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January 20, 2011

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (Classic Film Pick)


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What-Ever-Happened-to-Baby-Jane-Poster Robert Aldrich's moody psychological thriller is at once and Gothic and postmodern. Real-life bitter rivals, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford play into their dueling reputations as child star sisters whose fates are inextricably woven together. The petite Davis is positively monumental as Baby Jane Hudson, a former vaudeville child performer who hit her peak in 1917 by singing a shamelessly sentimental number entitled "I've Written a Letter to Daddy." The song is about a little girl who mails a letter to her deceased father in heaven. As much as a spoiled brat as Jane is, her sister Blanche, harbors a seething jealousy that is unfathomable in its depth. Now it's 1935 in Los Angeles. The retired sisters live together in a compact mansion formerly owned by Valentino. Both had success in the movies, but Blanche enjoyed considerably more fame than Jane. It doesn't matter much anymore since Blanche was struck by a car--presumably driven by Jane--that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
A black maid named Elvira (Maidie Norman) visits the house weekly to do the cleaning and assist with Blanche's needs. Confined to a wheelchair in a second-floor bedroom, Blanche plans to put her abusive sister into a nursing home. With her face caked in white make-up Jane likes to present uncooked items to Blanche when she isn't treating her with more disdain than most people would reserve for their worst enemies. Jane plans on reviving her career. She enlists the assistance of a local pianist by the name of Edwin Flagg (unforgettably played by Victor Buono). Blanche is not without her own annoying habits. The buzzer she relentlessly presses to summon Jane interrupts the movie with a shrill noise that supplies an annoying subtext to Blanche's own twisted psychological state.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford own their self-destructive roles with virtuosic authority. The self-referential undertow of their silver-screen identities carries the drama to its disturbing conclusion with the weight of history upon it. "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane" is a legendary thriller worthy of its two great stars.


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