WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?
USA 1962 : Robert ALDRICH : 133 mins
Superbly dark Hollywood horror-comedy-satire from the ever-fascinating Aldrich, featuring one of the most remarkable Bette Davis performances – despite (or perhaps because of) repeated TV showings, Davis’s phenomenal work here has never quite received the credit it deserves. She’s a force of nature as the title character, a bitter former thirties child star whose career nosedived in adulthood while that of her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) took off. After Blanche was crippled in a mysterious car crash, the pair ended up virtual recluses, grinding on each others’ nerves in their Los Angeles mansion. When Blanche decides it’s time to sell up and find a smaller place, Jane’s grip on reality – never especially secure – starts to give way…
As has been very widely chronicled, the off-screen enmity between Davis and Crawford was scarcely less vicious than Jane and Blanche’s (see Shaun Considine’s 500-page book on the subject, Bette & Joan – The Divine Feud) and this adds a prickly edge to picture which the intervening decades have done absolutely nothing to blunt. Indeed, so tight is the focus on the acrimonious twosome that in some ways the picture packs more of a punch than Billy Wilder’s superficially similar Sunset Blvd. (1950) - it certainly works better in terms of basic thriller nuts-and-bolts, with the alcoholic, hammer-wielding Jane a genuinely menacing (though ultimately pathetic) figure as she spirals into dementia.
But while the film is essentially Davis’s show (confined to a wheelchair, Crawford doesn’t have the scope to physically interpret her role the same way) Aldrich shows a masterful touch with what could easily have been campy, pulpy fare – just see how long he spins out the prologue before finally bringing up the opening credits. It’s a deceptively tricky task, but he manages to strike just the right balance between laughs (Jane’s hilariously abrupt “conversations” with her “normal” neighbours) and chills: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has lost none of its power to entertain and disturb, and as such emphatically deserves the big-screen limelight for which its heroines so destructively competed.
27th September, 2004
by Neil Young