Here’s the viewing quandary of the week: Because of the competitive February sweeps period, the two most interesting, unusual shows on television this week are on opposite each other: ABC’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the first night of NBC’s two-part miniseries Love, Lies and Murder. If I were you, I’d watch Baby Jane on Sunday when it’s broadcast and tape both nights of Love, Lies to watch later, in one nerve-racking session after the sweeps are over and reruns are again pervasive. This is one reason VCRs were invented.
The original, 1962 version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? starred, you may recall, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as sisters, child film stars from the ’30s grown elderly in a Hollywood that has forgotten them. Failure had driven them both a bit crazy, and Davis spent the movie terrorizing a wheelchair-bound Crawford. Reviewing the movie at the time in Esquire, critic Dwight Macdonald described the pair as ”two aging stars making monkeys out of themselves, well-paid, psychoneurotic monkeys.” The film was a very big hit.
The notion of remaking Baby Jane as a television movie and casting real-life sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave as the psychoneurotic monkeys seems like a silly, pointless stunt — that is, until you see the result. It’s terrific. Fast and scary and unsettling, the new Baby Jane is frequently superior to its predecessor.
Much of the credit for this should go to coproducer Brian Taggert (V: The Final Battle), whose teleplay is a subtle marvel of updating. Taggert’s Baby Jane is set in present-day Hollywood and uses the city’s contemporary seediness to great effect. Vanessa is Blanche Hudson, confined to a wheelchair since a car accident 20 years earlier; Lynn plays Jane, known in her brief, childhood heyday as ”Baby Jane” Hudson. Blanche believes Jane is responsible for her crippled state; Jane is addled with guilt and eternally jealous that Blanche had a more successful film career than she did.
The Redgraves, acting together on television for the first time, certainly don’t look much like each other, but their voices are similarly reedy, and their expressions and gestures frequently mirror each other’s; their sisterhood really enhances their performances. They quarrel and snipe until Jane goes bonkers — first she prepares a sandwich of live worms, serving it to Blanche on a silver platter; pretty soon she’s not feeding her helpless sister anything at all. (In her cracked decrepitude, Lynn’s Jane continues to wear the same stage makeup she wore as a child; with her heavily rouged cheeks, mascara-drenched eyes, and wild hair, Lynn looks startlingly like Ruth Gordon in Where’s Poppa?)
Into the lives of this suffering pair comes John Glover (Gremlins 2’s Daniel Clamp) as Billy, a video-store manager with a passion for old movies. He claims to want to revive Jane’s career by staging a one-woman show that will make Hollywood aware of her again; he’s actually a heel out to extract as much money from her as possible.
In the ‘62 movie, Glover’s part was played by Victor Buono. He was a pathetic piano accompanist offering his services to the sisters, and his motives were vague, his dialogue florid. Screenwriter Taggert has transformed this character into a classic Hollywood hustler of the ’90s. Billy sells himself as the organizer of Jane’s comeback by telling her he can ”do a little bit of everything” — act, sing, dance, produce, and direct. But we also see that Billy sells drugs and pimps young boys for sex along Hollywood Boulevard. Billy is a real creep, but he’s also genuinely in love with both show business and the faded glamour that Jane represents. The most touching scene in the movie occurs early on, when Jane and Billy first meet. Staring at her wizened face, Billy whispers in awe, ”You’re Baby Jane Hudson!” Jane’s hard, bitter face crumbles instantly, collapsing into a look of pitiful gratitude. ”You remember!” she whispers back.
The new Baby Jane summons up the harsh Hollywood described in Nathanael West’s great novel The Day of the Locust and the detective stories of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Like those works, this Baby Jane shows us how people shrivel in the intense glare of both the sun and show-business fame. The first Baby Jane was a camp riot; this one will move you.