Academic Writing

Monday, February 14, 2011

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Still Creepy After All These Years

Earlier this month TCM embarked on its annual “31 Days of Oscar” schedule where they play a month’s worth of Oscar nominated films. And I, in turn, embarked on my annual, “fill up the DVR month with olde timey movies.” The first of the films which I sat down to watch was Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Surprisingly, after 6 years of formal film education and over 25 years of personal movie-going I have never seen this particular film. I’m the first to admit that even as a film buff and scholar there is a whole cannon of films that not only have I never seen, but have no interest in seeing. This, for a long time, was one of them. You see, scary movies are not my thing at all. Some people enjoy being frightened and find scary movies to be somewhat cathartic. Again, I do not. Scary movies stay with me and penetrate my subconscious and result in nightmares and even the inability to walk down dark hallways without my back to a wall.

Despite my reservations, I thought it was time to watch this classic film with two legends of Hollywood, so I took my chances. Plus, I thought it’s a black and white film from the early 1960s, I’m probably desensitized by modern filmmaking technology and if I can handle Psycho, I can handle this.

For those of you not familiar with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane it’s a film about two washed up Hollywood actresses Jane (Bette Davis) and Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford, both in probably semi-ironic roles as this was one of the last major film roles for both actresses). Jane was a well known child star jealous of her older sister Blanche who’s career took off later in life after her own had cooled off. Blanche is now confined to a wheel chair and left to be cared for by Jane who has been carrying the guilt thinking it was her who injured her sister so severely. But the years of guilt and drinking lead to a descent into madness and to ease the torment Jane grows to resent her sister and ultimately abuse her.

So does this movie, called “campy” by Robert Osborne when he introduced the film on TCM, hold up? Absolutely. The themes of jealousy, betrayal, family allegiance, nostalgia for a bygone era all hold up 50 years after the film’s release. I found myself having visceral reactions to the same things that the original audiences were meant to react. Bette Davis’ psychoanalytical depiction of a washed up child star clinging onto the vestiges of her former life, dressing, speaking, and singing as she did as a child and introducing herself as “Baby Jane” to people who clearly are too young to have any clue who she might be are painfully sad. She wishes for a time where she was the object of everyone’s affection and center of attention and is unable to come to terms with the fact that her glory days are behind her. Today we can recognize our own culture as celebrity obsessed, and how that celebrity can destroy the lives of those at the center of attention. It’s interesting that while we might think that in our world where the proliferation of media and celebrity culture permeates our daily lives in unprecedented ways, we’re not all that much different from those that came before us.

Furthermore, her relationship with Blanche is a catalyst for the descent. Blanche is a beloved former actress who still receives mail from adoring fans and who, despite her sister’s abuse, still treats her with respect. It’s only when Blanche realizes that Jane is keeping her visitors at bay, stealing her money, and ultimately turning violent does she futilely fight back.

At different and distinct moments in this film I found myself cringing and turning away from the actions on screen. For instance, to torment her sister, for whom she makes lunch each day, she serves her dead pets and vermin found in the basement on the fancy silver serving-ware. I mistakenly watching this movie alone at night and had to turn it off before bed and watch a light sitcom before falling asleep, and yet woke up still feeling creeped out by it. “The Movies” have yet proven, once again, that certain images and themes of human nature are timeless and cannot be rendered obsolete by decades of newer films. I can proudly say I made it through the entire movie (the same cannot be said about all scary movies I’ve embarked on), but despite its age, Baby Jane is not dated and still holds up and is eerily accurate and left me feeling the same as a number modern day movies which are supposedly more timely.

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