Hollywood feuds don’t come bigger than this, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were the stuff of legends, achieving immortality on screen and infamy off. Their bitter star rivalry has never really been matched, which makes their appearance in Robert Aldrich’s wonderfully black satire all the more delicious. It’s a creepy story of repressed sibling animosity, mild by today’s horror standards to be true, but what it captures is a shock value that fits nicely alongside Hitchcockian terror and the scabrous commentary Billy Wilder wonderfully brought to life in Sunset Boulevard. The timely re-release marks 50 years from which we can add another generation of celebrity obsessives to ponder over the devastating effects of a washed up film career drowned in booze, as the sadistic Hudson sisters go high camp in this brilliant black and white masterpiece.
The recipient of many accolades, not least for the performances of the two central characters. Davis gets the plum role as the developmentally arrested ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson, with her caked-on face, virginal white dress and innocent locks. Every word she utters is venomous and deceptive and when it’s not all directed at her wheelchair bound sister Blanche (Crawford), Davis gets to show her magnificent range by playing coy, creepy and camp sometimes all at one. But when she breaks to, borrow an old line, ‘she breaks just like a little girl’.
Show biz sisters, baby Jane Hudon started out as the child star of the vaudeville theatre to be later eclipsed by her younger sibling on the silver screen. The brattish Jane, never regaining her former brief glory, was supported by the immensely successful and considerate Blanche to the consternation of all concerned. We pick up the story following the tragic car accident which leaves Blanche crippled and wheelchair bound, having to be cared for by the alcoholic middle aged Jane. Blanche cuts a solitary figure, but this is no ordinary victim. Crawford, while underplaying her role, really gave her star rival something to aim for. In one scene when the demented Jane had to carry the crippled star, Crawford, it was said, was to have weighed herself down to make it all the more difficult for the petite Davis. Bitching.
While it might seem to be all about the divas, it’s really Aldrich’s very complete attention to exploring the rivalry in the context of fame. Like the aforementioned Sunset Boulevard, the trappings of fame, the big car, the fan mail and the big house are obvious symbols of American status. But for the Hudson sisters they act as real traps. It’s freedom, and the price one pays for that freedom, that ultimately seems to be what the film tries to aim for. A freedom from ones past, from the resentment and lies, to a time when all was innocent and one could dance again.
The newly restored What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? opens in cinemas 14th December 2012.
Director: Robert Aldrich
Stars: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono
Runtime: 134 min