This is one of those movies that, when it comes on TV, you tell yourself: no way, I’m not watching this again, or if I do, I’ll bail after a few minutes.
And you come reeling out the other side, just as gobsmacked as you were the first time around – or maybe more, because you always notice new things every time you see it.
Turner Classics is responsible for most of this, because certain movies are always shown in rotation. Now, Voyager and Mildred Pierce and Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon seem to come around monthly, along with a lot of those noir-ish (and spell-check, STOP changing this to “nourish” NOW) ‘40s films from Warner Brothers, complete with lavish and somewhat overblown scores by Max Steiner.
In this case, well, yes, it was Bette Davis all right, but not the same Bette Davis who experienced such a melancholy metamorphosis in Now, Voyager (complete with Paul Henreid’s famous dual cigarettes). This one was – oh God, NO – What Ever Happened to Baby Jane!
I first saw this film while sleeping in the den on a pull-out bed when I was a kid. I wasn’t allowed to do this very often, so it was a treat. It meant I could stay up as long as I liked and watch TV, and maybe my older brother Arthur would come in at some point, a little drunk from a piss-up with his high school buddies, and provide a running commentary. I saw great films this way, the original Frankenstein and Dracula, the incomparable On the Waterfront (which I still believe is, Citizen Kane aside, the greatest movie ever made), and – even more macabre than any James Whale creepfest – the Baby Jane movie, which from the first frame provides more howls and shudders than anything else Davis ever did.
I say Davis, because in spite of the fact that Joan Crawford plays Blanche, the “sympathetic” sister in the wheelchair, crippled decades ago when Baby Jane rammed her with her car, Davis just walks off with it. With her ashen face layered with old face powder that has never been washed off, her hideous rotting child-star clothes, her foot-dragging shuffle, slovenly drunkenness and foul temper, it’s Davis we can’t take our eyes off of, can't get enough of. And why? Reactions. Flickers of reactions like swiftly-moving storm fronts that seem to pass (for some reason) left to right, as if sweeping through her flesh and bones – this is HATE, folks, out-and-out hate for the sister who upstaged her pathetic little career as the mincing, shrieking vaudeville performer Baby Jane. Her role as resentful, foul-mouthed nursemaid is forced on her after the "accident", the event that snapped Blanche’s spinal cord at the same time that it ended her career.
The point I’m trying to make here is: though we know we should, NOBODY likes Blanche. She is denigrated, harassed, even tortured (especially with her sister's unique luncheon plan of dead budgie and stiffened rat), ruthlessly kicked in a scene of real horror that might just reflect Davis’ true feelings about her, but still and all, we either hate Blanche or are just plain bored with her.
Nobody wants to be Blanche. Nobody wants to be the victim, no matter how virtuous she is (in fact, the more virtuous she is, the more bored we are). I suspect that this picture was proof, once and for all, that Davis’ acting chops so far outstripped Crawford’s that she lived in a separate universe. When someone does something seemingly simple and you think, with a slightly creepy feeling, “how in hell did they do that?”, then you know you are in the realm of genius.
But it’s more than that. She must be snagging something deep inside us somewhere, gleefully yanking it out and celebrating it, throwing it up in the air. This law of identification, if that’s what it is, doesn’t stop with this movie. Not by a long shot. Let me ask you: you’ve seen Gone with the Wind, haven’t you? Well, what’s the matter with you? (Go see it now.) Anyway, how many of us love and admire and identify with Melanie Wilkes, the sweet, brave, unselfish wife who patiently waits while her husband returns from fighting them damn Yankees in the Civil War? How many of us think to ourselves, oh dear, she’s having a baby in a wagon, how will she ever survive?
Piffle! All we care about is Scarlett, trying to manage a fractious horse while wearing a dirty dress and a corset, her alabaster brow furrowed as she faces the first of many mortal challenges in her bitchy, spoiled, overindulged life.
Yes, everyone loves Scarlett, and it’s not just because she’s so supernaturally beautiful, her eyes glittering with the first signs of the bipolar disorder that will eventually derail her life. Everyone loves her because she is duplicitous, greedy, conniving, and just plain bad. Melanie never seems to make a single mistake in her life (oh God, she even forgives that whore!) but is so poisonously good that we just don’t want to bother with her. When I first saw this movie at age thirteen, I was sort of hoping she would die in childbirth so Scarlett could get her claws on Ashley.
So what’s going on here besides superior acting skills and a much meatier part? We like bad people because deep inside ourselves, no matter how far down we push it, we are afraid we are bad: that someone will some day see our awful, unforgiveable secret.
But even worse, we WANT to be bad, bad enough to wield the kind of power these half-mad, scary women do. These harpies, these broom-riding supernatural scream-queens raining down a firestorm of gleeful destruction on all that lies around them.
There’s something a tad sociopathic about them – wait a minute, a tad? That budgie-killing, rat-serving, head-kicking, haranguing Jane (“But you AAAAAARE in the wheelchair, Blanche! You AAAARE!”) rivals Norman Bates in the realm of antisocial personality disorder. Though we fear them and are supposed to disapprove of them, we like sociopathic characters because they pull all the bad out of us and act out all the things we’re not supposed to do.
Though this was the sixth or seventh time I had seen it, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? creeped me out more this time than ever before. I had a new appreciation of Davis’ subtlety. Yes, subtlety – you can read her devious, duplicitous thoughts, her careful plotting and planning of the kind of medieval torture specifically designed to drive her sister to the brink of insanity. The crazed child’s laugh behind the door when Blanche lifts the dome on her ratatouille lunch – the ruthless yanking out of the phone cord – forging her signature, imitating her voice, withholding her fan mail and her food – all these devices are tailor-made for Blanche, ever-escalating until that scene on the beach where she lies so flat and lifeless she resembles a dessicated corpse.
Then, of course, we have the final turnabout confession: Blanche confesses that SHE ran Jane down and somehow snapped her own spine, and yet had the strength to crawl to the gate and – oh, never mind. We accept this absurdity because by then we don’t have much choice. We are held as captive as poor Blanche, manacled to the ceiling with electrical tape over her mouth.
Then comes one of the most incredible lines in film history, delivered in the dulcet tones of a Jane who has rocketed back in time to the charming brat who wowed them all on the vaudeville stage: “You mean. . . all this time we could have been friends!”
It’s only then we realize that not only are we enthralled by Jane – we actually feel compassion for her. We’re somehow on her side. Freaking Jesus, how the hell did THAT happen?
It’s a mystery, as all superb crafting is. Is it just the fact that these are better parts, and that better actresses land them? What if someone else had played Jane: say, Olivia de Havilland? What if Crawford had played her, as was originally planned? Wasn’t she pretty good at Mommy Dearest-style torture herself? But no. It had to be Hurricane Bette or no one. It’s the same dynamic as in the Wizard of Oz, when Margaret Hamilton chews up the scenery and fills the room with brimstone and green smoke as the Wicked Witch, but Billie Burke makes you half sick to your stomach as the quavering, sparkly-gowned Good Witch of Whatever. We must either want the bejeezus scared out of us (which I still don’t understand, because in “normal life” most of us try very hard to avoid anxiety and danger), or we want to be every bad thing, every shameful thing, every heartless hideous inhumanly insane thing we know we shouldn’t be.