Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Essential Films: "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me

I don’t think a film like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? would be possible in today’s Hollywood. Or, a better way to put it, I don’t think it would have the same effect. Here is a film that stars two Hollywood titans who’s off screen relationship so affects our reaction to onscreen events that it’s hard to think of two actresses who could pack so much personal subtext in to their performances and our reading of the film. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford really did hate each other in real and no doubt it must have been a joy for Davis to psychologically and physically torture her. And there is a certain twisted pleasure the audience gets from this.

The film begins in 1917 where Baby Jane Hudson is a famous child star on the Vaudeville stage. As she gets older, she begins to appear in films but in an ironic twist of fate, it is her sister Blanche Hudson, who had been in her sister’s shadow when they were children, becomes the more popular and beloved star. One night Jane drives her car in to Blanche, crippling her. The rest of the film takes place in 1962- Blanche now spends her life in a wheelchair in a house being taken care of by her sister.  

I feel that how you approach a film is important to judging it fairly. If one goes in to this film expecting something that wants to be taken completely seriously, then one may start criticizing this film as too silly or “hammy” to be taken seriously. But I think the key to enjoying the film is to understand that the film is largely a black comedy, as well as a psychological thriller. The film, I believe, wants you to laugh at the relationship between the Hudson sisters. What’s miraculous about the film is how it both has this darkly humorous edge while still working as a compelling, tragic and empathetic psychological thriller. Outside of Alfred Hitchcock, I don’t think there are many directors who can pull off this feat- but director Robert Aldrich, director of the great film noir, Kiss Me Deadly,  is able to both play much of the film for sinister laughs, while still creating a genuine sense of fear and suspense that gets us invested in the story. He also finds the tragedy in this story. Both Jane and Blanche used to have it all, now Blanche is crippled and Jane is mentally sick, still in many ways a little girl who likes to torment her sister and who still clings on to her former fame as a child star.

I think Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? would make a great double bill with Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, made 12 years earlier. Both films deal with former actresses, Norma Desmond and Jane Hudson who become disillusioned and bitter when they’re no longer famous. Sunset Boulevard is more of a satire but both films show a dark and twisted side of show business, where people who never knew anything but fame shrink in to insecurity. When Jane goes to put out an advertisement for a piano player to help her revive her act she mentions that she’s Baby Jane Hudson, but the younger men at the office don’ t have the slightest idea who she is, though she doesn’t catch on to this fact. Norma and Jane both live in almost gothic mansions, shut away from society. Norma’s only companion is her former husband and director, now servant, Max Von Mayerling. Jane only really has Blanche, who despite being treated poorly, does care about Jane’s health. Both Norma and Jane also try to revive their careers through the help of a younger man- William Holden’s screenwriter Joe Gillis who happens upon Norma’s mansion- and Victor Buono’s piano player Edwinn Flagg. Both films eventually end with Norma and Jane completely detached from reality, convinced they still have an audience.

Blanche has a firmer grasp on reality. I think this has to do with the fact Blanche became famous later in her life than Jane, who was shoved in to the spotlight when she was only a child. Blanche had enough distance from the craziness of Jane’s life that she was able to understand the pressure of being famous even before she became a star. The fact that Blanche became a bigger star than Jane is a big reason for Jane’s bitterness and hatred towards Blanche. That and the fact she has to carry around the guilt of crippling her sister. At the end of the film we learn that it was Blanche who crippled herself when she tried to run over a very drunk Jane. “You mean all this time, we could’ve been friends?” Jane asks. Like a lot of the film, it’s both funny and tragic. These two sisters, due to their upbringing and careers never really had the chance to have a normal, healthy relationship.

Aldrich’s restrained visual style contrasts well with the more macabre elements of the story. If his visual style was too assertive, we’d probably feel smothered by the camp horror.  Like Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich finds a tone that is both cold but still absorbing. I love a lot of his camera angles and way he shoots Davis and Crawford. Just through their close-ups. Davis is grotesque, covered up in make-up that makes her look like a living doll- creating a link between Jane and the Baby Jane dolls from her time as a child star, one which she still keeps. Crawford is haggard, but we can still see the beauty that made Blanche, as well as Crawford, a star. This film uses footage from Davis and Crawford’s actual films, so it’s very impactful seeing the younger Davis and Crawford in this film and having the contrast between their younger and older selves. When we first see the older Blanche, she’s watching one of her older movies. There’s an added poignancy to the scene since Crawford is literally watching her younger self.

The title of the film asks where Baby Jane went. And the answer may be that nothing ever happened to her, she never grew up, never moved on or went away. Jane is still that little girl, stuck in a twisted kind of arrested development.   Her dancing on the beach at the end suggests that even if Jane had moved in to adulthood, has no regressed back in to the child Baby Jane. It’d be simplistic to say this is a just a cynical film about show business/Hollywood, but I do feel the film is a tragedy about that world. As in Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich puts us in a reality that is a nightmare version of our own, but finds thematic and, in the case of this film, emotional truths that allow us to connect with the stories. Jane and Blanche represent the broken lives of two women who, in a better world, could’ve been best friends.