Monday, July 07, 2008

A Ratty Davis Dishes it out to Crawford with Relish in the Wild, Wonderful Jane

Watching Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? for the first time with an audience during the final night of LACMA’s tribute to Bette Davis turned out to be the fascinating experience I anticipated. Most compellingly, the film appeared to divide the large audience, providing some viewers with great comedy, while others clearly were more unsettled by the macabre nature of the movie. For example, although there were plenty of chuckles after the final frame, I also heard expressions of “Oh, My God,” and “Wow, that was scary" (one gentlemen who was extremely involved in the film's 'scare tactics' became irate the man behind him was laughing so hard, and wouldn't "shut the f--- up," while I sat nearby and mused over the fact that both of them were right). No matter how in the know a viewer is regarding the Davis/Crawford feud, and how the star's mutual antagonism is mirrored on screen by Baby Jane’s behavior towards her helpless sister, it’s hard not to get caught up in the story’s dramatic arch (especially during the unnerving final hour) and start to bite a few fingernails as the film unfolds.

However, there’s still a first hour or so wherein Jane sets up “camp.” During this portion of the movie, the viewers were kept in a state of stitches watching some indelible scenes unfold: Jane (as a child) opening the film by lip-synching through her and the movie’s invaluable, peerlessly cheesy theme song, “I’ve Written Letter to Daddy,” while belittled sister Blanche seeths in the wings; Jane getting 'buzzed' by Blanche as she utters "You miserable b----"; Jane’s classic “But you are in that chair” retort; and, in probably the film’s most incredible moment in a movie filled with jaw droppers, Davis’ wailing reprise of “Daddy,” accompanied by the pricelessly deadpan Victor Buono on piano, while a nervous, befuddled Crawford sits upstairs listening in awe ((I love how Davis enunciates every word during “Daddy” in her trademark brash manner, just as you hoped she would). I’ve always felt I was fairly hip regarding the movie’s camp value, but I never howled with quite the voracious glee that reverberated throughout the theater during this sequence, especially when Davis' dress momentarily flies up and we catch a glimpse of Jane's knobby knees. The overall high spiritedness of the crowd definitely made one feel included in the mix, and I found myself telling the gentleman sitting next to me after the film was over, “This is the first time I’ve seen the movie with everybody” instead of “with an audience.”

Is there any performer braver than Bette Davis as she rasps her way through “Daddy” in curls, patsy white makeup, beauty mark, and bee-stung lips? Hard to image even gutsy, awesomely talented Davis contemporary Katherine Hepburn not taking pause to ask herself, “Will this work, or ruin my distinguished career?” before launching into such a part. Davis, on the other hand, made damn sure she was playing Jane before signing on to do the film, and she blasts through the role, firing on all cylinders with her characteristic fearlessness. The star obviously understood she possessed the acting finesse to form a multi-dimensional character out of her somewhat shlocky comeback material, as Davis manages to create in Jane a flesh-and-blood person amid all the character's outrageous conduct, making the audience pity this woman while laughing at her over-the-top behavior. For example, it’s impossible not to emphasize with the delusional Jane’s need for recognition as she explains to a bank teller that “I’m Baby Jane Hudson,” then looks hopefully at the young man, waiting for the clueless teller to recall her vaudeville heyday of fifty years before. Similarly, in the grown-up, drunken Jane’s first reprise of “Daddy,” Davis is both scary and heartbreaking as she recites Jane’s mid-song monologue, covering her face and breaking down in sobs after incurring a mirrored image of herself in harsh light as she states “. . .I’m much too young to know!” while looking not a day over, or under, sixty-five. Davis’ Jane Hudson may remain too grotesque and “super-sized” to rank with the actress best performances, but it’s hard to think of a more memorable Davis characterization.

At this point, it appears Joan Crawford’s reputation will never live down the havoc wreaked by Mommie Dearest. Although it was difficult to determine how much of the audience’s often cheerful reaction to her character’s grisly fate was brought about by Crawford and her tough persona finally getting slapped down and around (as opposed to any derisiveness being directed at the character herself, as the many repeat viewers of Jane in the audience knew the real score as far as Blanche is concerned) it’s clear that when a terrified Blanche, who has just been served the cinema’s most unappealing dinner plate by her demented sister, is shown wheeling around her room in a state of hysterics, and the camera cuts to an overhead shot of her caught like a rat in a maze, the uproarious laughter that emitted from every section of the theater was not due to the mood of the film (the house was almost brought down again when Jane kicks the hell out of Blanche before victoriously dragging her invalid sibling back upstairs). To be fair to Crawford, although she’s certainly cast against type playing anyone’s victim and, with her controlled voice and Great Lady airs, she is sometimes too superficial during the early portions of the film, once Blanche starts facing Jane’s horrible wrath, Crawford dives into the heavy dramatics with her typical elan, and even adds notes of subtlety to some of her scenes. Also, although Davis poo-poohed Crawford for the star’s unwillingness to forgo glamour for the sake of art, check out the “Crawford look” once Jane really starts going to town on Blanche- Joan gives Bette a run for her money in the de-glam department, and her modulated acting herein is in nice contrast to Davis’ unrestrained fireworks- Crawford nails the final “payoff” scene by whispering the film’s big revelation in an admirably understated manner not normally demonstrated by the frequently melodramatic screen queen.

Victor Buono gained a warranted Oscar nod for his work as Edwin, and he probably deserved more just for the way he curls his lip up towards the end of “Daddy.” The imposing, hefty (in both size and talent) twenty-four-year-old newcomer skillfully manages to hold his own with Davis in their creepy, fascinating pairing. With his sonorous, classically British voice (impressive, given that Buono hailed from San Diego) and his mixture of slyly comic reactions to the off-kilter Jane’s outlandish behavior with some darker character undertones, Buono makes Edwin as memorably offbeat as Davis does Jane. When a mutual attraction springs up between the two oddballs, resulting in scenes such as Jane reacting in a coy, girlish manner anytime she’s around Edwin, just like a girl on the night of her senior prom as she greets her beau, or the one wherein Edwin whistles “Daddy” as he prepares for a hot date with Jane, while his possessive mother jealously nags her disapproval, the movies enter uncharted, WTF territory. There are plenty of doomed lovers in film, but this is the Apocalypse Now of screen romances, folks (but just try looking away).

Although the Davis/Crawford teaming and Buono’s original contribution are chiefly responsible (both then and now) for Jane’s success, producer/director Robert Aldrich deserves credit for bringing off the risky undertaking with aplomb. Cinematographer Ernest Haller’s Oscar-nominated stark lighting and DeVol’s pensive musical scoring add plenty to the film’s tense, tawdry atmosphere, while Norma Koch picked up the film’s sole Academy Award for her costume designs. Unbelievable and astonishing, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? remains an unmatched peak in the annals of Grand Guignol Cinema.


At 6:47 PM, Blogger elgringo said...

I just watched this today!
I just watched this today!
I just watched this today!


The hammer murder! Woah!

At 5:43 PM, Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Glad you enjoyed Jane- there's really nothing else like it.

There were laughs and groans in the audience when the housekeeper, Elvira (played by Maidie Norman) placed the hammer down, then turned her back on it and the extremely unbalanced Jane.


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