Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Barbra and Jim at the Global Gourmet Games

This weekend, Barbra Streisand and husband James Brolin attended (according to the LA Times) The Global Gourmet Games, a gala fundraiser for FasterCures, “staged as a high-spirited competition that pits guests against one another to answer questions about food, wine and related trivia, such as which country consumes the most chicken per capita.”
Brolin and Streisand
The LA Times wrote that “the event raised an estimated $3 million for FasterCures, an organization dedicated to accelerating medical research to find cures for life-threatening diseases.

“The gala dinner also served as a kickoff to the four-day Milken Institute Global Conference, which attracts more than 3,000 people to Beverly Hills to hear more than 650 of the world’s top thinkers discuss some of today’s most pressing issues in business, health, government and education.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


In a letter to his wife, Molly Thatcher, [the director, Elia] Kazan attempts to explain his past affair with Marilyn Monroe:

“I took her to dinner because she seemed like such a touching pathetic waif. She sobbed all through dinner. I wasn’t ‘interested’ in her, that came later. I got to know her and in time introduced her to Arthur Miller, who also was very taken with her. You couldn’t help being touched. She was talented, funny, vulnerable, helpless in awful pain, with no hope and some worth and not a liar, vicious, not catty and with a history of orphanism that was killing to hear. She was like all Charlie Chaplin heroines in one.”
KAZAN, who wrote to Molly in 1955, also revealed of Marilyn: “She is not what she appears to be ... she is not a big sex-pot as advertised.”

Elia Kazan on MM: "She is not what she appears to be ... she is not a big sex-pot as advertised."
The cruel irony/P.S. to this is that Kazan, after years of estrangement with Arthur Miller, would collaborate with him again, mounting one of (I think) the worst moments in American theater history — Miller’s play “After The Fall.”

This was Miller’s confession/denunciation of Monroe as a castrating, self-destructive bitch, from whom he had to escape. That Monroe was two years dead and unable to defend herself appeared of no interest to her ex-husband or her ex-lover.

Miller’s pretense that the “Maggie” of his play was not Monroe — or his version of her — compounded the insult. Marilyn’s good friend, author James Baldwin, walked out of “After the Fall,” so furious was he over Miller’s characterization of her.

(The star, Barbara Loden was costumed, bewigged and given the appropriate Monroe-like gestures, in case anybody didn’t quite get it.)
THOSE who disliked Arthur Miller — and there were many — found some satisfaction in the fact that “After The Fall” was his last success. He would wallow in epilogue and various variations on Marilyn for the rest of his life.

Miller’s inactivity as a writer — except for his tedious screenplay for “The Misfits” — was often blamed on Marilyn. He himself said it. But right after the Miller/Monroe divorce, columnist Max Lerner opined that it was less likely that Monroe had constricted Miller, but that he had sought her out precisely because he had run out of material.
1956: Monroe and Miller ... Happily engaged.
Several weeks before her death, an interviewer faced Marilyn with Lerner’s observation. Did she have a comment? She paused, and then said: “If I answer, will you promise to repeat my quote in its entirety?”

The writer said yes.

Marilyn replied: “No comment.”

This is the only thing Marilyn Monroe ever said criticizing a husband — or anybody else in public life for that matter. She was, as Kazan noted, “not vicious.” And it is an indication of her agony, being blamed for the failures of a man she literally saved; standing with him and risking her own career as he was grilled by The House Un-American Activities Committee, in the matter of his youthful Communist flirtations.
Miller and Kazan left that Marilyn out of “After The Fall.”
1959: Monroe and Miller ... Unhappily Married

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


In celebration, here is part of the chapter on Bette's and Joan Crawford's smash hit 1962 thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in my book Bette Davis: More Than a Woman. (The book is available in eBook form from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, iTunes and other sellers.) It's a movie with enough soundstage drama to make a movie about the "Making of..." Producer's take note!

