Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson

Oscar Val Verde is a friend who gives me brain-gasms.  He stimulates my mind.  He's very cool.  We were talking about movies and he gave me a deeper insight into a Bette Davis classic.

One of my favorite Bette Davis performances is the one that brought her the last of her 10 Oscar nominations for Best Actress.  She was the twisted sister, Jane Hudson, in 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  

A forgotten former child star and failed film actress in her adult years, she longs for a comeback while unhappily being caretaker to her invalid, popular sister.  Blanche Hudson was a big movie star and a  screen beauty.  An accident put her in a wheelchair and ended her film career.  Like Dr. Frankenstein and The Monster, the sisters share the same residence.  The faded stars live in Hollywood.  The disabled sister wants to sell the decaying mansion and get her mentally unhinged sister under a doctor's care.
Jane, once a vaudeville child act called "Baby Jane Hudson," is seen as the anti-social and boozy cook making meals for her genteel, bed-ridden sister.  Blanche rings for her food trays as if Jane is a servant.

Bette Davis' performance as Jane is so vivid and deep that you can practically smell the cigarette smoke, funk and Scotch in her housedress.  This is some bold, blistering character acting.  Baby Jane is trapped in a time warp of emotions, social image, cosmetics and age-appropriate public appearance.  She's a hot mess in heels.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? rates re-appreciation and a serious second look.  I'm sure Oscar agrees with me.  He's the one who made me come to that conclusion.  Like millions of men, I have watched and laughed my way through this movie countless times through the years.  I can quotes lines of dialogue right along with the two legendary stars.

When I was a kid and saw this movie for the first time on television one night, it just about scared the saliva out of me.  Baby Jane not only looked crazy, she was being a monster to her sister -- turning Blanche's food tray into a horror show and later kicking her when she fell out of her wheelchair.  In my childhood, I saw it as modern-day horror story.

Starting in my young adult years as a classic film fan, I learned that Bette Davis couldn't stand Joan Crawford since the 1930s.  Those two actresses cordially loathed each other according to Hollywood folklore.  Oscar-winning movie queens who reigned in the 1930s and 40s, they were now in the September of their years and really needed a box office hit.  This was a fairly low-budget, intelligently made thriller that became a Warner Brothers box office champ.  Not just that, it birthed a new genre in Hollywood movies.  The new formula was to get female movie stars well into middle age and cast the veterans in a bizarre, modestly-budgeted thriller with a twist.  The success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? had Davis and Crawford slated to re-team for Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.  Another good thriller, it starred Bette Davis and her former Warner Bros. co-star, Olivia de Havilland, who replaced the "ailing" Joan Crawford.  Olivia played a disabled wealthy woman alone who uses her brains to fight off young home invaders in Lady in a Cage (1964) co-starring Ann Sothern and screen newcomer, James Caan.  Former Broadway superstar Tallulah Bankhead was in Die! Die! My Darling! (1965).  1969's What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? starred Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon.  What's The Matter With Helen? starred a very good Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters (1971).  Shelley Winters followed that one with Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972).  The trend started with Davis and Crawford, seen here with studio head, Jack L. Warner.
For decades now, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has been tops amongst Bette Davis fans in the "camp classic" category.  Drag queens have spoofed this movie in cabaret acts.  Well...as I wrote here...I went from being scared the first times I saw it as a boy, to watching it for "camp classic" laughs with my grown-up friends.  This year I watched it and did something I'd never done before.  I shed a tear at the end of it.  I was moved by the emotionally wounded and psychologically violated Baby Jane Hudson.  All because my buddy, Oscar, told me to listen to the opening dialogue of the movie.  Director Robert Aldrich gave us an opening that is symbolic, subliminal and disturbing.

I'm positive that Baby Jane Hudson was a victim of sexual abuse while forfeiting her childhood to be a vaudeville star and a source of income for her dad.  Cute little blonde Jane is the star.  Her sister, brunette Blanche, is quiet.  And not popular.  And jealous.  Their mother seems to be passive and angry.  Daddy is a dork.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? opens with the year 1917 on the dark screen.  We hear a child crying.  Then, off-camera, an adult male voice says, "Want to see it again, little girl?  It shouldn't frighten you."  Then something pops up right at the camera, as if into your face.  It's a Jack-in-the-box.  A little girl sees it and she's crying.  The camera cuts back to the Jack-in-the-box.  It's smiling and Jack has tears running down its face.  Toys don't cry.  This creepy object got erect and a fluid came out.
Then we see headliner Baby Jane Hudson in performance.  Afterwards, he father is onstage hawking Baby Jane merchandise.  Fans can buy Baby Jane dolls in the lobby.
The real-life Jane doesn't have any friends her own age.  She's too busy being the family breadwinner.  She has temper tantrums in public when she doesn't get what she wants.  And she reminds Daddy that she makes the money and she can have what she wants.  The show is over and the audience files out.  We see mostly female fans and their little girls.  The lobby doors open and there's a row of Baby Jane Hudson dolls on a shelf for sale.  Then we cut to a backstage shot.  Dad is leaving the stage behind Jane.  She's in a snit.  Mother and Blanche are standing near a stagehand.  Notice the big, burly stagehand to the right of the frame.  He's holding a life-sized Baby Jane doll.  If that was actually Baby Jane, he'd be holding her in a rather questionable way.  It's a quick but very telling shot.  (In a photo above, the stagehand stands in the wings in between Jane's father and mother.)

