WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? “I didn’t bring your breakfast, because you didn’t eat your din-din.”

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – 1962 – 133 minutes – ★★★★

Directed by Robert Aldrich

Starring Bette Davis (Jane Hudson), Joan Crawford (Blanche Hudson), Victor Buono (Edwin Flagg), Marjorie Bennett (Dehlia Flagg), Maidie Norman (Elvira Stitt), B.D. Merrill (Liza Bates)

Where to watch:   Warner Bros. Anniversary Edition blu ray (Comes in collectible digibook, with loads of extra features).

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The new anthology series Feud debuts March 5 on FX, with season one (Bette and Joan) focusing on the often tortuous (and occasionally tortured) relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.   I expect good things from this series.  Creator Ryan Murphy hasn’t made a real misstep yet, and the casting of Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in the starring roles certainly looks promising.  So this seems like a perfect time to take a look at the movie that launched the titular feud.

The movie opens on the vaudeville stage, with a young blond girl singing and dancing for a star-struck crowd.  She is not only a popular performer, but a bit of a marketing phenomenon as well.  Her father hawks life-size Baby Jane dolls (with matching blond ringlets) from the stage.   Jane’s dark-haired sister Blanche stands in the wings, radiating envy.  Not only does Jane get all the attention, she is also a spoiled brat.

Twenty years later, the tables have turned.  Blanche is a popular Hollywood actress, while her sister Jane struggles to keep herself out of the bottle long enough to act coherently.  One night after a party, an accident occurs, leaving Blanche paralyzed.  Did her own sister run her down?

This is the set-up of the movie, which jumps to the early 60’s, where we find Blanche (Joan Crawford) dependent on her sister Jane (Bette Davis) for her care.  Jane is resentful of her sister’s popularity before the accident, which had eclipsed her own, and resentful for having to care for her.   Jane is drinking far too much.  She also appears to be going completely bonkers.

This film does a marvelous job of slowly increasing the tension, as Jane’s behavior towards her sister grows more sadistic.  We begin to wonder if Blanche can possibly survive her sister’s cruelty.   I found myself really rooting for Blanche by the end of the film, which has an ending as strange and unpredictable as the movie deserves.

The first time I saw this movie was on late-night cable, maybe 15 years ago, and my memories were of rather campy performances.  Seeing it again, I was astonished at what a well-made film it is.  The bulk of the movie takes place in the Hudson sisters’ house, and the black-and-white cinematography, set design, musical score, and Oscar-winning costumes all combine to create a perfectly realized setting.   The acting is quite good throughout.  Joan Crawford creates a truly sympathetic character (and it takes a lot for me to sympathize with Joan Crawford.  Ever since seeing Mommie Dearest on HBO when I was about 10, she has thoroughly creeped me out).   And sure, Bette Davis’ performance does become campy at times, but in this particular role, I don’t think the term “too much” applies.

If you read enough of my reviews, you know I’m all about the character actors.  So I have to mention a couple. Victor Buono chews up the scenerey in his Oscar-nominated supporting role as a petulant man-child who is able to transform himself into a charming, Peter Ustinov-sounding English gentleman to woo Bette Davis out of some cash. Poor Victor died very young, but left his mark in this and a couple other fine roles.   And Maidie Norman is great as the housekeeper, who brings both tenderness and strength to her role.  Maidie had a long and prolific career, mostly in television.  If you are my age, you probably saw her in 15 different shows and never realized it.

Director Robert Aldrich had a very solid career, and he is almost forgotten today.  He basically launched the “crazy old lady” (some prefer “psycho biddy”) sub-genre with this movie, which had many imitators (most famously Aldrich’s own Hush, Hush  Sweet Charlotte).

The Feud series contends that the movie studio encouraged on-set rancor between the two stars.  I don’t know if that is true, but it certainly didn’t bleed over into the finished film.  (Well, Bette Davis does really seem to be enjoying herself when slapping and kicking Joan around).  It is rumored that  Crawford was upset when Davis received an Oscar nomination and she did not.  Bette Davis believed that Joan Crawford was campaigning against her, which may have contributed to her loss.  Or maybe, dear Bette, Anne Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker because she deserved it.   At any rate, Crawford had the last laugh.  Because Anne Bancroft was unable to attend the ceremony, and Crawford made arrangements in advance to accept the award on Bancroft’s behalf if she won.  Crawford’s smile as she walks out to accept the award  is certainly quite gleeful.  How much of that is because Bancroft won, and how much because Davis lost?