Chapter 26

Walter Blake, the personal assistant to the Hollywood director Robert Aldrich, slid out of his cab in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York. It was early summer, 1962, and he was a man with a mission: to persuade Bette Davis to star in Aldrich’s film version of Henry Farrell’s novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a thriller about a mentally unbalanced former child star living in mutual fear and loathing with her crippled sister in a decaying Hollywood mansion. In his briefcase, Blake carried a check for $25,000 made out to Bette.
“Bob Aldrich already had Joan Crawford signed to play the sister in the wheelchair,” Blake recalls, “and he really wanted Bette to play Baby Jane. Bette was broke after she left Night of the Iguana, and she was staying at the Plaza on good will and credit. We heard she was in hock to them for $30,000.”
The check Blake carried with him amounted to just about all the money Aldrich had, but he figured hard cash would be the best incentive he could offer Bette to make the movie. She knew about and liked the property, but she didn’t want to work with Crawford, who had come backstage with Chuck Bowden and Paula Laurence after a performance of Iguana to try to talk her into making the film with her. Bette was unreceptive. “Let’s make this quick, Joan,” she snapped. “I’m leaving for the country in five minutes.”
Crawford told her about the project and purred, “I’ve always wanted to work with you.” Bette looked at her and thought, This woman is full of shit.
Paula Laurence recalled that after Crawford left, Bette ranted and raved that she had wanted to buy the property, that she couldn’t stand the idea of working with Crawford, that she was suspicious of the whole enterprise. “If she thinks I’m going to play that stupid bitch in the wheelchair,” she bellowed just before she left the theater, “she’s got another think coming!”
And so Walter Blake’s job now was to get Bette’s commitment to make Baby Jane—by whatever means possible. “We knew she needed money, so we figured that if we got her to sign the back of the check, legally she’d have to do it.” Blake first telephoned Bette at the Plaza, and the reception he got wasn’t warm.
“Walter who?’ Bette barked. “Never heard of you.”
“I knew you at Warner Brothers, Miss Davis.”
“Oh yeah. Waddya want?”
“I’ve got something that you’re going to like.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
Blake persuaded Bette to let him come up to her posh suite, where he found her in slacks and a middy shirt, her hair in a sloppy topknot, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. When he showed her the Baby Jane script, she only glanced at the title. “I know about this. Who’s gonna direct?”
“Robert Aldrich.”
“Who the hell is he?”
“He’s directed nine films, Miss Davis—Apache, Autumn Leaves, The Angry Hills—”
“I never heard of him! I bet he stinks. Who’s producing?”
“I will be.”
“I bet you stink, too!”
By now Blake feared he had made a huge blunder. “Miss Davis,” he concluded as soothingly as possible, “perhaps we should meet again after you’ve read the script. Call me when you’re finished with it and we’ll talk—I’ll take you to dinner.”
“Can you afford it?” Bette asked as she showed Blake the door.
Bette found that she loved the way Luke Heller’s script beautifully fleshed out the novel’s dark, unsettling tale: as a vaudeville headliner circa 1917, precocious child star Baby Jane Hudson had played to packed houses. Resplendent in blond ringlets and flouncy crinolines, she belted out maudlin ditties like “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” (whose address was “Heaven above”) to rapturous audiences. As obnoxious and spoiled offstage as she is cloying on, she completely overshadows her dark-haired, brooding sister Blanche.
By 1935, the sisters’ roles have reversed; Blanche has become a top movie star, while Jane, her childhood charms vanished, gets film jobs only because of her sister’s power. Jane is consumed with jealousy, then devastated by guilt when she blames herself for a car wreck that leaves Blanche permanently crippled.
The story then jumps to 1962. The aging Hudson sisters are mutually dependent. They live on income from Blanche’s investments, but Blanche, confined to a wheelchair in an upstairs bedroom, must rely on Jane for her food and her contact with the outside world. Still racked with remorse about the accident, Jane has become mentally unstable and a heavy drinker. She often retreats into a fantasy world fueled by her memories of her youthful stardom. Dressed in outlandish outfits copied from her days as a vaudeville moppet, her makeup troweled on, her blond wig in ringlets, she drunkenly performs “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” in the mirrored music room as though she were fifty years younger.
