Friday 18 April 2014

Movie Review: What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)

A psychological thriller with horror elements, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? burrows into the dark days when stardom fades and reality bites, with two aging sisters gnawing at each other.

In 1917, vaudevillian child star "Baby" Jane Hudson captivates audiences with a song and dance routine, but driven by her manager and father Ray (Dave Willock), she's an egotistical brat. By the 1930's Jane's sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) is the one who has achieved stardom in the movie business, with Jane (Bette Davis) fading fast and lacking the talent to succeed on film. In a sudden tragedy, Blanche breaks her back and is paralyzed in a car crash apparently caused by Jane. Both their careers come to an abrupt end.

25 years later, the sisters are living together in a modest Hollywood house, Blanche confined to a wheelchair and to her upstairs room, with the increasingly erratic Jane looking after her sister but drinking heavily and harbouring misguided dreams of a return to show business stardom. Living with the guilt of causing her sister's paralysis but beginning to lose touch with reality, Jane starts to psychologically torture Blanche, cutting her off from the outside world and starving her. Housekeeper Elvira (Maidie Norman) is Blanche's only ally, while Jane recruits struggling pianist Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) as an accompanist as she starts to plan an unlikely return to the stage.

A comeback project for both Crawford and Davis, who carried on a legendary off-screen feud, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? is an engrossing exploration of the unsavoury side of sibling rivalry long after the spotlights have faded. The story of Jane and Blanche progresses from sad to macabre, two women who both tasted the heights, never got along, and are now forced to deal with each other while wallowing in the scrapheap of show business.

Working from a Lukas Heller screenplay adaptation of the Henry Farrell book, director Robert Aldrich gradually tracks Jane's journey into heinous delusion. Her destruction of Blanche is just another step towards a return to glamour that exists only in Jane's twisted mind. Jane impersonates Blanche's voice, forges her signature, and starts to serve her nasty surprises in her food, all to gain the upper psychological hand and break loose from Blanche's moral superiority. Filmed in black and white and mostly confined to the house shared by the sisters, the claustrophobic visual experience, featuring frequent close-ups, mimics Blanche's physical helplessness and Jane's mental entrapment.

Everything about the film is downbeat to reflect the sisters' mounting misery, from the caked-on make-up that Jane wears in a failed attempt to stave-off ageing to Blanche's inability to move around in her own house. Even the secondary characters are gloomy, Elvira a perpetually serious housekeeper, increasingly suspicious of what Jane is plotting, while the man-giant Edwin is a picture of clueless desperation, still living with his mother and looking for any break. The talentless Edwin sees through Jane's lunacy, but he plays along in pursuit of easy money.

Both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford turned back the years and reignited their careers. Davis received her tenth and final Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her fearless portrayal of Jane. While the madness part is relatively easy, the genius of her performance is in keeping Jane just barely on the edge of reason, able to function well enough to advance her contorted plans. Crawford gets the more sympathetic and stable role, portraying Blanche as attempting to maintain some level of normalcy while being at the mercy of her sister and worried that Jane's grip on reality is loosening.

As it turned out, what happened to Baby Jane was a sad, twisted and riveting drama. This kid is definitely not alright.

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