Halloween is coming and studios start dusting off their horror offerings. It’s my favorite time of the year. This grand dame guignol fifty-something fright fest saw the backstage battles between the two stars offering interest that comes through on screen as well.
1917: Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred) was a major vaudeville star that was adored by all who saw her (the Honey Boo Boo of vaudeville?) but whose sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie) was jealous of her adoration. 1935: Tables turn and Blanche soon rises to a film career that finds Jane’s films flopping and her turning to alcohol to sooth the pain of obscurity.
A mysterious accident ends with Blanche paralyzed and her career over. Cut forward to “modern day” (1962) and Baby Jane (Bette Davis) still wanders around the mansion that her fame built in her childlike makeup but she is middle aged and crumbling like that same gothic manse. Blanche (Joan Crawford) is an invalid thanks to the accident and stays in bed upstairs watching her films on television.
The only other person in the house is maid Elvira (Maidie Norman) and she witnesses Jane’s abuse of Blanche as well as Jane’s descent into madness. Jane imagines a show business return and the opportunistic Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) answers Jane’s ad for a piano player and sees the loopy Jane as his ticket to easy cash. Meanwhile, the delusional Jane continues to torture her bedbound sister that will cumulate in a beachside confession but don’t worry they’ll both get ice cream.
1962 had sirens Bette Davis and Joan Crawford edging towards their 60s and not exactly viewed in the same light as their heydays. Plum film projects might not come calling much anymore. Both would get a career revival from this surprise hit. It would also lead to older actresses becoming scream queens and a new era of “hag” (may be too harsh a term) horror popping up.
Pro director Robert Aldrich puts Davis and Crawford through their paces and the behind-the-scenes fights might’ve spurred the viewing public to see what the movie was all about and therefore making it a hit. Davis is not afraid to gruesome herself up and her Baby Jane is a horror to behold as she sinks further into madness. She would pick up a nomination for best actress and Buono would get a supporting nod for his sleazy performance.
The film would win an Oscar for best costume design (best sound and cinematography also got nods). Crawford seems to get more glamorous as she supposedly starts dying (Davis famously quipped that Crawford’s boobs kept getting bigger as she lay dying in the finale). The behind the scenes sniping may be the ballyhoo but the performances and the engrossing melancholy of this finely made film keeps you coming back to see what’s under the dish cover.
Whatever happened to Baby Jane is presented in a 1080p transfer (1.85:1). Special features include a camp commentary from female impersonators Charles Busch and John Epperson, the 30 minute “Blind Ambition” about Bette and Joan battling on this film, a 6 minute vintage “Behind the scenes,” a 2 minute clip from the Andy Williams’ Show, the 48 minute career spanning “All about Bette” about Davis’ career, the 28 minute “Joan Crawford” film profile, the 5 minute “Dan-o-rama” movie mix, and the 2 minute theatrical trailer. It’s all housed in digibook packaging with photos and production notes.
There is some camp value, but there is also an overarching scent of decay and melancholy in Baby Jane (a fine double feature with Sunset Blvd). Davis and Crawford have one last row and both make memorable contributions, but Davis creepily shines as the washed up star. Baby Jane is a horror hit that still fascinates as well as terrifies.
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