What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a tough sell for a "hey, want to pop in a movie and relax?" kind of movie. For this reason, I hadn't seen it in its entirety since college*, and had to do some convincing to get Jamie to watch the movie with me - but she soldiered through,and I think she liked it again.
I will do what a straight dude in 2013 will rarely do and admit a lot of affection for Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, even though the number of films I have seen each of them in is fairly small.** By this point in both of their careers, the two weren't considered bankable stars, and while we tend to think of the early 60's as a conservative time, it's almost impossible to imagine this movie getting made today - and getting an audience to look up from their phones long enough to pay attention.
It doesn't help, either that what 50 meant in 1962 is not at all what 50 means in 2013 (did you see Jodie Foster at the Golden Globes?).
If Sunset Boulevard is what happens when stardom fades but you create a world in which it never really went, then What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is where childhood fame gave way to harsh realities far too early.
Both Crawford and Davis give amazingly brave performances, both physically demanding and playing on the faded glory and refusing to soften the lines of age - in fact, in Davis's case, creating new ones.
If you aren't clear on the story, it sets up before the titles. David plays "Baby Jane" Hudson, a vaudevillian child star who, by the 30's, was eclipsed by the Joan Crawford-like success of her older sister in the movies, where Baby Jane never really made it. One night, heading home, a drunk Jane causes an accident and Blanche is permanently paralyzed. Flashforward 25- 30 years, and the pair have lived together the whole time, with the accident and a lifetime of quarrels between them, and Blanche in a chair, living on the second floor.
And Baby Jane kind of snaps.
It's spooky, and sad and more resonant than you'd think. But it's also so batshit crazy as a movie that it rides the razor edge with camp thoughout. Davis, after all, was nominated for Best Actress, for her part. Crawford, who was not, refused to be upstaged, and in a supreme bit of Crawfordism - accepted the award for Bancroft for The Miracle Worker.
That, my firends, is a stone cold player move.
Watching Davis and Crawford is somewhat difficult, but mostly because the story works so well, and the direction and camera work so well crafted. The script is from an era when Hollywood was letting a few more stray adult ideas fly, blue language was creeping in, and movies didn't need to imply so much to prevent the accidental attendee from getting a case of the vapors.
And, of course, once you've seen it, a second viewing is almost necessary.
Anyway, if its not in your queue, it should be.
*and I still haven't seen Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.