Jane’s descent into madness is hastened when she finds out that Blanche has secretly sold the house, and they must be out in six weeks. She cuts Blanche off from the outside world, stops bringing her food (except for her dead parakeet, and later a rat), and physically brutalizes her. At the same time she pathetically plans to stage a comeback.
When the cleaning lady discovers Blanche starved, gagged, and trussed up, Jane bashes the woman’s head in with a hammer. Frantic that she’ll be found out, Jane lugs her sister, now nearly comatose, into the car and drives her to the Santa Monica beach. As Blanche nears death, she confesses that it was she who caused the car crash when she tried to run Jane down. Completely gone now, Jane responds dreamily, “You mean all this time we could have been friends?”
Leaving Blanche to die on the sand, Jane joyfully performs her old dance routine on the sand as a crowd gathers and the police descend.
Bette was a bit put off by the script’s Grand Guignol excesses, but she knew that Baby Jane Hudson was a great part, and that the movie could be a big hit, especially with younger audiences of the kind that had flocked to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. More importantly, Bette had no other offers—and she needed the money. She called Blake. “I read the thing,” she said curtly. “I’ll be playing Jane, right?”
Blake said yes, of course, then Bette barked, “So who’s the other broad?”
“We don’t know yet,” Blake lied. He recalled, “I couldn’t tell her it was Crawford because they were enemies. I had to get her signature on that check and then tell her, when she couldn’t back out.”
“I have a check with me for $25,000, Miss Davis,” Blake said, “and I can give it to you if you’ll sign on the back that you’ll do the movie.”
“Twenty-five thousand dollars for a movie!” Bette exploded. “Are you crazy?!”
“It’s just a down payment, a binder to say that you’ll do the movie. We can negotiate your salary, what you’ll get up front, all of that.”
“Oh,” Bette replied, and Blake saw that he had been right: Bette did need the money. She took the check, and agreed to fly to Hollywood with him the next day to meet with Aldrich. Two days later, Bette walked into the production meeting with Aldrich, saw Joan Crawford sitting next to the director, turned on her heel, and walked out. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she hissed at Blake. “I won’t work with her.”
“Well, Bette, you’ve got to,” Blake replied. “We just paid you $25,000.” When she realized Blake was right, Bette went back into the meeting, seething over Joan’s pious attitudes and ladylike airs. “There was no hello or good-bye,” Blake recalls. “The two of them together were like a Nazi and a Jew.”
Bette agreed to a salary advance of $60,000 (including the $25,000 she had already received), 10 percent of the worldwide gross profits, and $600 per week in living expenses. Crawford, in a shrewd gamble that later rankled Bette, took only $30,000 up front but 15 percent of the profits and weekly living expenses of $1,500.
Once Bette’s participation was set, she made it clear to Aldrich what was paramount on her mind. During an early meeting, she turned to the rotund, forty-four-year-old director and asked, “Have you slept with Joan?”
“No,” he replied. “But not for any lack of trying on her part.” Bette liked Aldrich’s honesty, and she felt confident that Crawford’s penchant for seducing her directors in order to get preferential treatment from them would go unsatisfied this time around.
Unlike Bette, the fifty-eight-year-old Crawford was a striking beauty who had kept herself in good enough physical condition to play romantic leads through the 1950s. But she hadn’t made a film since 1959, the year her husband, Pepsi-Cola mogul Alfred Steele, died. Steele had left her with little except a mountain of debt and a position on the board of his company. “I was lonely,” Joan said to explain why she jumped at the chance to do Baby Jane. “I was worse than lonely, I was bored out of my skull. And I needed the money.” Like Bette, Joan had a deep-seated need to work. “Inactivity is one of the great indignities of life,” she said. “The need to work is always there, bugging me.”
With his stars uneasily in place, Aldrich set out to raise money for the picture and was shocked by the chilly reception he encountered. “Four major companies refused even to read the script or scan the budget. Three distributors read the script, looked at the budget, and turned the project down. Two of those said they might be interested if I would agree to cast younger players.”
