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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had a lot in common — both started out as dancing starlets in the 1930s, they found powerful mentors who helped them claw their way up through the studio system, they created iconic public images for themselves. And, after using their star-power to demand the juiciest roles, they became the reigning queens at their respective studios. For reasons that are lost to history, they also engaged in a legendary public feud, no doubt fueled by their jealousy of each other's greatest strengths. Crawford, the top female actress at MGM, was the epitome of glamour, and her public image was one of grace, sophistication, and beauty, an image which Davis — who often acknowledged that she wished she were prettier — hungrily wanted for herself. And Crawford, who yearned to be considered more than just a movie star, was jealous of Davis's position at Warner Brothers as a serious thespian, coming as she did from the New York stage and garnering an impressive ten Oscar nominations for Best Actress over the course of her career. The actual event that began their feud may have been a rivalry for the affections of Franchot Tone, who was seeing Crawford while starring in the film Dangerous (1935) with Davis, who had designs on him. But the true extent of their loathing for each other is impossible to determine — both said things to fuel the fire over the years, yet both also went on record several times attributing the feud to the press. Many of their most infamous put-downs are most likely apocryphal (Davis reportedly said of Crawford that "slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie"), but their professional rivalry appeared to be genuine. Thus, it's not much of surprise that they never appeared in a film together until What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Robert Aldrich's strange, funny, frightening Grand Guignol thriller about aging sisters and their poisonous rivalry.

On the vaudeville circuit, "Baby Jane" Hudson (Davis) was enormously popular — but her success was eclipsed by that of her sister, Blanche (Crawford), who became a movie star. One night in the 1930s there was a car accident, blamed on Jane, which crippled Blanche for life. Thirty years later, the pair live together in a musty old Hollywood mansion, with the bitter, alcoholic, bugnuts-crazy Jane caring for her passive-aggressive invalid sister as she dreams of making a comeback. With Jane becoming more and more unhinged, Blanche puts their house up for sale and tries to get psychiatric help for her sister, but when Jane serves up first Blanche's beloved parakeet and, later, a dead rat on her lunch tray, she begins to realize how dangerous it is to remain trapped upstairs at her sister's mercy. Meanwhile, a British composer who lives with his mother (Victor Buono, in his first film role) answers an ad that Jane places for a musical director, leading to some very creepy flirting on Jane's part. Blanche makes a perilous trip down the stairs to call the shrink for help, leading to a terrifying beating at Jane's hands and further confinement. Sinking ever further into madness, Jane commits a murder, and Blanche confesses a terrible secret to Jane about the accident that changed both of their lives.

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How What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? came to be made is another issue that's confused by conflicting stories. One version has Joan Crawford reading the novel by Henry Farrell and approaching Bette Davis after a stage performance to suggest they do it together. Others credit director Robert Aldrich with coaxing the two stars into making the movie — Davis had been unable to get work for some time, even going so far as to put a not-quite tongue-in-cheek "job wanted" ad in Variety in 1961. However it happened, it was a press agent's dream come true — The New York Times trumpeted the project with the headline "TNT — Potential Explosion Seen in Pairing of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford," and the picture, released on Halloween, was an enormous hit, becoming the first Hollywood film to ever earn back its budget in one weekend. Baby Jane received five Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Costume Design. Viewers judging the movie by today's standards may find it campy and kind of silly, but its impact was enormous at the time of its release. To see two stars of Crawford and Davis's caliber turn so monstrous on screen was electrifying, and the film was so successful that it created an entire genre of macabre horror-thrillers starring aging movie stars, including Lady in a Cage, Who Slew Auntie Roo?, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (also directed by Aldrich and starring Davis), Die, Die My Darling, Strait-Jacket, The Nanny, and What's the Matter with Helen?. Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, which must have irked Crawford, and several of the film's set pieces — the dead rat, Davis' psychotic delivery of the song "I've Written a Letter to Daddy" — hold places as some of Hollywood's most memorable screen moments. The picture's pacing is odd, sometimes feeling overly stagy, but the scenes where Crawford and Davis pull out all the stops and try to bulldoze each other with their acting are still hypnotic.

Warner Home Video's two-disc special edition DVD release of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, part of "The Bette Davis Collection: Vol. 2," offers an uneven — but mostly very good — anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with strong low-contrast details. Most of the black-and-white image is very clean, but some scenes are notably worse than others, with the film's ending — a day-for-night scene on a beach — much fuzzier than the rest of the movie with notable collateral wear. The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio (in English or French, with optional English, French or Spanish subtitles) is quite good, offering a clear mix of dialogue and Frank DeVol's melodramatic score. Extras include a commentary by Charles Busch (writer/star of Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommy, Die) and John Epperson, whose alter-ego is the drag star Lypsinka. However, those hoping for a catty yack-track, along the lines of John Waters' commentary on Paramount's Mommie Dearest DVD, will find that the two take their roles as commentators seriously, and while they do provide historical background on the actresses, they also spend too much time explaining what's on screen. Disc Two offers "Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition," a featurette comparing the careers of the two stars (30 min.); "Behind the Scenes with Baby Jane," a promotional trailer from 1962 (7 min.); a bizarre two-min. clip from "The Andy Williams Show" featuring Davis singing a terrible novelty pop-rock song from the movie; a British television profile of Joan Crawford that features an interview with the actress (28 min.); and a Turner Classic Pictures documentary on Bette Davis, narrated by Jodie Foster (48 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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