At any rate, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a good psychological thriller that holds up well after 55 years.  Below you can watch the clip of Joan Crawford accepting Anne Bancroft’s Oscar for Best Actress.

 

 

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Grosse Pointe Blank: “I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How have you been?”

Grosse Pointe Blank – 1997 – 107 minutes.   ★★★1/2

Directed by George Armitage.

Starring:  John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Joan Cusack, Dan Aykroyd, Alan Arkin, Jeremy Piven, Hank Azaria.

Where to watch:  15th Anniversary blu -ray (which unfortunately contains no extra features other than a standard format trailer).

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Early in this film, the character Martin Blank (John Cusack) receives word of his upcoming ten-year high school reunion.  Most viewers will relate to Martin’s anxiety surrounding this event.  To go or not to go?  What will it be like to see everyone after so many years?  What if he runs into his old flame, a girl that he still hasn’t gotten over?  And the person he has been hired to assassinate, should he kill him before or after the reunion?  OK, maybe that last part is not so relatable.

Martin is a paid assassin,  who is good at what he does, and claims to have no moral qualms.  “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to deserve it” he tells his psychiatrist.  Martin is having recurring dreams about his high school sweetheart, Debi (Minnie Driver).  He stood her up on prom night, and still has some anxiety.  Of course this is nothing compared to the anxiety his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) experiences, because he has a killer for a client.

Martin Blank is being pressured by a business rival, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) to join an assassin’s guild of sorts.  Martin wants no part of it, which makes Grocer unhappy.  It is at this point that Martin has a job opportunity in the same area that his reunion will take place, so he decides, after some prodding from his business partner (Joan Cusack) to kill two birds with one stone.  He can take out his target, and go to the reunion.

The rest of the movie is set around reunion weekend in Grosse Pointe, Michigan (hence the movie’s clever title).   The story is really two stories happening at once.  The drama of returning home after ten years, and reconnecting with family, friends and lovers;  and the day to day workings of an assassin who is himself being targeted by more than one person.

While this mixing of tone may not work for everyone, ultimately the film is funny, charming, and entertaining.   When Martin reconnects with Debi, there is a genuine chemistry between the two, which is fun to watch in all of their scenes together.  The ending of the movie does not quite work for me.  It is a bit frustrating to watch a movie that takes chances, and mixes tone well, kind of give up on itself in the last fifteen minutes, becoming very predictable.

The performances are great, throughout,  Cusack is a unique actor.  Give him the right material, and he fills a niche that nobody else could touch.  Come to think of it, one could say the same about his sister, Joan, who is also good in this movie.  Minnie Driver is just pitch perfect in her role.  Aykroyd plays his part over the top (does he know any other way?) but it works here.   Alan Arkin plays his small part so well,  you would swear it was written expressly for him.  This film is also a reminder that Jeremy Piven was funny before he became a total dickhead.

Director George Armitage is a bit of a mystery.  He came up in the stable of young directors that got their start under Roger Corman. (I don’t think you can overstate how influential a figure Corman has been to cinema). Armitage first made a name for himself with Miami Blues in 1990, which received positive reviews, but didn’t make a ton of money.  He didn’t direct again until this movie in 1997.  Why the long gap?  Grosse Pointe Blank would be the critical and commercial peak of Armitage’s career.  Another 7 years would pass before his next film, The Big Bounce, which was panned by critics and lost a lot of money.  Since then, Armitage hasn’t directed anything.  Again, I don’t understand the gap.   One would think he could have parleyed his success from Grosse Pointe Blank into other movie offers.

One cannot talk about Grosse Pointe Blank without talking about music.  The movie features snippets of dozens of songs, predominantly 80’s New Wave.  Minnie Driver’s character, Debi, is a DJ at the local radio station, which is an excuse to squeeze even more songs into the movie.  The late, great Joe Strummer of The Clash scored some music for the movie as well.  There is a great moment that features Guns ‘n Roses version of “Live and Let Die”, segueing into a muzak version of the same song as Cusack enters a convenience store.  I’m not sure if that was Stummer’s idea or not, but it’s a subtle moment that works well. I remember seeing this in the theater with my best friend Tom, and we both laughed at this moment.

This movie turns 20 this year, and it has aged pretty well.   So, if you like:  John Cusack, dark comedies, 80’s alternative music, or people getting stabbed in the neck with pens, this is the movie for you.  It is far from perfect, but it takes chances, and just like Martin Blank, it hits its mark more than it misses.