Monday, May 5, 2008

Grande Dame Guignol: Reflections on BABY JANE

So Friday night I got together with some fellows and saw that 1962 masterpiece WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? on the big screen for the first time.


I have to say that I am a bit of a fan of Bette Davis, and I always felt the movie belonged to her. Sure, she was shrill, over-the-top, and theatrical; that was her character, a batshit crazy relic of a time gone by. Joan Crawford is more restrained but her facial expressions often seem more comical than anything else, and her famous scene of twirling around her room in her wheelchair is uproariously silly.

So, of course, it's all about how cruel Jane Hudson (Davis) is to her poor crippled sister (Crawford), and how Jane begins to slide into insanity. And the film's now-famous final confession turns everything on its head.

OK, so if you're spoiler sensitive, ignore the rest of this bit.

Davis' Jane is a great example of the tragic villain; she's not actively evil, but is molded by her father and then by her sister. Her father, a stage parent, exploited her on the vaudeville stage. Jane was the family's breadwinner, and although she acted like a brat in the brief scene we're shown, onlookers onscreen mutter about how it's all the parents' fault anyway. The mother is the only one sympathetic to Blanche, but only when everyone else isn't looking.

Although it's not made clear in the movie, I understand that in the novel the parents die of the flu while the girls are still young, and they're sent to live with an aunt in L.A., ending Jane's vaudeville career and opening the door for Blanche's acting talent.

So we have Jane suffering from the loss of her father and her fame. She slides into alcoholism and when Blanche gets a film contract she insists on a clause that for every film Blanche makes, Jane makes one as well. On the surface it seems generous and innocent, but if you think about it, it could very well have been torture for Jane, making her suffer by being forced to do something she was unsuited for. Naturally, Jane's drinking gets worse. Blanche buys a house for the two of them, thereby making Jane dependent on her. More torture.

And then the car crash.

Blanche attempts to murder her sister by running her over with their car. Jane runs away but is so drunk she doesn't remember what happened, and believes the police, and Blanche, when they tell her it was Jane who tried to kill Blanche. And now with Blanche crippled by the accident, Jane is made to feel guilty and look after her sister for the rest of her life.

No wonder she goes insane.

Jane's clinging to her past is as much pathos as it is madness. We've all clung to things in our past, way too long. Jane did so more than most, but it's a universal situation. And she finally tries to break out and have a career in clubs, as misguided as that may be, and maybe even finds a friend in pianist Edwin Flagg. At least, she thinks so, although he's more interested in her money.

Davis' Jane is full of theatrical looniness, and one scene in particular, when she starts to feel a connection to Flagg (possibly even sexual interest), her eyes look a lot like Gloria Swanson's in SUNSET BLVD. But we also see glimpses of a sad, lost, fearful Jane, wondering what happened to all her young promise, what happened to her life.

Blanche could have helped Jane, could have helped a lot. She could have told her the truth. But for sixty years, she sat on her secret. And while the film makes her seem too helpless and victimized by Jane, one wonders if perhaps she's not taking more action and letting Jane do this stuff to her as a sort of penance.

And even though Jane's murder of housekeeper Elvira ends up putting her beyond hope, it's hard to not feel at least a modicum of pity. Jane's sins are a result of being sinned against for decades. And Jane had some talents. One gets a feeling that with a little help and coaching, she could have had a resurrected career. And toward the end, when Jane is regressing pathologically, we catch a glimpse of a younger Jane who truly loved her sister.

There's also the tragedy of those whose lives peak too early. We've all seen them, the high school jock who spends his whole life looking back on his past glories, the homecoming queen who goes to seed. Combine that with a lifetime of undeserved guilt and it would be amazing if they didn't crack.

That is part of what fascinates me about this movie; the compelling tragedy of Baby Jane. And in the light of all that, her treatment of her sister seems justified.

Of course, that famous line resulted in cheers and applause from the audience. BABY JANE seems to be approaching a sort of ROCKY HORROR level, a sort of MST3K kind of thing. Another few years, people will dress up. How about a musical version? Why not?

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