Saturday, 17 April 2010

Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?

What is considered to be a classic, we put this 1962 movie under the light to see if it still stands up today. But I never expected it to be like this ...

In case you're not aware of it already, here's the background to this film. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were huge in their day (Crawford was arguably one of the most gorgeous women ever) but by the Sixties, things had changed. The pair were in their mid-Fifties and their careers had bombed but Robert Aldrich was able to talk them into taking the roles, which was tough considering that both actresses famously hated each other. You thought celebrity spats these days were bad, these girls were the Queens of bitchiness and made it clear too all and sundry that they couldn't think less of the other. How these two could share a movie together people had thought would be near impossible, well, it almost was ...

The arguing was constant on-set and even got to the point where Davis apparently kicked Crawford in the head so hard she needed stitches (though this is unreliable as Crawford is out of shot during this scene), and as her body was dragged, Crawford had put weights under her jumper making Davis strain her back muscles to the point where she couldn't move properly afterwards. But this tension looked incredible on the screen and earned Davis an Oscar nomination, which infuriated Crawford to the point where she called all the other nominees in the category who couldn't be there if she could pick it up on their behalf and, when Anne Bancroft won, Crawford delightfully walked up stating 'Step aside' to Davis as she collected the award on Bancroft's behalf. There was nothing these two wouldn't do. Though it gave their careers a bit of a kick-start, it didn't last for long, but this movie still makes top film lists and Baby Jane herself occasionally pops up as one of the greatest movie villains.

So what's it all about? Davis plays Baby Jane who used to be a child star, but then her dowdy sister Blanche suddenly became a Hollywood sensation leaving Baby Jane to then live in her sister's shadow. After an accident where Jane was accused of hitting Blanche with a car, Blanche is left crippled and Jane is left to look after her. So the story really starts where the old sisters are living in a nice big house in the suburbs with nosy neighbours and Jane is completely full of bitterness, especially because the TV is currently playing all Blanche's old films. As the movie progresses, Jane becomes increasingly more psychotic and ends up abusing, torturing and more to her poor wheelchair-bound sister. That's basically it. It's based on the Henry Farrell novel and is considered to be one of the greatest psycho-thrillers ever, almost Hitchcockian in it's standards and to be honest they're right in thinking that.

Davis' Oscar nomination was well deserved. Her make-up is caked on, she looks awful on purpose and her dissent into madness is terrifying as it is interesting. Though Crawford may have been jealous of Davis' nomination, it's because the character is just incredible, and Crawford might look amazing (strangely even more so near the end when she's dying and the fact she was like 58 - which was worrying both to me and my girlfriend) but she doesn't chew up the scene as much as Davis does. Her character arc is incredible, it's not as much an arc as a full circle, she ends up how she started. It's actually halfway through the film where she is at her meanest, after this point she starts to regress and by the end of the film she is a child again performing in front of an audience (though in different circumstances) and falls back in love with her sister, it's incredible to watch.

There is also a huge Oedipal complex, her love for her late father is creepy to say the least and her interest in the strange Edwin, a much younger man, borders on the sick. His close ties with his mother (or Delia as he calls her) reflects his interest in Jane, though he would probably suggest to himself it's for financial reasons, it is clearly sexual as he is as estranged, disturbed and lonely as Jane is. But my God, is she disturbing. People might watch through their hands at films like Saw, but this is true horror in that, it's completely believable. Jane is obsessed with her child-like image including her dresses, her creepy dolls and more, which is bad enough, let alone watching her sing songs about her Daddy, this absolutely chilled me to the bone and filled me with horror more than any other 'horror' film could. It was disturbing as hell to watch and yet still pathetic and sad. It's also clear that as mentally sick as Jane is, you can see how she has become so bitter and twisted. Living under her sister's shadow you realise that she is full of guilt for hurting her sister and resents her for it, she also resents Blanche for her martyrdom to the cause, the pretty 'damsel in distress', and I'd imagine it would become impossible to live with yourself, especially since she is clearly a self-destructive alcoholic. Blanche's insistent buzzing in itself is enough to drive the viewer crazy, let alone Jane, and my guess is she's sick of herself and the only way to deal with it, is to become what she once was, to reclaim her innocence when everything was wonderful.

The increasing tension between the two sisters also becomes unbearable, when lifting a lid to see what you have been given for dinner is a harrowing experience, you know you're in for a ride. Davis might be the more interesting character but that's taking nothing away from Crawford, her plight in her wheelchair is representative to the frustration she is consumed with, which you realise at the end, and her quiet nature is incredibly passive and heartbreaking at the same time. She is bullied beyond belief and you completely sympathise with her and it's her solo scenes where she really shines through which, when approaching the staircase, never before has something seemed so impossible. The staircase is a constant threat, it's the pathway to Jane's diseased lair and to the exit, an increasingly impossible task to reach.

How the director could deal with two such divas is impressive, but the actual camerawork is incredible, a low swinging bulb almost acts as a makeshift stage light as Jane loses her grip on reality. The pace is perfect and Aldrich has done an absolutely incredible job in not only squeezing out some incredible performances, but also in his ability to pull everything together under unusual circumstances and make such amazing results, the five Oscar nominations prove others thought so too. Films like Misery have tried to pull off the trapped victim story but never has it been so good. It goes to show how far a good story and some simple plot devices work. They might both be crippled in their own way, but Baby Jane has to be one of the most disturbing characters on-screen. You want to know what happened to Baby Jane? Go out and watch it.

Rating: 10/10

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