Sometimes I don’t understand why certain films get the amount of praise they get.
In some cases, like with “Vertigo” the praise is understood but often overblown when you look at Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work. While others, like “Casablanca” complete escape me as that film always manages to put me to sleep.
One film that has found a middle ground between these two cases is “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” Many people say that it serves as a capstone to both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’ careers and offers up a nice parallel to their acting rivalry. The two had always butted heads, ever since the beginning of their careers in the early 1930s when they fought for the same roles.
That is fair enough, since both Crawford and Davis had long careers that spanned decades and gave us some of the darkest and bitter performances in cinematic history, especially from Davis.
However, an element like that can only take the movie so far. That is something you look at after the fact, but does not do you much good as you watch the film. If the film fails to entertain you or keep your attention as it is happening, then no amount of hind sight is going to make it into a good experience.
When I look at any film, the main aspects I focus on are the story and the characters. To me, those points of “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” do not hold up. The story is repetitive and cliche, and the characters are so irritating that it makes me want to yell at the screen.
This is intriguing since, around the same time I watched “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” I also watched a similar film, “Misery.”
When I say these two movies are similar, I am talking about the story: A person, usually bound by a wheelchair, is being held captive against their will by someone who does not want them to leave.
In the case of “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” it is the crazy sister who doesn’t want her famous sibling to leave their house so that she’ll have another chance at stardom. With “Misery” it is an obsessed fan of a novel writer who wants this man to rewrite his most recent book so that her favorite character is reborn.
Over the course of both films, these captives make attempts to escape from their prison or contact the outside world but usually fail due to their plans falling apart, bad timing, or their captor finding out.
Which film is the stronger piece? Which one holds up and which is the more intense to watch?
Considering their stories are fairly similar, let’s look at the characters.
In “Misery,” Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is the novelist who broke his leg after a car accident and is slowly being nursed back to health by Anne Wilks (Kathy Bates). Once he realizes that he is a prisoner, he makes every sort of attempt to get out of there. He forces Anne to go into town to buy paper when he secretly uses that time to use a bobby-pin to sneak around the area. He collects the medicine from the pills Anne forces him to take and then puts it all in her wine when she isn’t looking.
Paul actively tries to escape and comes up with cunning plans while gathering more information about his captor, in an attempt to woe her over so that she could legitimately let him go. He is smart, quick on his feet, courageous and quick to the point.
With “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” on the other hand, Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) has been forced to live in a wheelchair for years now and spends most of her time in her mansion, which she shares with her sister, “Baby” Jane Hudson (Bette Davis). Jane resents Blanche for ruining her one chance at becoming a star and now wishes to do the same to her by keeping Blanche locked up in her own house. Blanche gets opportunities to escape, but is often scared or confused by what might happen or what could become of her sister if she found a way out. Therefore, she lets opportunities pass her by and essentially becomes a prisoner of her device.
Blanche is infuriating to watch. It is not like she comes with elaborate ways to escape and those plans fall apart. It’s more like she is petrified to do any sort of action that she ends up doing nothing. She is dimwitted, cowardly and wouldn’t know a good escape if it was handed to her.
Put yourself in the position of both Paul and Blanche and ask yourself what you would be more likely to do. Would you actively try to escape or talk your way out by making your captor see your way? Or would you just sit there, letting opportunities to escape pass you by and hope that another moment will come along?
Not only is Paul the more logical and active one against is captor, but is also the more suspenseful to watch. He can match the intelligence of Anne and even though he at a disadvantage by having his legs broken and being tied up to a bed, he can still find ways to thwart Anne.
Blanche, on the other hand, is far too forgiving of her wicked sister and never really tries to appeal to her humanity, other than telling Jane, “Please stop. This has gone too far.”
As for the antagonists of both pieces, they are both crazy and obsessed but for different things.
Jane wants what she feels rightfully belongs to her, stardom. She believes that Blanche is nothing compared to her and that she is the better actress. This has haunted her since the day Blanche became an actress and has made Jane want to one-up her at every opportunity.
Anne, on the other hand, offers up a calm and pleasant demeanor at first. Someone who is willing to nurse someone back to health after an accident. It isn’t until she find out that the man she is helping is her favorite novelist that things change. She becomes obsessed with him, as well as how she perceives these novels and their characters. So much so that she is willing to keep Paul around indefinitely until she gets what she wants. She believes this for everyone who has ever read one of Paul’s novels, but deep down she knows it is all for her.
While I don’t have as much of a problem with Jane as I do with Blanche, I believe that Anne is the better character. There is only one side to Jane: Obsession with the past. Everything she does is to go back to her wonderful days when she was Baby Jane, and nothing else.
Anne, however, has multiple sides to her. It is her ability to snap between the kindhearted nurse and the psychotic fangirl that makes a far more interesting character. To go from one side to the other gives her a bit of unpredictability, as well as sympathy.
I have no reason to relate to Jane, because of the terrible things she does to her sister. With Anne, her heart is in the right place when she takes Paul in. She does everything that she can to help him back to full health and to produce the best novel he has created.
I will give “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” enough credit to say that Bette Davis’ performance as Jane is terrifying yet sometimes funny to watch, the cinematography is eerie and off-putting and it does serve as a fascinating end to the rivalry between Davis and Crawford.
However, I believe that “Misery” is a superior film for its relatable and intense story, sympathetic and brave characters, genuine moments of suspense and tension and an atmosphere and setting that matches that tension of isolation and solitude.
While these two films are not exactly the same, they do have their share of similarities. Which is why I feel this comparison is fair, especially when one had me excited to see what would happen next and the other had me screaming about how the protagonist was a coward.