In 2002, Playbill announced that Grey Gardens—the Maysles brothers' cultishly adored 1975 documentary on Big and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, American aristocrats (and cousins of Jackie Onassis) gone feral from desperation and poverty—was going to be turned into a Broadway musical. The news followed that a 2008 Hollywood movie was being planned, starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as the Edies, and Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jackie O. Fans were apoplectic: How dare they tamper with our beloved Beales? This was clearly the worst thing that ever happened to anybody in America! What the makers of the new Grey Gardens don't seem to realize is that they are dealing with some staunch characters. Us Bealemaniacs are a passionate bunch when it comes to protecting the dignity and good name of our favorite crazy cat ladies. I don't like to brag, but I may very well hold the world record for most viewings of Grey Gardens by a heterosexual male under the age of 50.
Besides, it seems silly to make a Hollywood version of Grey Gardens when a fictional take on the Maysles' classic documentary already exists. Heck, it even predates Grey Gardens by 13 years. It's called What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and it is the subject of today's entry in Better Late Than Never. This might seem like a curious candidate for the column. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? isn't a ubiquitous pop-culture staple like Raiders of the Lost Ark, where admitting to not having seen it at, say, a cocktail party or in the A.V Club conference room is likely to elicit horrified gasps of "You mean you really haven't seen it? Never? Not even once, while drunk? OMG! Why not?" (We talk extensively in online abbreviations here at The A.V. Club, LOL!)
It isn't inconceivable that the average moviegoer or cinephile hasn't seen What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? It is, however, inconceivable that I somehow managed to go 32 years without seeing it. Watching Baby Jane? for the first time last month, I had that Better Late Than Never-friendly feeling of "Where have you been all my life? And why in God's name have I not seen you until now?"
Essentially a macabre, show-biz version of Grey Gardens—think the Beales gone Psycho—Baby Jane belongs to pretty much all my favorite subgenres. It's a black-and-white shocker, a crazed psycho-melodrama, a pitch-black show-biz satire, a warped meditation on the traumatizing effects of child stardom, and a gothic tale of familial dysfunction as its dysfunctioniest. Furthermore, it's a film that derives a subversive, kinky kick from the way the onscreen action mirrors and distorts the backstage melodrama.
Baby Jane had the chutzpah to cast Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, two has-been movie stars who famously despised each other, as has-been movie star sisters locked in a poisonous, co-dependent cycle of neediness and contempt. In a famous bit of Hollywood lore, Davis ordered a Coca-Cola vending machine for the cast and crew solely to antagonize her bitter onscreen and offscreen rival, whose husband was a Pepsi executive.
Robert Aldrich's film opens with Davis' creepily adorable younger self (Julie Allred) at the height of her prepubescent super-stardom. In front of a packed, adoring crowd and concession stands selling "Baby Jane" dolls that will become a ghoulish motif later in the film, Allred sings a nauseatingly maudlin, Freudian ballad/love song to her dead father ("I've written a letter to daddy / his address is heaven above") that takes the creepy sexualization of child stars to macabre extremes.
She's a proto-JonBenet Ramsey, and the living-doll embodiment of Graham Greene's famous comment about the furtive erotic allure of Shirley Temple: "Her admirers—middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire."
Allred has dubious coquetry up the wazoo. The grasping, rapacious greed of Allred's father and the fact that Allred is singing a mawkish, sentimental love song with incestuous and necrophiliac undertones only heightens the ghoulishness. Offstage, Allred's pint-size diva bears little resemblance to the perfect little moppet she plays onstage. She's a screamer and a bully who runs roughshod all over her long-suffering sister and mother. In a scene heavy with foreshadowing, Allred's mother explains to the girl who will grow up to be Joan Crawford (poor dear) that it is her solemn duty to gracefully and selflessly serve her sister, no matter how deplorably Allred treats her.
The film then leaps forward in time to a screening room where a studio executive is watching an adult Davis phone in another dreadful performance. She's an ingénue with no future, a terrible reputation, a Texas-sized drinking problem, and a studio that merely humors her out of deference to Crawford, an up-and-comer whose career has skyrocketed while Davis' tumbled.
