'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?' & 'The Women' at theCastro
by Tavo Amador
Because there aren't any modern cinematic equivalents, it's difficult to imagine the intense media buzz created by the teaming of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Think pairing Madonna and Lady Gaga in a lesbian version of A Star Is Born. Baby Jane and George Cukor's The Women (1930) play the Castro Theatre on Fri., Aug. 17.
Davis and Crawford, as themselves, had appeared in Hollywood Canteen (1944), but had no scenes together. When Jane was announced, Crawford had been off the screen for three years, her longest absence in a career that began in 1925. Davis was unhappily on Broadway in Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana (1961), but her role was secondary to top-billed Margaret Leighton's, who won a Tony for her performance. Crawford found the novel, gave it to Davis suggesting they co-star, then sent copies to Robert Aldrich and Alfred Hitchcock. Aldrich agreed to direct. The budget was small. Warner Bros., where in 1945 Crawford had dethroned Davis as Queen of the Lot, agreed to distribute it.
Blanche Hudson (Crawford), a Hollywood star of the 1930s, has for years been wheelchair-bound following an automobile accident. She lives in a gloomy mansion with her younger sister, Jane (Davis), a slovenly, alcoholic ex-child star planning a comeback. Blanche has her own plans for the unstable Jane, but has been reluctant to implement them. Their simmering rivalry boils over when a local television station runs some of Blanche's old movies, triggering fresh fan mail and the gushing admiration of a neighbor. Furious, Jane dismisses her sister's movies as "Crap!" Aware of Blanche's intentions, Jane begins harassing her. As the torments increase, the ever more isolated Blanche takes action, with unforeseen consequences.
In the title role, top-billed Davis earned her 10th Best Actress Oscar nomination. She found the pathos in someone once used to the spotlight, only to have the bulb permanently burn out, driving her mad. It's a ferocious performance, enhanced by ghastly make-up and unflattering clothes. Crawford, whose work was ignored by the Academy, has her moments, especially when lifting herself down the stairs to get to the telephone, and in her final scenes. But often her Blanche is so understanding of Jane that she seems idiotic. With Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg, Jane's possible pianist/accompanist, Madie Norman as Elvira, the housekeeper who recognizes Jane's lunacy long before Blanche does, and B.D. Merrill, Davis' real-life daughter, atrocious as the girl next door.
Aldrich's direction is suspenseful. Lukas Heller wrote the darkly comic screenplay, based on Henry Farrell's novel. Ernest Haller was the cinematographer. Norma Koch designed the Oscar-winning costumes.
Although Davis gloated over getting most of the acclaim, Crawford had the last laugh. When the Best Actress Oscar was presented, she accepted it for absentee winner Anne Bancroft. Crawford's beaming picture was on newspaper front pages around the world. By taking a smaller fee up-front and a bigger percentage of the (potential) profits than Davis, she also earned more money – the film made a fortune. And, as she regularly reminded writers, Blanche was a much bigger star than Jane. Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave starred in the unexciting 1991 remake.
Twenty-three years earlier, Crawford, needing a hit, played her first bitch in The Women (1939). Clare Boothe's successful Broadway comedy about the mores of New York society ladies was given the deluxe MGM treatment. Norma Shearer, officially the studio's top actress, got first billing as Mary Haines. A gossipy manicurist inadvertently tells Mary that her husband Stephen is having an affair with perfume sales clerk Crystal Allen (Crawford). Devastated, Mary asks her not to repeat the story, but it's too late. She had already revealed the news to Mary's vicious cousin, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), who immediately told their mutual friend, Edith Potter (Phyllis Povah).
In a memorable scene, Mary confronts Crystal while the latter tries on outfits in a stylish clothing store's dressing room. She tells her Stephen won't like what she's wearing. "Thanks," cracks Crystal, "but when Stephen doesn't like what I have on, I take it off." Mary goes to Reno for a divorce. Others seeking marital dissolutions include the Countess de Lave (the glorious Mary Boland) and Miriam Aarons (the appealing Paulette Goddard). Mary's young friend Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine), only recently wed, arrives in Reno as well, reluctantly intending to end her marriage. Unexpectedly, they're joined by Sylvia, whose husband Howard has been unfaithful. When she learns that Miriam is the other woman, the two engage in a hair-pulling fight.
Cukor gets terrific performances from Crawford, Russell, Boland, Goddard, Povah, and the exquisite, pre-Rebecca Fontaine. Shearer weeps and suffers. She's so noble in her final scene that audiences may want to slap her. With Marjorie Main, Hedda Hopper, Virginia Grey, Lucille Watson, and Virginia Weidler. The opening credits are very funny. Anita Loos and Jane Murfin wrote the vitriolic screenplay. Adrian designed the often hideously campy costumes. Perhaps he wanted to show how awful many of these women, especially Sylvia, were.
Shearer graciously waived her contract provision that she be the only actress billed above the title for Crawford, who repaid the favor by upstaging her throughout the picture. With only a few scenes to film and knowing she couldn't be replaced, Russell feigned illness. Recovery was contingent upon getting above-the-title billing. She got it, but in smaller letters than Shearer and Crawford. The studio advertised the exclusively female movie as being "all about men." It was a smash. A disappointing 1955 remake, The Opposite Sex , with June Allyson, Joan Collins, Ann Miller, Ann Sheridan, Dolores Gray, Agnes Moorehead and Joan Blondell, included men. A 2008 version, with Meg Ryan, Eva Mendes, and Annette Bening, wonderful as Sylvia, did poorly.