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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962)
Jane Hudson found fame as child star 'Baby Jane', only to be eclipsed by her sister Blanche when the latter became a Hollywood glamour girl in the 1930s. Blanche's career was brought to an abrupt end by an accident for which Jane was seemingly responsible. Now the two ageing sisters live together in their Hollywood mansion. When Jane discovers that Blanche is planning to sell their home and have her put away, she begins a campaign of terror against her wheelchair-bound sibling.
For more about What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Blu-ray release, see What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on October 4, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Anna Lee, Maidie Norman, Marjorie Bennett
Director: Robert Aldrich
» See full cast & crew
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Blu-ray Review
Whatever it was, it really, really screwed her up.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, October 4, 2012
"Mommie Dearest" Joan Crawford wasn't just obsessed with wire hangers, mind you. The erstwhile cinema icon took a rather dim view of anyone who threatened her place in the star system, which put her in a catfight with Bette Davis from virtually the moment the two were signed to co-star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? While they probably didn't know it at the time, the gothic horror drama was going to give both of their careers a serious shot in the arm, catapulting each them on to similar properties (like Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte for Bette and Strait Jacket for Joan). But at the time the film was announced, neither star had had a big hit film in years, and both were in fact in semi-retirement. The stories of their on set clashes have become the stuff of film legend, but perhaps the most instructive anecdote (and also the funniest in a way) about the lengths Miss Crawford would go to in order to make her points came after the film's release, when Bette Davis snagged a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for the film and Crawford did not. That obviously frosted Crawford like nobody's business, and (to slightly twist an image from Baby Jane itself) she did not take it lying down. Crawford quickly discovered that some of the other nominees would not be in attendance at the festivities that night and arranged to be the stand-in should any of them win, thereby vicariously "accepting" an Oscar while Davis looked on empty handed. (Anne Bancroft ended up winning for The Miracle Worker, and Crawford rather gleefully accepted for her.) The real life contretemps between Crawford and Davis informs virtually every scene the two actresses share in what has ironically become one of the most iconic films for both of them.
WEHT has become an acronym that virtually everyone recognizes nowadays, but in 1962 the idea of uncovering the late in life "adventures" of a former child star seemed rather fresh and unexpected. Today's tabloid fodder is full of stories about former child and teen stars like (to cite just two examples currently in the news) Lindsay Lohan and Erin Moran, stories that usually contrast their fresh faced innocence when they were marquee headliners with somewhat more decrepit current day façades that prove show business isn't for the faint of heart. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was really rather prescient in this regard, recounting the twisted tale of two sisters, "Baby" Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) and Blanche Davis (Joan Crawford), both of whom had had their brushes with fame and glory, but who now in their supposed golden years were both tarnished with memories of happier days and regrets over a long ago accident that forever changed both of their lives.
The film gives us two quick anecdotes from the sisters' younger lives in order to set the veritable stage for the gothic (almost Grand Guignol) horrors which are to follow. We first see Baby Jane as a little kewpie doll of a vaudeville performer. It's clear she's the apple of her father's eye, and it's equally clear that Blanche is developing a rather serious case of sibling rivalry. Years later, the tables have turned, and Blanche is a top lining film star while Jane has discovered that the transition into adult roles is often a rocky one. A nicely staged scene gives us just enough information to see that one of the sisters is involved in a bad car accident—but which one?
Flash forward to the "present" day (meaning supposedly the early sixties), to find a garishly white faced Jane ostensibly serving as nursemaid to Blanche, who is confined to a wheelchair after the long ago car accident we've just witnessed. Jane is quite obviously unbalanced, making mere sibling rivalry look like something out of a Golden Book for tots. Blanche has retreated both physically and emotionally and has become a sort of reclusive Norma Desmond type, watching her old films on her bedroom television. Jane gets wind of the fact that Blanche may be preparing to sell their dilapidated mansion and perhaps even institutionalize Jane, and that's when the "fun" really gets started.
Playing out against the simmering feud between the sisters are a number of other subplots, including efforts by both a housemaid and a neighbor to help Blanche (or at least figure out what's going on), as well as a kind of trashy funny- scary arc that sees Blanche convinced she can develop a comeback cabaret act which includes hiring a bizarre, slightly sycophantic pianist (Victor Buono, who also was Oscar nominated for the film). What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? veers precariously from scenes that are among the most psychologically unsettling of any film of that period and others which provoke the same sort of response many have when they witness something bad happen to someone horrible: you don't know whether to gasp or cheer.
Davis and Crawford, whatever havoc their internecine war may have wreaked behind the scenes, are at the top of their games in this film and both deliver pitch perfect performances that beautifully convey both the decay as well as the convolutedly symbiotic relationship they've developed supposedly over their lifetimes. Davis has the showier role by far (no doubt the main reason that she received an Oscar nomination), but Crawford is extremely convincing (even moving) in a role the sees her physically constrained and emotionally tamped down. The screen virtually crackles with energy when the two actresses share the frame, or even a scene. (Trivia lovers alert: that's Davis' real life daughter B.D., who wrote her own Mommie Dearest-esque book about her famous mother, playing the teenage daughter who lives next door to the Hudson sisters.)
Director Robert Aldrich stages the entire film with incredible aplomb and without giving anything away manages to deliver at least two or three major spine tingling moments by perfectly capturing the high wire act that Blanche is experiencing vis a vis her sister's ping ponging emotional state. Part of the brilliance of the film is the effortless way Aldrich toys with the audience, almost like a cat with a mouse, setting up an ostensible scare only to not deliver on the promise, but then following through with a devastating denouement a scene or two later that lands like a punch to the gut.
The film is surprisingly funny at times, even if it's a humor tinged with sadness and even mortification. There's a certain amount of schadenfreude even the most charitably minded among us probably experience when we see the downfall of the rich and famous, at least when that downfall comes courtesy of their own stupid choices. That same feeling runs rampant throughout What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, though it's filtered through a lens of an incredibly dysfunctional relationship between two women. By that I mean Jane and Blanche, not Bette and Joan.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Blu-ray, Video Quality
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Brothers with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1. Ernest Haller's Oscar nominated cinematography glows with a brilliant luster in this excellent high definition presentation. A lot of the film is surprisingly bright, including some intentionally garishly lit scenes, but contrast is extremely strong and whites, while vivid, never bloom. Alternatively, there are several very dimly lit interior and nighttime scenes, and blacks are beautifully deep and well gradated. Grain structure is completely intact, and the elements are in excellent condition. The overall image is extremely clear and well defined and the film's almost excruciating close-ups reveal abundant fine object detail.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Blu-ray, Audio Quality
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix that generally does very well, but which reveals some very slight distortion in the midrange which is negligibly noticeable in DeVol's harpsichord and string laden score. That minor qualm aside, things sound very good here, with the dialogue very cleanly presented. This is an obviously very narrow mix, and there really isn't much difference in ambience despite several different settings, but fidelity is fine and dynamic range is fairly wide as well.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane may have kick started a whole subgenre featuring one time A-list female stars who were now slightly (or maybe even more than slightly) past their prime emoting their way through all sorts of gothic craziness, but it's still a one of a kind film experience. Davis is completely over the top, but the performance is still rooted in its own sort of reality (surreality, perhaps). Crawford is restrained and refined, and it's kind of fun to see her in such a vulnerable, sympathetic role. The film toes a very fine line between horror and a wacky kind of humor, all of it expertly handled by director Robert Aldrich. This Blu-ray offers good supplements (ported over from the previous DVD), exceptional video and very good audio. Highly recommended.
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