Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is sort of like the Heat of the 1960s, pairing Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (who, at the time, were both out of the spotlight) in a film that brought their off-screen rivalry to theaters. Rumors of romantic jealousy and a professional rivarly between the two actors had swirled for decades, and the promise of seeing them go head-to-head on the big screen made Baby Jane a must-see. 50 years later, the film has a reputation as a classic (possibly leaning toward cult), and Warner has decided to offer it up in both Blu-Ray and DVD Anniversary editions (more on this in the next section). The performances hold up, but some nagging issues muted the experience somewhat for this first-time viewer.
What I had heard of Baby Jane over the years had me expecting a different movie: a catty, bitter battle between two old crones about the glory days -- kind of like Sunsent Boulevard with two Norma Desmonds that hate each other (the overly grotesque cover art on this edition certainly doesn't help). In reality, it's more of a tragedy, with Blanche trying her best to do right by her sister and Jane doing whatever she can to resist her sister's kindness (I wonder if Davis thought it was "funny" that Crawford kept the martyr role and offered the "wacko" role to Davis). Despite all that's implied in putting two reportedly contentious actors together and giving them the opportunity to fight it out, the script isn't really written in a way that allows for sparks to fly; Jane is too crazy and Blanche too timid.
Still, both women are excellent. Crawford's Blanche has a fragile sadness to her that makes the audience wince a little extra whenever Jane goes after her -- the perfect victim. She seems so helpless, it's no wonder she relates to the wimpy little caged bird she keeps in her room, but it's a helplessness that stems from her desperate desire to be nice to her sister. Of course, if one must take sides (and I think, in the spirit of the film, one must!), it's Davis who steals the show, starting out bitter and hateful and slowly adding more shades to Jane's insanity. She infuses her terrible performance of "A Letter For Daddy" with both the internal earnestness of the character and the subjective sadness of the result without breaking a sweat.
What doesn't work so well about Baby Jane is the story, which requires three supporting characters (a doctor, a piano player, and worst of all, the sisters' housekeeper) to do three agonizingly stupid things in order for the story to continue. There's conveience and being na´ve, but the leaps of logic that screenwriter Lukas Heller and director Robert Aldrich require in a few segments goes far beyond suspension of disbelief. Even Blanche is surprisingly dim, attempting at least one strategy to get away from her sister that she executes in the least efficient way, then gives up on for a poor reason. There must be a way to rework these elements so less chance and stupidity are required, but in the finished product, they stick out like a gigantic sore thumb, significantly lowering the dramatic impact of the tragic story by making it clear too early that everyone's fate is sealed.
The DVD, Video, Audio, and Extras
In any case, this is the same 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from 2006, accompanied by English and French Dolby Mono tracks. Special features include a commentary with Charles Busch and John Epperson and the featurettes "Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition" (29:44), "Behind the Scenes With Baby Jane" (6:36), "All About Bette" (48:07), "Film Profile: Joan Crawford" (28:33), and a clip from "The Andy Williams Show" with Davis (2:04), as well as the movie's original theatrical trailer.