Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Screening: "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" at the Pasadena Arclight

Just in time for Halloween, the lurid classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was screened at the Pasadena Arclight Sunday night.


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Seven Arts/Warner Bros., 1962)
Starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Victor Buono
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Screenplay by Lukas Heller (based on the novel by Henry Farrell)
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Costume Design (Black & White).  
Also nominated for Best Actress (Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Buono), Best Cinematography (Black & White) and Best Sound.

Back in the days of vaudeville, Baby Jane Hudson is a big star.  She wields her childish star power as if it will never end, while her less glamorous sister Blanche seethes with resentment in the background.  Their father indulges the obnoxious Jane, while their mother desperately tries to assure Blanche that one day she will be the successful one.

Fast-forward twenty years and Blanche Hudson is a great actress and movie star.  Her contract perversely requires her Hollywood studio to make a film starring her much less talented sister Jane for every movie Blanche makes for them.  It's a testament to Blanche's talent and success that her studio complies (albeit reluctantly) with this odd request, despite the fact that they lose money on Jane's movies.

Another twenty years later, the aging sisters are sequestered in a gothic Hollywood mansion.  Blanche has been crippled by a car accident that wasn't an accident as much as it was the result of Jane's jealousy of her sister's Hollywood success.  Jane's curse for her sin is to care hand and foot for the sister she decimated, and the result is disappointment, cruelty and drunkeness.

TV is bringing Blanche Hudson's old films to an enthusiastic and appreciative new audience.  One of those enthralled by her long-lost work is the Hudson's teenaged neighbor, played by no other than Bette Davis' real-life daughter B.D. Merrill.  Numerous attempts by the girl's mother to engage their legendary neighbors are rebuffed by the bitter Jane.

As if Blanche's renewed fame isn't bad enough, she has been planning to sell their home and institutionalize Jane.  Unfortunately for Blanche all her secret precautions have been for naught - Jane is on to her plans.  Jane begins to torment Blanche and separate her from her few contacts with the outside world, especially their maid Elvira, who is supposed to become Blanche's new caregiver when Jane is out of the picture.

In the midst of all this mayhem the former vaudeville star decides to stage a comeback.  Jane engages a desperately unemployed pianist (Buono) for her return to the stage thinking that they are becoming great friends, not realizing he is just humoring her delusions for a paycheck.  Jane's treatment of Blanche becomes increasingly abusive and when Elvira discovers just how badly, Jane, who is dropping further and further into madness, murders her in a desperate attempt to keep her abuse of Blanche a secret and her comeback on track.

It's all downhill from there as her pianist discovers Jane's mistreatment of Blanche, Elvira's body is found and Jane finally succumbs to her mad delusions.  She drags a dying Blanche to the beach for a beautiful day out.  It's there that Blanche makes a startling deathbed confession: that Jane, who drunkenly blacked out the car "accident" didn't in fact cripple her sister.  It was actually Blanche who tried to ram the car into Jane, rather than Jane, resentful of Blanche's success.  All those years, the saintly Blanche had allowed Jane to believe that she was the guilty party and was therefore obligated to care for the sister she thought she had crippled.  This sends Jane completely over the edge.  The film ends with Blanche expiring on the beach, while Jane relives her glory days, dancing along the ocean's edge while a curious crowd gawks at her.

Baby Jane facts/trivia:
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was the first time Hollywood legends Davis and Crawford appeared in the same film.  They were lifelong Hollywood enemies.  Davis was the gifted, critically-acclaimed actress who recognized that she didn't have Crawford's glamor, while Crawford was the glamorous MGM star who envied Davis' talent.
  • The nosy neighbor's daughter - one of Blanche Hudson's newfound fans thanks to television broadcasts of her old films - was played by Bette Davis' real-life daughter B.D. (short for Barbara Davis).  She was born B.D. Sherry, then became B.D. Merrill (the name she's credited with in Baby Jane) after Davis married her All About Eve costar Gary Merrill, who adopted the girl.  But it was under her married name, B.D. Hyman, that she became most famous...as the author of My Mother's Keeper, the Bette Davis version of Mommy Dearest.  B.D.'s husband, Jeremy Hyman, was a Seven Arts executive; he and B.D. met during promotion of Baby Jane.
  • The decaying Hollywood mansion occupied by the dysfunctional sisters is located at 172 S. McCadden Place in the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Hancock Park.  It still stands.
  • There are several scenes were Jane does an eerily accurate imitation of Blanche's voice.  In reality, Davis couldn't mimic Crawford, so Joan's voice was dubbed.
  • Both Davis and Crawford received BAFTA nominations for Best Foreign Actress.  Davis and Buono also received Golden Globe nominations.
Sources/links:
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? on imdb  - Bette Davis on imdb - Joan Crawford on imdb - Victor Buono on imdb - Robert Aldrich on imdb - Lukas Heller on imdb - What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? on Wikipedia - 172 S. McCadden (Hudson Sisters house) on Trulia - Baby Jane film locations

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