Blu-ray/DVD Reviews

“Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” vs. “Misery”

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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.

 

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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.”

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

5 replies »

  1. I watched misery years ago and then watched what happened to baby Jane recently because I’m watching the tv show feud and I must say they’re both really similar it’s good to see I’m not thinking alone on this.

  2. I thank you for this lively comparison, but one really should not criticize things they know very little about. I am at this point protecting “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”, for it is truly one of the most original and extraordinary pictures in the entire movie history. One might not understand the characters, their feelings and their actions due to a lack of understanding in their nature or perhaps a lack of keen observance. When that is the case, one should not fall into belittling the things one does not completely understand. To come straight to the point, to understand and appreciate the legendary picture starred in by Miss Davis and Miss Crawford, one needs to understand the century in which it takes place, the history between both the actresses and the characters, the feelings of all of the before mentioned. Also one needs to understand the meaning behind every little movement, gesture, glance and word spoken. And if one still feels the need to criticize, one should first get to know more about the story and oneself, for there is a chance the problem is not in the watched picture but perhaps in the other counterpart. If one wished to be smart and search for the lost meaning of the picture, one would take it upon oneself to read the book upon which the picture was based. And then maybe, if one feels any kind of awareness of the beautiful and complicated story which one has just seen and perhaps even read, one would restrain from speaking an ill word against something so magnificent as this picture.

    • While I appreciate your enthusiasm and devotion to “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and its history between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, I’m of the mindset that no movie is truly perfect except in our own mind. For me, I have several movies that I would never speak badly of, like “Apocalypse Now,” “Ikiru,” “City Lights,” “WALL-E” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Yet, at the same time, I know people that don’t like those same movies. They just don’t click with them. And that’s fine with me since it’s all opinionated and subjective. “Baby Jane” doesn’t click with me. I’m fully aware of the history and time period it came out in, but at the end of the day, the film infuriates me with its slow pace, seemingly pointless meandering and a frustrating protagonist that I wanted to slap by the end of the movie. Even if she was played by Joan Crawford, I still hated her character. But what I’d like to stress is that, at the end of the day, I’m not saying “Baby Jane” is a bad movie, just that I didn’t like it. I feel there is a distinct difference between the two – “Baby Jane” is a historically important movie and one every film buff should see, but it’s also not one that every film buff is required to enjoy.

      At the end of the day, this is all just our own point of view and our opinions on these classic movies. Historical relevance is important, and I do my best to understand where each classic movie is coming from, given its own unique history. But I also feel that that same history should not be the linchpin on the films’ ability to entrance or entertain me. A film should stand or fall on its own merits. I certainly understand and appreciate why you adore “Baby Jane,” but it’s not one that I agree with. Despite its vast and rich history, I still don’t like “Baby Jane.” And I feel that alone gives me enough reason to give my opinion on the film, while also pointing out why I think “Misery” is a more suspenseful, thrilling, haunting and better paced film than “Baby Jane.”

      • For all I have learned about the movie world in my very short life, I know that the topic of “clicking with the pictures”, as you so trivially called it, is one better not discussed, at the risk of hurting other people’s feelings. Having read your reply, one can’t help wondering if the word “tolerance” might be missing from your personal vocabulary. One is naturally entitled to one’s own opinion, but one should learn to set the words so that people with other thoughts on their mind would not be hurt.
        As a writer, I would point out that in order to get somewhere with one’s writings, one should refrain from repeating oneself and one’s phrases. Also, one should not use words one doesn’t know the meaning of.
        As for the picture you so colourfully described and also managed with your great brilliance to misunderstand completely, I still have the nagging feeling that you have not quite grasped the point of my first comment. Perhaps you ought to see the picture again, whilst keeping what I have written in mind. If you are as passionate about these films as you claim to be, you should see the difference between your earlier opinion and the one I’ve advised you to create. And if you really don’t get it, even then… Well, then you should probably just keep away from hagsploitation and leave it to people who do appreciate it.

      • I’m not sure why you’ve felt the desire to turn what was meant to be a fun and entertaining comparison piece into talking strictly about me and what you think of me simply based off of this one piece of writing I did close to five years ago. Seems like more of an attack on me for no reason other than you don’t like that I don’t like “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” especially since you decided to question my personal vocabulary and my ability as a writer.

        I feel this comes down to our clearly different interpretations of what you and I take out of the film world. You’ve made it abundantly clear that you don’t want to discuss why a film works or doesn’t work for someone, as you said in the beginning of your most recent reply. But to me, that’s what I love to do more than anything else – discuss why a certain film either does or doesn’t work for me. In my opinion, the main job of any film review is to convey the emotions and opinions of the writer on that particular film and why it did or did not “click” with them.

        If you don’t like that element and wish to not discuss it, that’s fine. I’m not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing (unlike you telling me what I should be doing). But for me, that’s the fun of reviewing movies. I love expressing my views and opinions when I think other people should go out and watch a really great movie, and I love breaking down an awful film to its bare elements to expose why it’s a piece of garbage. If you took that away, then that takes away all the joy and fun of writing about cinema.

        Everything about the film world is subjective, and that’s what makes it an art form worth discussing. And naturally, with that subjectivity, there are always going to be those that disagree with my own views and opinions. I’ve learned throughout my life to not be deterred by those opposing views, especially when they’re forceful, to the point that they’re practically trying to shove their opinion down my throat. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I feel it is best to acknowledge when there’s a difference of opinion but remain firm on my stance, especially on a movie that literally had me screaming at my television when the lead character refuses to take action.

        If this situation were reversed and you said something about negative about a film or genre that I’m deeply passion about, like for example the daikaiju genre or the 1954 “Godzilla,” we wouldn’t be having this type of conversation. I’d acknowledge your viewpoint, but see it as someone who doesn’t quite look at the film the same way I do. And that’d be the end of it. I wouldn’t feel the desire to force you to see the movie like I see it, I’d only see it as a difference in opinion.

        But because of your choice of words and insistence that I just don’t get “Baby Jane,” I’m now less inclined to give the movie another chance. While I appreciate your passion and love for the movie, I’d like you to understand that it’s just not something that you and I share. I also do not feel like it makes me less of a cinephile or a writer to say that I don’t like “Baby Jane.” Movie lovers and writers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and there’s no one right way to approach either.

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