|What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
1962 - unrated in US - 134 Mins.
|Director: Robert Aldrich
|Producer: Robert Aldrich
|Written By: Lukas Heller
|Starring: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Maidie Norman, Anna Lee
|Review by: Jennie Kermode
|Official Site: www.babyjane.co.uk
With a new print of this film just released, there's never been a better time to find out for yourself ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ Probably the greatest of Hollywood's gothic melodramas, it stars Bette Davis as Jane, one time child star and darling of vaudeville, who watched her own career fade as she got older and her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) became a celebrated movie star. Now, decades after the terrible accident which crippled Blanche and ended her screen career, Jane looks after her in their decaying mansion. Drinking heavily and dreaming of reviving her stage success, increasingly frustrated by her duties as a career yet weighed down by guilt over the accident she can barely remember, Jane becomes ever more unhinged and treats her sister ever more cruelly. As she bullies and schemes, Blanche looks desperately for a way out, yet she too is constrained by guilt, and by a dark secret at which the vicious but curiously innocent Jane has never guessed.
In casting ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,’ Robert Aldrich took two of Hollywood's greatest actresses, both then considered to be past their prime, with a twenty year history of rivalry. Davis once famously accused Crawford of having "slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie." Crawford's attacks were subtler but no less cruel. This rivalry transfers beautifully into the context of the story, especially in the disturbing scenes where Davis kicks Crawford across the floor - the stunt double got it easy, but when Crawford herself was needed for the shots, the kicks were real. Both actresses enjoyed career revivals after this film showcased them at their very best. Davis, so often featured in elegant and sophisticated roles, clearly delights in playing a monster; yet the subtle undertones in her performance enable viewers to find a lot of sympathy for Jane, who has been manipulated all her life, and whose monstrosity may only be a reflection of the world around her.
In the context of the leading actresses' relationship, it's interesting to note that the curious teenager living next door is played by Davis' real-life daughter, who famously savaged her in a later book. The supporting cast are universally excellent, even if Victor Buono plays his (debut) role in a high camp style, as the unemployed pianist flirting with Jane in the hopes of getting his hands on her sister's money. Maidie Norman is impressive as the cleaning woman who tries to help Blanche, contrasting the position of black people used to subservient domestic roles in 'fifties America with that of the spoiled little girl who can never grow used to not getting her own way.
Cleverly shot, with continual subtle visual references to the accident which still overshadows the sisters' lives, ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ is a film which makes superb use of space, from the claustrophobic interiors of the house where Blanche finds herself a prisoner to the equally isolating open spaces featured in the closing scenes. This is matched by astute use of sound, with shifts in volume which contribute to our awareness of the sisters' mental states. The film is superbly paced, conveying the agonies of Blanche's waiting without depriving viewers of something to focus on in the meantime.
Though modern critics sometimes dismiss this film as camp light entertainment, it still carries the sense of real horror which won it an '18' certificate in the UK on its first release. With glorious central performances and a story which makes no compromises, there's really nothing else like it. This is a film which everyone should see.