Grand damned dames

Fifty years on, this en­dur­ingly nasty piece of grand guig­nol re­mains ut­terly com­pelling, says Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS -

WHAT EVER HAP­PENED TO BABY JANE? ★★★★★ Di­rected by Robert Aldrich. Star­ring Bette Davis, Joan Craw­ford, Vic­tor Buono, Julie Al­fred, Mai­die Norman, Wes­ley Addy, Bert Freed BD Mer­rill Club, QFT, Belfast; IFI, Dublin, 133 min

“But you are Blanche. You are in that chair!” Is there a more ex­quis­ite ex­er­cise in heart­felt camp than Robert Aldrich’s cre­ative dis­in­ter­ment of Bette Davis and Joan Craw­ford? The im­age of the two bit­ter, age­ing ac­tors – play­ing two bit­ter, age­ing ac­tors – is so im­mov­ably fa­mil­iar it seems faintly as­ton­ish­ing that it didn’t ex­ist be­fore 1962.

Re­stored for its 50th an­niver­sary, What Ever Hap­pened to Baby Jane? seems as freshly stale as it ever did. Yes, the film is some­thing of a self-con­scious game. By this point, all Hol­ly­wood knew that Davis and Craw­ford cor­dially loathed one an­other. Cast­ing Bette as a malev­o­lent former child star in­vited view­ers to su­per­charge ru­mours of her flinti­ness and im­pa­tience. Cast­ing Joan as a sweet-na­tured para­plegic, suf­fer­ing domestic abuse with rel­a­tive calm, counted as a blackly hi­lar­i­ous in­ver­sion of the per­ceived re­al­ity.

Or did it? Like all long-term S&M games, con­trol in Baby Jane rests with the per­son who seems more sinned against than sin­ning. Craw­ford’s in­no­cent is noth­ing of the

sort; like­wise Davis’s mad­woman.

The story goes that, come Os­car time, Craw­ford was so ir­ri­tated by Davis’s nom­i­na­tion and her own snub­bing that she phoned those nom­i­nees un­able to at­tend and of­fered to take their place at the cer­e­mony. The ruse worked. Craw­ford ended up swan­ning past Davis to ac­cept Anne Ban­croft’s Os­car for The Mir­a­cle Worker.

But, for all the sub­texts and Punch-and-Judy meta-fights, What Ever Hap­pened to Baby

Jane? re­mains an oddly mov­ing piece of work. Based on a sly book by Henry Far­rell, the pic­ture takes us into a nasty zero-sum game in which Davis’s Jane holds all the cards. A child star of the silent era, later passed out by her hith­erto ne­glected sis­ter, the su­per­an­nu­ated painted doll now spends her days tor­tur­ing the poor (or is she?) wheel­chair user in in­creas­ingly baroque fash­ion. The story is greatly height­ened, but the sib­ling ri­valry feels be­liev­able.

View­ing the film from the van­tage of a half-cen­tury adds an in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive to its di­ag­no­sis of Hol­ly­wood am­ne­sia. We are now fur­ther from Baby Jane than Baby Jane was from the silent era to which it looked bit­terly back. Yet noth­ing about the film seems dated. The sour hu­mour is still cur­rent. The taste for broad emo­tions still reg­is­ters.

Still the tasti­est rat on the menu. Get chew­ing.

This old crone: Bette Davis gave an Os­car-nom­i­nated per­for­mance in What Ever Hap­pened to Baby Jane?

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