bette davis

Is What Ever Happened to Baby Jane the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Trailers were very different in the 1960s, which is how we come to the marketing strategy for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane before release in 1962. An ominous voice explains that this is a horror picture and it features Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as we’ve never seen them before. Strangely, the narration cautions that viewers need to know that before they decide to see it, and then demands further: “We beg you, as the tension builds to the screaming point, as shock after shock assaults your senses, try to remember that this is only a motion picture. Try and remember!”

This is a big claim to live up to, especially the insistence that we might forget this isn’t a real event. Once you take in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, though, you begin to understand why this was the angle. The stars really hated each other, famously, and the professional conflict was so rich that it spawned an entire season of television more than four decades later.

Feud was supposed to be a series of individual seasons of feuds between famous figures. It was cancelled after one season, so it exists as a standalone eight episodes called Bette and Joan about the production of and response to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I watched it before I saw the film, and I do think that’s the order you should do it in if you haven’t seen either one and are going to watch both. Susan Sarandon is particularly good as Bette Davis, despite the big shoes to fill. Jessica Lange gives a quieter, maybe more convincing, portrayal of Joan Crawford. It’s all kinda true and probably real and maybe this is something, is the vibe you get, and as long as that lens stays it holds together.

It’s hard to divorce the film from that context. These are two of the biggest stars in film history at the end of their careers, playing characters well past the end of their careers, and it is deliberately metatextual. I don’t know how much intent you can assign, but Davis and Crawford knew that their performances as washed-up characters would be read as commentary on their respective places in Hollywood. Davis went much bigger with a much crazier role and ended up nominated for an Oscar, but even with that, this is the end for both of them. They had to know that was a possibility.

Roger Ebert spends an entire paragraph of his review of the film debunking a story about one actress kicking the other hard enough to require stiches during production. It’s time swell spent, because there is a lot more discourse about how this got made than there is about what actually got made. I realize this a long runway at this point, but it’s necessary because what is on the screen isn’t as important as what happened around it. By marketing the movie this way, the studio co-opted decades of film history and fan appreciation for two legendary performers. It must be reckoned with before you even talk about the plot.

Bette Davis plays “Baby Jane” Hudson, who was a child star that couldn’t translate success into adulthood. Joan Crawford is her older sister Blanche, who was jealous as a child but grew into a star with a higher ceiling. Blanche’s career is cut short by a car accident that leaves her paralyzed and we open with her under the care of the very drunk, very sad “Baby Jane.”

There are a lot of places to take that opening and most of them aren’t good. The go-to from more modern film is probably Misery, another bedridden piece of tension driven by a maniac’s unwillingness to release their “captive.” Both films look at different causes for mania, but it’s hard to not see one in the other, depending on which you’ve seen first. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane really hammers home the fact that “Baby Jane” is jealous and furious with her sister and that she is never going to let this go.

The word you will find in reviews of this movie is “camp.” Nearly everyone calls it campy because of Bette Davis’ makeup and her choice to play “Baby Jane” at 11/10 the entire time. She screeches half of her lines and somehow escalates her already way-too-big performance into even more during the climax. By the end of the movie, she’s barely human. It’s a really risky set of decisions and it really is fairly exhausting to watch.

Crawford’s fear, however, feels very real. When you get lost in the conflict, it’s in the moments that Blanche is alone, scheming, trying to find a way out of a room she knows she can’t leave. The conflict between the sisters (on and off screen) is the hook, but I think the struggle is more fascinating when “Baby Jane” is an off-screen threat.

The secondary characters force Crawford and Davis to advance their rivalry, but mostly it’s the two stars. The climax is anything but predictable, but it’s also not really the point. The ending is ambiguous, as much because that’s a more compelling choice as it is a choice that doesn’t really change the experience. The journey is generally more important than the destination, but it’s especially true for a movie that depends on rising tension as much as this one.

I was genuinely surprised by what What Ever Happened to Baby Jane turned out to be, given the world around it. It’s much more suspenseful than the “camp” legacy would suggest and Crawford especially turns in a performance that I think is worth seeing. Bette Davis risked more, to be sure, and she is rightfully the one who got the credit, but just like in the dramatic representation of Feud, the quieter choice seems harder to pull off. You need both or you don’t have a monster movie, though, and that’s certainly what this is. The best bits are in the middle, which is bittersweet as a commentary on Crawford and Davis as well as the film itself, but that’s how most things go. It’s also fascinating to see what comes after, for people who are willing to envision an “after.”

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I do think this is a better movie than Aguirre, Wrath of God. Both feature a mad, boiled-over main character who rages at everyone else. Aguirre is even bigger than Baby Jane, mostly because of circumstance and the sword and armor he’s got, but both of them would probably handle each other’s circumstances the same way. These are two similar character studies, but the focus in Herzog’s film on only the character study, with nothing else, limits what that movie can say.

