Sunday, 13 May 2018

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) - Movie Review (Reader Request)

Happy Mother’s Day one and all, and it looks like it’s time for another Reader Request. Yes, those two things aren’t a coincidence in this case: For this year’s Mother’s Day gift, my own mother asked if I would review a film for her. I agreed, since this kind of situation is one where I’m more than happy to eschew my usual 2012-now cut-off date, but… let’s just say that I use that cut-off for a reason. This is likely going to go even further outside of my comfort zone than usual, as most of my own knowledge concerning cinema involves what has happened in my lifetime; I have bits and pieces to call from beyond that, but I honestly have a lot to catch up on as far as older cinema goes. Add to that my previously-mentioned hesitance in watching “classic” films due to a certain sense of cultural obligation to like them for their status, and I’m in a bit of a weird situation here.
Still, this is the task I’ve been set, and if I’m unable to provide my writing for someone who genuinely wants it, then what good am I? Let’s get into what is sure to be a bizarre pick for the day where we all give thanks to the women that birthed us, and take a look at the 1962 psycho-thriller What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

The plot: After being crippled in a car “accident”, actress Blanche (Joan Crawford) is left in the care of her sister, former child star ‘Baby’ Jane (Bette Davis). However, Jane’s jealousy at the success her sister had in her own film career has driven her to a life of alcohol and pining for the glory days, and she only sees Blanche as an obstacle to that dream. As Baby Jane’s mental state continues to wither and Blanche begins to realise just how sick her sister has become, things could turn murderous.

The histrionic legacy of both our main stars here is so storied that pointing out just how insane things can get here feels rather redundant. Bear in mind that my only real experience with Joan Crawford is through the genuinely unsettling depiction of her in Mommie Dearest, and yet even I could point to the quite infamous stories of Davis and Crawford’s backstage shenanigans. What makes that minute piece of retroactive knowledge feel strange is that it honestly didn’t prepare in the slightest for the performances featured here. All the legends about Crawford’s stranger-than-fiction biography, in hindsight, don’t do much justice to just how tragic her performance here is as the forcibly-secluded former star. Balancing character history with her on-screen sister with a genuine terror at what she has become, Crawford takes the role of hostage and sidesteps pretty much every modern trope concerning victims. She has agency, she has character definitions beyond her place in that one relationship, and she exudes tragedy and verging-on-uncomfortable heartbreak to give one hell of a performance.

Davis, by sheer contrast, makes for an equally complex and loud depiction of a domestic tyrant, someone with the capacity to exude authority over someone else and is more than willing to do it. Beyond the very doll-like makeup (which was provided by Davis herself), the way she plays into her character’s place as a former child star makes for a lot of varied and potent emotional reactions. We see mild camp in how she daintily sways to the music, we see horror in her treatment of her sister, we see tragedy in how connected she still is to her glory days, and the fact that a certain amount of professional rivalry existed between Davis and Crawford in the real world definitely shows through in how spiteful Baby Jane can get. It’s another situation where the line between complexity and sympathy is regularly skirted, as it’s difficult not to feel sorry for this woman given her history… but it’s difficult to feel too sorry knowing what she ends up doing. That poor bird.

The production that hangs over these two central performances is ripe with the cinematic techniques of yore. The dissolve fades between scenes, the notable uses of stark silence so that the actors could actually… act their way through a given scene, even the inimitably Old Hollywood orchestra in all its dramatic-sting-heavy glory. I can’t even say the same for the black-and-white film stock, given how the use of colour in film had been kicking around for at least two decades prior and this wasn’t a matter of having to use the standard. To that end, the use of a monochrome palette ends up making a deliberate connection to the times when that was the standard; specifically, the heyday of both Jane and Blanche. Director Robert Aldrich even went as far as to use the older films of both actresses as examples of the work of their characters, making an even stronger real-life connection in the process. Considering this film features two actresses who were at the time considered past their prime, playing the role of actresses who are past their prime, that’s a pretty effective manoeuvre.
It’s almost enough to make you forget that Frank DeVol’s compositions, as nostalgic as they are, can get not only jarring but wholly unfitting for the scene in question. It can get a little too upbeat at times, and when it’s used in conjunction with Crawford’s brutal performance, suddenly cutting to a fizzy surf rock number right after seeing her suffer at Jane’s hands is rather off-putting.

