Deep resentments and a lifelong sibling rivalry lie at the core of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. It is thriller of violent proportions and one that will freak you out. When the film is great, it’s as great as any film of its kind for its time. However, in between moments of said greatness, Robert Aldrich’s film occasionally lacks the urgency to propel its plot and understand the mental state of its characters. Nevertheless, this is a classic film that deserves its place in history.
- Director: Robert Aldrick
- Writer: Lukas Heller, Henry Farrell
- Cast: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Maidie Norman
The Hudson sisters, Baby Jane (Bette Davis) and Blanche (Joan Crawford), grow up during the end of the vaudeville era. During this time, Baby Jane is the star of the family. As the sisters grow older, despite both carrying their careers into the movie industry, Blanche’s fame eventually overshadows her sister’s. Their sibling rivalry is then exacerbated by an accident leaving Blanche paralyzed. It is presumed that Jane caused the accident, though time reveals a more intricate set of motives.
Prior to watching this film I didn’t know anything about Robert Aldrich. I now know that he was not only talented but also possessed a courage rarely seen in his day. Here is a director choosing psychologically disturbed human beings as his subject matter. Much like Powell’s Peeping Tom and Hitchcock’s Psycho, Aldrich’s Baby Jane delves into the life a character whose delusion inspires a mixture of repulsion and pity. Davis’ performance as Baby Jane is absolutely haunting. One of the most frightening scenes involves Davis alone in her living room; she seems almost possessed. With a creepy subtlety that feels real, we see Jane regressing into herself as a child, breaking into song while alone, and soon arriving at the harsh reality that she is no longer young. Bringing to mind films such as Sunset Blvd. and Misery, Baby Jane provides a cynical look at how human beings can fall into freakish levels of behavior that feel just as scary as anything in the horror genre. To see her transport herself back and forth between past and present is the most chilling element of this film.
There are great moments of suspense that come close to Hitchcock, and there are inspired technical achievements. Low angled shots of the living room are effective at establishing the spacious yet confined interior of the home. When exterior shots take us to the streets, handheld shots with perspectives from the inside of moving cars provide an interesting contrast with the static shots inside Blanche’s bedroom. They further convey the claustrophobic space in which Blanch lives. While the plot and Lukas Heller’s dialogue is strong, the performances sell it. The lighting is excellent at squeezing every last drop out of the facial expressions. Some of this is made possible by the incredible makeup used on Davis. Making Davis’ performance more remarkable and relevant is how it contrasts with the roles she played throughout her career. But even with all its merits, Baby Jane feels a bit overdrawn at a 133 minutes. Hitchcock’s shot list would have been tighter.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert’s review begins by giving credit to the set that predominantly features a staircase. Not only does the staircase figure significantly into the plot, it also goes far to achieve an overall sense of claustrophobia. Baby Jane has an amazing ability to make you feel frustrated and tied up, but I’m convinced that it’s duration can be chopped by a reel, which would make it hold up. Ebert’s review is great in bringing context: He notes background information related to Davis and Crawford, making the idea of watching this film again in the future all the more compelling. Furthermore, Ebert’s praise of Aldrich as a master of Hollywood genres is a statement that leaves me with a strong desire to view more of this films.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Safety Last
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane this week, he now has 356 under his belt and 7 films left to go.