Friday, March 24, 2017

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

The Blind Spot is an ongoing series hosted by The Matinee in which bloggers watch and write about movies they've never seen before. For a list of past movies, visit the home site.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
TCM viewing

I never had any prior interest in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I've written about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford here before. I probably will again. For years, though, this particular film has had... a reputation. The impression I had was that it was made long after their glory days and it wasn't very good.

Also, I'll admit it: I wasn't comfortable with the way it has been embraced by the gay community. I've discussed how I worked with an older gay man during my years in video retail. I learned a great deal about movies from him. I also discovered a few tidbits about gay culture. I think some things about it, though, such as their connection to movies like Baby Jane, will remain forever misunderstood by me, and I think that was what kept me from watching this movie for so long. 

In my mind, it can't be just another classic film because it's so closely identified with gay camp. It's as if it's "their" movie now. To watch it would be like encroaching on their territory... and it might say something about me also. So there you have it: my own personal bit of prejudice. I'm not proud of it, but it exists.

It's perhaps no surprise, then, that it took an external force to get me to overcome my bias. I knew, from the moment I saw the ads for the FX mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan, that I'd have to write about it for the blog. In addition to my general interest in seeing two modern acting powerhouses, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, playing two classic ones, it would also let me do something new: write about a current TV show as it airs, week by week. After the first episode, though, it became clear that while I could watch Feud without having seen Baby Jane, I'd appreciate the former more if I did.

The movie is not that great, but it's not as terrible as I had thought it would be, either. It's basically a Sunset Boulevard ripoff: two has-beens, a former child star from vaudeville and her crippled sister, a former film star, grapple for possession of the house that has been their de facto prison for years. When one sees the opportunity for a comeback in showbiz, the decades of spite and jealousy between the two are exacerbated.

I liked that director Robert Aldrich used footage from actual Davis & Crawford movies to show Baby Jane & Blanche's Hollywood careers. Billy Wilder did the same thing with Gloria Swanson in Sunset, though, so it's not like this was a new trick. Still, I didn't expect to see that.

I also liked seeing the difference television made during this time period, the early 60s. One character says how happy she was to see Blanche's movies on TV again. I believe her words were, "It was like seeing an old friend again." TV has become so integral to everyday life today that we easily forget what it was like when it was new; what it did for the careers of many actors and films who might have otherwise gone forgotten - much the same way Turner Classic Movies does for a new generation of film fans.

An able-bodied person keeping a wheelchair-bound person prisoner is obviously something I've seen in Misery, which came decades after Baby Jane. However, I can appreciate how this angle must have seemed fresh in 1962. Crawford gets to do physical things without the use of her legs, which must have been quite a challenge at her age (she would have been 56 when she made the movie).

Feud has made me aware of how much she needed to make Baby Jane, for personal and professional reasons, to the point where she was willing to bury the hatchet, however temporarily, with her great rival Davis. I recalled the moments in Feud where we see Crawford undermining Davis' performance, like wearing 10-pound weights on her waist when Davis has to carry her, or padding her bra so she'll get more attention. Even if stuff like this is exaggeration, one gets the feeling it should have happened.

As for Davis, again, Feud showed how wearing that gaudy makeup was a conscious choice on her part, an acting decision that was meant to inform the Baby Jane character. You have to admire the guts of someone like Davis to just go for broke, unafraid of how she'll look, in the name of art. Baby Jane is a pathetic character, yet tragic as well. Her look emphasizes that, even in black and white.

All that said, this movie still feels very derivative of Sunset: the reclusive movie star forgotten by modern audiences, the attempt at a comeback through collaboration with a young man, murder and madness. Even the ending, where Baby Jane goes completely over the edge, feels like a carbon copy of Sunset's famous final frames. Davis & Crawford have their moments, but I would have preferred their one team-up to have been for something a little less over-the-top. Would it have been as memorable, though? We'll never know. (Kudos also to Maidie Norman as the maid. She got a fair amount of screen time with both principals.)

Still, I'm glad I finally saw it, as a means to overcome my prejudice, if nothing else.

Feud: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Previous Blind Spot films:
Gone With the Wind
Charlie Chan in Paris
Lawrence of Arabia


  1. I haven't seen it yet, but assume I will one of these days. When I was a kid it looked too scary, and nowadays I'm just not sure if it is meant for me. A part of that is what you said about it being embraced by the gay community. In my case, I feel like I'm not supposed to watch it because it belongs to somebody else. Silly, no? I'm sure my gay friends, relatives and acquaintances would say so, but I've never heard any of them express any sort of opinion on the movie one way or the other.

  2. So it's not just me. That's a comfort.

    The story behind the movie is much more interesting to me, which is why I'm watching FEUD. I don't think anyone, gay or straight, would put BABY JANE ahead of EVE or MILDRED, but it's significant because it's the two of them together, like HEAT brought together De Niro & Pacino. The difference was, it was for essentially one (long) scene. Maybe Hollywood learned a lesson from BABY JANE?

  3. I haven't yet seen the "Feud" miniseries, but I am a fan of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane". I think it's perhaps morbid fascination with these two film characters. Like you said, you really do have to hand it to Bette Davis for "going for broke" in the makeup department here.

    I enjoyed your review and film/miniseries comparison very much. :)

  4. The trainwreck factor: don't wanna look, can't help but look. I can totally see that.

  5. I'm gonna watch this just because I am infatuated with Feud. Seemingly, Bette and Joan really brought the feud into the picture, didn't they?

  6. It's as if BABY JANE was written knowing they'd star in a film version one day.

  7. I liked this one more than you did, but I'm glad we both watched it because of Feud. I've wanted to see it for ages, but Feud is what pushed me.

    I didn't know this film was popular in the gay community. I'll have to read up on that now.

  8. If you're watching FEUD too, check out my coverage of the series. My posts go up on Mondays.


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