Is it the best movie of all time? Yep, on this short list of three so far, I think so far What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is the current best movie of all time. I don’t really care for the twist ending, which isn’t giving anything away to say, and I really like Roger Ebert’s point in his review that the premise here is a little thin. Why do these people live together and why is “Baby Jane” in charge, given how she barely is able to move around in the world? It doesn’t matter for the panic to feel real, but it would for the thing to hold together completely.

You can watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane for $1.99 on Amazon. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Worst Best Picture: Is All About Eve Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1950 winner All About Eve. Is it better than Crash?

There is just about nothing that needs to be said about All About Eve in 2014. It’s one of the movies that even someone with no reverence for old film will recognize as a “classic” from the list of Oscar winners. It’s a black-and-white Shakespearean-style story of betrayal and trust. Nothing needs to be said about a classic, but even though the stone has been unturned a million times I feel confident that no one has compared it to Crash.

All About Eve is the story of being replaced. Aging (for 1950, 40 is apparently “aging”) actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is at the top of her game. She’s got her name in light bulbs, she’s got a sassy maid, and she’s got love in her life. She accepts one of her biggest fans, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), as a personal assistant. Eve is the perfect assistant — maybe too perfect — and when Margo finds her dancing in front of a mirror with one of her costumes, the whole “girl next door” vibe breaks down.

If you want to read about everything that happens in All About Eve you can look elsewhere for it. Essentially, Eve tries to become the new Margo and does so. There are attempted seductions, drunken parties, and successful instances of blackmail. The story is unassailable: it’s been done over and over since then, and you stand a good chance in this era to have seen a parody of it before the original. It earned a The Simpsons episode. That’s how we measure how lasting something is, right?

The high note of All About Eve is in the disastrous party where Margo first believes that Eve has come for her throne. She’s right, of course, but she plays her hand too drunk and too early. No one else in their shared life believes her, and Margo is labelled a paranoid diva. As with every relationship, the fear of something manifests it faster than anything else could. Margo is worried about Eve taking her role and so Eve takes her damn role.

The comparisons to Crash aren’t easy with this one. The best way to do it is probably with the climaxes of the two films. The drunken party where Margo unleashes the classic “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” line is too early to be a climax, but it’s definitely the defining, lasting element of All About Eve. Margo turns on the rage before the night even starts in accusing her boyfriend of trying to spend extra time with Eve. She accuses the other partygoers of trying to surround themselves with younger women. She pounds drinks and rages, unsuccessfully, in front of a crowd that includes a very young Marilyn Monroe.

The scene is lasting because it achieves the goals and goes steps further. All the scene has to do is establish that Margo fears Eve and that no one believes her. It manages to play out this paranoia and still be funny, even out of the context of a 1950 audience. One bit of wordplay, “stop acting like I’m the Queen Mother” met with “outside of a beehive, Margo, your behavior would hardly be considered either queenly or motherly!” works both as the film’s typical theater-style banter and as an actual joke. This movie about the theater manages to straddle the fine line between being “quick” and being “funny” even more than half a century later.

Crash isn’t 10 years old yet. The big scene in Crash is a car accident where some people almost die. Compared to the rest of Crash, it is filled with meaning and pathos. Compared to another movie that has the same award, it feels completely lifeless. The characters feel totally unrealized. There is no big takeaway. There is no “lesson,” for as much as the people behind Crash demanded that there be absolutely nothing but lessons.

But Crash never asked to be All About Eve, you say? It’s not fair to compare two movies from different time periods? One of the reasons very few comedies have ever been considered for the Best Picture award is that comedy is the product of a time period. All About Eve is funny, to be sure, but a lot of the “quick wit” is more “ha-ha funny” than actually funny. All of it holds up, though, because it has to. By giving a movie the title of BEST PICTURE, the statement is made that this movie will always hold up. Crash is not an accurate depiction of 2005. It already feels dated, even when compared with a movie that won the same award at a ceremony hosted by Fred Astaire.

The Best Part: The party, oh, the party. Or George Sanders, who is an absolutely amazing monster in this movie. I nearly wrote 4,000 words about if he is a hero or villain, but to hear that you’ll have to buy me five drinks and sacrifice a Tuesday night.

The Worst Part: During one scene in New Haven, two characters walk down the street away from a theater. It is the only scene in the entire movie that couldn’t have been shot today. You could shoot this scene better with a green towel and six dollars now.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashYou know how sometimes people ask you a hypothetical question, but you’re not paying attention and you think they’ve lost their mind entirely? All About Eve has one of the AFI top-10 movie quotes of all time. Crash has a scene where someone looks scornfully at someone for an attempted child murder.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump |

 Image credit: IMDB