, she puts the boots to Blanche, figuratively and literally.
Baby Jane is a cat-and-mouse suspense film of the highest order. The plot plays off the real stars’ careers. For the scene of a director moaning over Jane’s latest bad film, clips of Bette’s actual early acting efforts were shown. Watch Joan as Blanche gaze in rapture while watching one of Joan’s real ‘30s reel hits. Or the scene where Jane tries to order a bunch of booze from the liquor store, then impersonates Blanche to clear the order. It is obvious Joan’s voice was dubbed in, but one wonders how director Aldrich got Joan to lay on her cultivated MGM English thicker than Bette’s Baby Jane makeup. Watch Bette, then at a career low, as Jane, asking strangers if they remember who she is! Actual portraits and photos of Bette and Joan’s career litter the Hudson mansion as props.  
Jane works her Blanche Hudson imitation to her advantage throughout 'Baby Jane.'
The dialogue in Baby Jane has some of the most famous one-liners in film history—do I really need to repeat them? The one-liners that allude to Bette and Joan’s real life feelings for one another are especially entertaining. At the very end of Baby Jane, after two hours of sisterly warfare, Bette’s Jane plaintively says to Joan’s Blanche: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?”
Davis and Crawford rehearsing for the beach scene finale of 'Baby Jane.'
All of this is all just delicious frosting on a cinema cake. What makes Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? memorable are the performances of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Film fans love to argue about who was the greater actress, but in this instance, Davis and Crawford were both great in polar opposite roles. Joan had less obvious mannerisms than Bette; still, Crawford tones down the latter day dramatics that beefed up some her ‘50s vehicles, and made them camp classics. As wheelchair-bound Blanche, Joan underplays and wins our sympathy, watching her old movies on TV, grateful for a new generation of fans that they’re generating. As the tension between the two sisters amps up, while we’re still rooting for Joan/Blanche, but start noticing Joan’s insinuating threats, coated with grand insincerity. Joan’s last vestiges of on-screen glamour slowly get stripped away as she is mentally and physically tortured by her character’s crazed sister. This was brave of Crawford, the eternal glamour star. The last scene, on the beach, with dying Blanche finally telling the truth to Jane, is beautifully performed by both Joan and Bette.
Davis pointedly took out a classified ad for acting work before 'Baby Jane.'
As for Bette Davis, her turn as Baby Jane Hudson was as huge a comeback. Only two years before, Bette had jokingly put a classified ad seeking acting work in the Hollywood trades. Still, some critics and moviegoers rolled their eyes at what they thought was Bette Davis at her most over the top as Jane. To me, Bette went for broke as Baby Jane—and won. Bette is terrifying at times, but also funny, sad, dramatic, and finally, child-like. Davis hits all these notes in her best scene, when Jane is alone, drinking. She hears her childhood hit, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy,” in her head. With no one but her Baby Jane Hudson doll as company, Jane sings along in her raspy voice. Putting the doll’s bow up to her head, Jane walks to the mirror, singing coyly. Seeing her now-ravaged self, Bette lets out a pathetic moan as Jane. Upstairs, Blanche starts laying on the buzzer like a game show contestant, Jane slowly lifts her head and launches into a bellowing tirade, starting with, “Whaddya want, Blanche?!” Bette knocks this virtuoso scene out of the park.
IMO, Davis' most brilliant scene in 'Baby Jane.'
For Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis received her 10th and last Oscar nomination. Davis had some tough competition at the Oscars that year—Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker, Kate Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth, and Lee Remick in The Days of Wine and Roses.
I think Bette should have taken her 3rd Oscar home for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Maybe my criteria are not the benchmark of great acting, but of the five performances, Bette’s the one that people remember best and still talk about. Davis took some big risks and they paid off. And Joan should have been nominated for at least best supporting actress as Blanche. Crawford truly supports Davis, supplying sympathy and reality, her Blanche underplaying to Davis’ Jane’s baroque descent into madness.

The beach scene finale; Davis and Crawford are both brilliant.
In the end, awards mean nothing. Hardly anybody remembers who won an Oscar for what movie. But everybody who has seen this frightening film will never forget Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
"You mean all this time we could have been friends?"


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  2. Replies
    1. It certainly stood out in my youth, as well!