I went online to a few sites, one was ViolenceAgainstWomen net.org, to find the effects that sexual abuse in childhood can have on female adult behavior.  The top effects were alcohol, low self-esteem, changes in memory/consciousness and the inability to trust even close family members and friends.  Lying, depression and suspicious behavior are other effects.  So are mood swings.

The older Jane is a mixture of arrested development, alcohol and anger.
Look at how much booze Baby Jane puts away on a daily basis.  Think of her lies on the phone, pretending to be Blanche when she calls Johnson's Liquor Store for a delivery.  She drinks and thinks about her past and about the audience that abandoned her.  She's depressed and says "They just didn't love you enough."  Then there's the violent, sudden mood swing when Blanche rings that damn call button again.  Jane is suspicious of her sister and "that nosy Mrs. Bates," the friendly next door neighbor.  Jane has no friends.  She has no fans.  Blanche still gets fan mail thanks to her old movies being shown on local TV.  Mrs. Bates drops by with flowers for Blanche.  In the mansion, the part-time housekeeper likes Blanche.  She doesn't like Jane.

We get so caught up in Bette Davis' ferocious, gritty performance that perhaps we don't realize how detailed it is and how beaten down by life Jane was.  Adult Jane still loves Daddy but her father really robbed her of a normal childhood.  Perhaps there was sexual abuse backstage.  As a young woman, men abused her.  Blanche became the Hollywood Golden Girl and glamorous movie star in the 1930s.  Jane's stardom ended when she was no longer a little girl.  She was not desired as a young woman.  Not like movie queen Blanche.  She had no male fans in the studio's executive branch.  She was seen as a no-talent and was just kept on the payroll to please the powerful Blanche.  Jane's drinking had already begun.  The one good movie Jane made was shelved and only released overseas.  When gracious movie star Blanche is crippled in a car accident, Jane got frightened and fled the scene.  She'd been drinking.  Reportedly, she was driving them both home.  When the cops found Jane, they slapped her around.  Again, she was abused by males.

Older Jane has problems with her memory of that night's incident -- and her mental problems are real.  Like some survivors of sexual abuse in childhood, Jane is about to connect to an abusive partner.  But she doesn't realize it.  Portly Edwin (played by Victor Buono) is a conniving mama's boy.  He leads Jane to believe he can manage her show business comeback.  She's fond of Edwin and begins to trust him.  But he's simply scheming to get cash from her.  Childhood repeats itself in her living room.  She's performing for a man who will use her for money.

Life wasn't fair to Jane.  Like Frankenstein, this movie showed that monsters are not born, they're made.  Oscar messaged me that Bette Davis' performance "...took it past Kabuki to some sort of hell."  I agree.  Listen to her cry out "Blaaaanche!" like a helpless child as her mind starts to unravel faster and faster.  She's got Blanche tied up in the bedroom like a hostage.  Frightened and feeling trapped, Baby Jane commits murder.

Bette Davis showed you what was physically and psychologically ugly about Jane.  She also showed you what was human about her.  It's a masterful performance.

As Blanche, I feel that Joan Crawford delivered one of finest screen performances -- right up there with Mildred Pierce.  Blanche and her devoted fans love the same thing -- the sight of Blanche's beautiful face in her old movies on television.  She serves up a fine slice of passive aggressive behavior.

This year, when I saw Jane Hudson sit on the beach and tenderly say to her frail sister "...all this time, we could have been friends," it touched my heart.  I saw What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in a different way.  Yes, there's plenty to laugh at due to the behind-the-scenes history of the two dueling divas.  But, when you take the film seriously, there's plenty there to break the heart.  It's quite deep when you consider what may have happened to Baby Jane.  When she was a little girl and the very pretty, very popular show biz meal ticket of the family, those turned out to be the happiest days of her life compared to her adult years.  That's sad.

Bette Davis.  Brilliant.  Thanks for the movie brain-gasm, Oscar.


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