Thursday 13 December 2012

Sister act: "What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?"

1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which returns to UK cinema screens in a new print this weekend, comprises both a closing hurrah for the studio system and a critique of the monsters the entertainment industry habitually spawns: it had to be made by an independently-minded toughie like Robert Aldrich, because there would have been directors around at the time still longing to work with the kind of flouncy divas the movie pins to the screen like butterflies. At its centre is an extreme form of sibling rivalry. Baby Jane Hudson was the child star who once got all the attention, while her sister Blanche waited in the wings; but Blanche (Joan Crawford) was the one who went on to land the movie roles, while Baby Jane (Bette Davis) had to settle for bit-parts and bitterness at a career that peaked too soon.

A car accident puts an end to Blanche's mobility, leaving her in a wheelchair; and the two sisters - in the most implausible aspect of the whole affair - end up living together in passive-aggressive seclusion: Blanche sympathetic yet needy, Baby Jane slowly pickling in alcohol and resentment, and doing everything within her fading powers to assert her superiority over her sister once again. The staircase-spine holding the sisters' home together links the film to Psycho (which might just have helped get it into production; the Baby Jane doll in the armchair is very Ma Bates in the basement) and, indeed, Sunset Blvd. (which went further still in its stylisation; Aldrich, for his part, clings to a Californian suburban realism against which the sisters appear even more grotesque).

The set-up - essentially, two people being horrible to one another for two hours - risks becoming as one-note as the countless drag acts the film inspired, but it develops by illustrating how others get sucked into this house of narcissism: maids, neighbours, the fat momma's boy (Victor Buono) whom Baby Jane drafts into soundtracking her comeback fantasies, and who's almost as unappealing a sketch of the fan mentality as the main characters are of stars. As far as the latter are concerned, the competition is entirely one-sided: while Crawford is limited to clenching her jaw (and resembling Powers Boothe in a dress), Davis is free to exhibit flashes of wheedling charm, skip through sequences in which Baby Jane puts on a show, as well as those that require no more of her than play the crabby old bitch, and effect a last-reel rejuvenation that's weirdly moving, while her co-star lies around in the background.

Somehow just too big and spacious (a deluxe star vehicle!) to be properly scary, it nevertheless remains fascinatingly warped: a film of enfeebled bodies and decaying flesh, looked down upon by portraits of Davis and Crawford in their pomp, and playing out to a mordant score that keeps trying to break into "Hooray for Hollywood". Aldrich was way ahead of the curve on the terror age might wreak upon actresses working within an industry coming to value youth above all else - even as he awarded two seasoned troupers one more chance to chew up the scenery and one another.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow. An edited version of this review will appear in tomorrow's Guardian, and can be read here.

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