Sunset Boulevard and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? get compared a lot. And it’s true that they’re basically the same movie, in the same way that Titanic and Apocalypse
Sunset Boulevard and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? get compared a lot. And it’s true that they’re basically the same movie, in the same way that Titanic and Apocalypse Now are the same movie: two films about long-distance boat trips with troubled endings. Never let anybody tell you that Hollywood didn’t make shocking cinema between the Hays Code and the rise of the auteur – What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has all the hallmarks of the gut-punch ur-exploitation movies the world grew to love, and it’s older than almost any of them. It opens with the titular child star (played later in her life by the incomparable Bette Davis) singing a maudlin and deeply unsettling love song to her own dead father — this movie has a lot to say about the devil’s bargain the movie business makes with child stars — revealing the young Shirley-Temple-type to be a spoiled bully offstage. But as Baby Jane’s star falls, and her more talented sister Blanche (the incredible Joan Crawford) sees her own career rise, the two of them get locked in a crocodilian death spiral that lasts the rest of their miserable lives.
Famously, Davis and Crawford hated each other. Really, truly hated each other. How director Robert Aldrich got them both in this movie is baffling; how he simultaneously got two huge former movie stars on the downslope of their careers to play has-been former movie-star monster-people assailing each other with contempt and actual violence is miraculous. There are tons of urban legends about how bad things got between the two on the set (and we wish we could spend several thousand more words talking just about the careers of these two amazing actresses) but it almost doesn’t matter — the poison on the screen is transfixing. Most classic, campy, cult movies get that way because when their po-faced attempts at drama tip over into melodrama, it’s hilarious. Baby Jane isn’t hilarious; it starts out horrific and just gets more so. Her makeup! The fighting! Those meals! That staircase! Your inability to get Mommie Dearest out of your head! Come watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and leave as wrung out and breathless as ever.
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