Kathryn Sermak, Bette Davis’ assistant
Of course it was Robert Aldrich’s invention of ‘Grande Dame Guignol’ which caught the attention in 1962, and that fascination has endured right through to Ryan Murphy’s 2017 Tv mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan, which makes hay with the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? At a stroke, the film reactivated and revitalised the careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and opened up a new range of roles for older women stars generally. And by playing on the public perception that Davis and Crawford were not just rivals but actively hostile to each other in real life, the film courted a scandalous reputation of its own. As Aldrich noted in a 1974 interview, “The audience feels that they are privy to real-life secrets about Crawford and Davis”.
Aldrich needed a hit after the disaster of Sodom and Gomorrah, and there’s no doubt that Baby Jane was calculated to reactivate and revitalise his own career too. In hindsight, though, the film fits into a strand of Aldrich films about Hollywood, begun in The Big Knife (1955) and ended in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968). Those films show little interest in Hollywood Babylon-type gossip, but they follow Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard in assuming that Hollywood’s addiction to ego-driven fantasy can be deeply toxic. (Baby Jane Hudson’s delusions clearly descend from Gloria Swanson’s in Wilder’s film.) But Aldrich was also responding to the recent, seismic impact on Hollywood of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The monochrome photography and the visual and narrative shocks like the rat and the murder are obviously post-Psycho ideas; so are the emphases on the staircase in the old Hollywood house and the use of top-shots at moments of hysteria. Aldrich knew very well that the revelation in the film’s twist ending was pretty hokey (it comes from Farrell’s novel), but he finesses it into something characteristic of his best work: the business about the ice creams and the workaday dialogue of the cops is pure Aldrich.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo di Henry Farrell. Scen.: Lukas Heller. F.: Ernest Haller. M.: Michael Luciano. Scgf.: William Glasgow. Mus.: Frank DeVol. Int.: Bette Davis (Baby Jane Hudson), Joan Crawford (Blanche Hudson), Maidie Norman (Elvira Stitt), Victor Buono (Edwin Flagg), Anna Lee (signora Bates), Marjorie Bennett (Dehlia Flagg), Julie Allred (Baby Jane da giovane), Gina Gillespie (Blanche da giovane). Prod.: Robert Aldrich Associates & Aldrich Co., Inc. (Seven Arts Pictures Production). DCP. D.: 132’. Bn.
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