Screen goddesses don’t live forever

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

This favourite movie of 1962 begins with a car wreck which is fine and dandy.  The movie itself is a car wreck and you just can’t look away even for a moment.

The two aging divas – Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – play out their rivalry and hatred which began when both were juvenile screen goddesses in the middle of the first world war.  Bette Davis delivers a gripping performance as a drunken and ugly former movie star falling into utter madness as she realizes her stage future is definitely behind her rather than to come.

Faithful to the novel by Henry Farrell, Davis plays “Baby Jane” Hudson as a spoiled child brat who stamps her feet and threatens mayhem when she can’t have an ice cream. Daddy quickly caves in.  But her golden curls and daddy’s-girl routine brought her fame and fortune, if only for a while.

The older, gentler sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) who was ignored during Jane’s heyday became a big star in the 1930s whilst Jane faded into obscurity and heavy drinking. But one fateful night Blanche is crippled in a car accident at the gates of their Hollywood mansion.  For the time being, the audience is led to believe that drunken Jane was driving the car.

Blanche is trapped and wheel-chair bound for years on the upper floor of a somewhat dowdy mansion.  But Jane is increasingly losing her sanity, finding all sorts of ways to terrorise her sister, even serving up for lunch Blanche’s beloved parakeet and providing a dead rat for a later meal.

Jane has the notion she can become a star again and hires an accompanist for her delusional comeback plans based on the now creepy songs of her childhood stardom.  The gold-digging accompanist finds out rather more than he should and the movie climaxes in the surreal environment of a California beach.

At the end it transpires that Blanche was driving the car when she was crippled and not Jane.  But the silly plot is beside the point.  The real fun of the movie is watching the two main characters rip each other apart.  In real life they hated each other too.

Joan Crawford underplays her role, probably deliberately.  Wheelchair bound and a long suffering martyr, she could hardly compete with the antics of Miss Davis.  Crawford is restrained and nearly always looks good even when abused.  In a way she has retained her youthful glamour even with lines on her face.

Davis by contrast sinks into utter depravity – a slovenly slut who doesn’t mind all those camera angles making her look as ugly as anything.  She even keeps a hideous caricature of herself in the basement – a life-size doll of Baby Jane 1917 vintage.

The accompanist is played by Victor Buono, the overweight guy who died of a heart attack in his early 40s.  Buono is convincing as the schemer trying to coax cash out of Jane by pretending she can find stage fame once again.  But some of his scenes look as if they have been cut, perhaps because the movie is overly long as it stands.  Sadly Buono’s talent was never recognized by Hollywood and his later roles were mostly stereotypical murderers or a boring interlude as a silly Egyptian pharaoh.

It was common knowledge that Davis was hoping to get an oscar.  She came close but was beaten into second place in the best actress nomination by Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker.  In fact, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane won only one oscar and that for Best Costume Design (Black and White), probably for Davis’ collection of ill fitting dresses and frills.

Despite modest reviews in the early 1960s, the movie was a box office smash and inspired other crazy-old-bat tales including Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte which also starred Davis.  Whatever Happened quickly found its place in popular culture.  There are references to it in a French and Saunders comedy routine, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the Simpsons.

There are several video games where the heroine is a certain Baby Jane, a 1920s Chicago style female big shot who wears tattered dresses and ill-fitting cocktail outfits as she machine-guns her opponents on screen.  The title of the movie is parodied in the American gay TV soap opera Rick and Steve where one episode is titled Whatever Happened to Baby James?

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