In a wickedly subversive metatextual twist, the footage of Davis sucking onscreen is taken from two actual Davis movies: the unforgettably titled Ex-Lady and Parachute Jumper. According to Hollywood legend, the filmmakers asked Davis if there were any particularly awful performances from her starlet years she thought would fit those scenes, and she told them they could have their pick; she thought she sucked in pretty much all her early films. She was a hell of a sassy, smart-mouthed broad, that Bette Davis. I mean that in the nicest possible way. That almost perverse lack of vanity informs every aspect of the film. In Baby Jane, Davis looks like shit and behaves monstrously. Of course, her character also gets to kick the shit out of Joan Crawford, so the part did have its rewards.
We then flash forward in time yet again to the anxious present. Davis has devolved into a grotesque caricature of her child-star self, a mean old drunk who dresses like a cute little girl. Davis keeps Crawford a veritable prisoner in a Grey Gardens-like mansion, heaping scorn and abuse on her more talented, successful sister while nevertheless living off her dwindling fortune.
Crawford here plays yet another saintly woman who suffers terrible indignities with grace and tolerance. Confined to a wheelchair for years following a boozy, half-remembered car accident that figures prominently in the film's overheated climax, Crawford bears the brunt of her sister's bottomless rage against a world that has forgotten her, or worse, remembers her only as a real movie star's drunken, crazy sister.
I have a theory that the very famous tend to stop developing emotionally and intellectually at the age of their greatest personal and professional success. Their skin grows wrinkled and their bodies decay, but their maturation remains hopelessly stunted. For Little Edie Beale, a heartbreakingly gorgeous, vivacious debutante who never became anything more, that means remaining a bratty, self-involved teen well into old age. For Davis' Baby Jane, that means forever remaining an obnoxious, self-absorbed prepubescent. Somewhere along the way, something went horribly wrong for both Little Edie and Baby Jane. They seem desperate to will the nightmarish present into the dewy, idealized past through sheer mental exertion. They're forever shadowboxing a past they can't change or undo.
Back to Baby Jane. In a desperate bid to resurrect her career, Davis hires a smug, narcissistic piano player (Victor Buono, in a debut role that won him an Oscar nomination), who feeds into her poisonous self-delusion.
Like Davis, Buono lingers under the useful fiction that the world owes him everything, and is unforgivably late in delivering on its promise. Buono lives at home with his mother, whom he treats with condescension and cruelty. He's fat and unsuccessful but impeccably dressed, and he carries himself with a regal disdain for the considerations of the working world. In his mind, he's an artist, and a great one at that. His lofty sense of self becomes a protective shield against the degradations of a callous world. Davis and Buono are a match made in hell, deluded dreamers rotting away from the inside.
When Crawford conspires to leave her personal hell by secretly selling a dream house that has become a prison, Davis takes drastic action to keep her meal ticket from abandoning her, or worse, having her institutionalized. After killing their African-American maid, Davis takes Crawford along on a flight from Johnny Law, and their fraught, complicated relationship enters a grim endgame. Baby Jane ends with a melodramatic twist I will not give away, but that helps explain why Crawford would continue to put herself at the mercy of a woman who wishes her nothing but harm.
Director Robert Aldrich had a curiously bifurcated career. He directed the manliest of men's movies, Neanderthal classics of über-machismo like Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen, and The Longest Yard. But he was also an accomplished director of movies about women like Baby Jane, its unofficial follow-up Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and The Killing Of Sister George. That's actually not as much of a contradiction as it might seem. Aldrich made the opposite of chick flicks. The women, or rather tough dames, in his movies were more likely to exchange fisticuffs or barbed insults than recipes or gossip. The films he made for men and women (or, in the case of Baby Jane, men who dress up like women for fun and profit) were tough, darkly comic, uncompromising, and bracingly unsentimental. Baby Jane is no exception. It excels as both a warped psychodrama and pitch-black comedy. It's exhilarating seeing just how dark Aldrich and Davis are willing to go.
Whatever Happened To Baby Jane quickly developed a reputation as a cult and camp classic. Hungry for additional info on Baby Jane, I was disappointed to find that the audio commentary on the DVD comes from two men famous for pretending to be women, drag queen Lipsynka and Die, Mommie, Die! writer/star Charles Busch. It seemed like an implicit concession that Baby Jane was little more than a widely mocked and frequently parodied camp curio. I think it's much more than that. Like Psycho, it's paradoxically classy, artful trash, or a trashy art movie. There's something weirdly subversive about watching artists as towering and brilliant as Alfred Hitchcock or Bette Davis sink their fangs into such lurid, pulpy material. To me, Baby Jane isn't a camp classic or a cult classic so much as it's a straight-up classic.