Not that that distracts too heavily from the film’s main crux, which is looking at the acting craft and how it can affect people who make it their life’s work. This is going to seem rather hypocritical, given how often I make it a point to mention them in past reviews, but child actors haven’t gotten the best historical treatment in Hollywood. Sure, some manage to shine even into their adulthood, whether it be in the acting craft (Leonardo DiCaprio), moving into filmmaking at large (Ron Howard), or even taking a shot at both (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
But those success stories don’t really speak to the hardships that such an early career can have, both in terms of psychological effects and the resulting expectations surrounding said actors. When you are raised with the world’s eye squarely fixed on you, showering you in praise (or even scorn; look at how many people still rag on Jake Lloyd’s turn as Anakin Skywalker to this day), that can set unhealthy expectations for later life. For as many people that manage to persevere, there’s just as many (if not possibly more so) that didn’t. I’d list examples here of so-called “failed” child actors, but that would only make me part of the problem: Spending that much of your life in the spotlight can have severe effect on people.

To that end, we have the characters of Jane and Blanche as actors, both having spent their share of the time in the spotlight at differing points, and the effects that resulted from that exposure between them are night and day. Jealousy ties them together, but as far as their want to connect with their past, their interpretations of that jealousy are exhibited differently. Blanche, more than anything else, just wants contact with the outside world; not as a star, but as a person, and given her living conditions, you can see why she would want a form of socialising that didn’t involve being mortally terrified of what’s for dinner. Seeing her scenes where she tries to will herself to walk downstairs to use the telephone, without a hint of dialogue and only rare whispers of soundtrack, get across a lot of apprehension and drive to escape the very Hitchcockian predicament she’s in.
As for Jane, her depiction of an increasingly-deteriorating psyche shows a lot of point-blank need to relive the glory days, back when she was deemed as “important” by the celebrity world. In addition to the questionings in regard to parents and how they influence their children (let’s try and avoid potential Freudianisms along those lines, given my reason for watching this film in the first place), how her want for the days of old makes for very intriguing character analysis and, by the time we reach film’s end, we see how the Old Hollywood ways of psycho thrills definitely have their merits, kitschy as they may be in retrospect.

All in all, while the usual personal apprehensions surrounding older movies still apply, this is a film that has held up astoundingly well. In fact, given the last few years and how turbulent they’ve been for modern Hollywood, this film’s look at celebrity and child actor psychology actually feels even more relevant today. The acting is legendary for a reason, as both Davis and Crawford push themselves to the nth degree to deliver this incredibly complex sibling rivalry, the production values give a snapshot of the last days of Old Hollywood while highlighting the worth that such an era had on a technical basis, and as tonally off as some of the scenes get, it still manages to work very effectively as both a character study and as a piece of psychological horror. It’s a definite product of its time, as there’s quite a bit of Rear Window and Psycho to be found in the inner workings, but given the larger-than-life status of its main stars and their interactions beyond the frame, it most definitely stands on its own as quality cinema.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this movie for the first time about four years ago and loved it for many of the reasons you stated here. I also read the book it was based on not long after and was surprised to see how faithful an adaptation the film was. Only a few minor changes - mostly due to the people they cast looking different from how they're described in the novel and the rat scene in the movie is a dead bird in the book. (There's also another food scene in the novel.)

    The only other one I've come across that's a pretty faithful adaptation is Psycho. Other than some scenes pushed together to save time and some of the actors looking different from the way the characters are described in the book, Hitchcock's original is almost a word for word faithful adaptation.