Finally Aldrich convinced Eliot Hyman, the head of the small British independent company Seven Arts, to finance the picture with Davis and Crawford with a budget under $1 million and a shooting schedule no longer than thirty days. Jack Warner (of all people) agreed to distribute the film.
With Aldrich’s assurances that this picture would be a blockbuster ringing in her ears, Bette decided to make a permanent move back to Los Angeles. With B.D. and Michael, she moved into a low-slung, contemporary, “flashy Beverly Hills house” that B.D. had found for them, complete with a projection room, a volleyball court, pool, and pool house. Bette had wanted a New England-style place, and when she saw this modern structure she said, “Oh, B.D., not another one.”
“You told me to please myself”’ B.D. huffed in reply.
Bette’s fifteen-year-old daughter was more a pampered princess than ever. She had brought her horse Stoneybrook to live with her at Grier, a private girls’ school in Pennsylvania, and then sold the animal when she followed Bette to Hollywood, where her mother made sure she was cast for a part in Baby Jane, as a nosy neighbor’s daughter. Bette let her keep the money she would be paid. B.D. told the press that she had acting ambitions, and although she would be billed in the film as Barbara Merrill, she later petitioned a court to have her name changed back to Barbara Sherry. She told the judge that she intended “to pursue a career in dramatic arts and intends to seek motion picture, television and stage engagements as a singer and actress.”
On July 19, four days prior to the start of filming, Jack Warner hosted a press luncheon for Bette, Joan, and Robert Aldrich in the trophy room at Warner Brothers. The press coverage was tremendous, and there was much anticipation of a pyrotechnic feud between these two “former movie greats.” Warner and Aldrich loved it, aware as they were that any publicity was good publicity. Photos of the two stars ran in newspapers around the world, and Bette pasted one in her scrapbook. Under the photo she scrawled, “W.B. gave a luncheon for the two former queens (only one in my opinion) at the beginning of Baby Jane. The horror is we look alike!”
They didn’t really, of course, and from the outset of filming at the Producer’s Studio on Melrose Avenue, it was clear to cast and crew that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had very distinct personalities as well. Anna Lee, cast as the Hudsons’ nosy neighbor, vividly recalls the two of them. “Joan would arrive at the studio sharp at one minute to nine. Immaculately groomed, she’d come in with her entourage: a makeup man, a hairdresser, a secretary—there were always seven or eight people trailing after her. She would waft very regally into her dressing room and gently close the door.
“A moment or so later, you’d hear Bette clomping down the corridor, all by herself, usually swearing like a sailor about something, using quite obscene language. She’d go thundering into her dressing room and slam the door. I really think her behavior was just to shock Joan. She was definitely needling her. She put a little card up on her dressing room door that said, ‘Of all my relations, I like sex the best.’ She knew it would horrify Joan, who was very straitlaced and didn’t have much of a sense of humor about herself.”
The film critic Judith Crist, who befriended Bette in the mid-1970s, feels that the differences between Bette and Joan ran deep. “They came from totally different classes, and your roots come out. Bette had a stage background, Joan had maybe a burlesque show or two. When you got right down to it, Bette was a lady, and Joan Crawford was not. It was ironic, because Bette would swear and lumber around, and Joan of course was all piety and refinement, but class will show. Joan would pretend to be drinking water when it was really vodka, and she’d drink herself stupid in public. Bette would never do that. And whenever Joan would call me all she’d talk about were the intimate details of her medical problems. She just didn’t have any class.”
Crawford was well known for showering people with little daily gifts as a way to win their affection, and Bette was no exception. The second day of filming, she found flowers in her room from Joan. The next day, a bottle of perfume. Joan had tried the same tactic when she had first come to Warner Brothers from MGM in 1944. Bette had been amused by the gesture and a little puzzled, until someone told her that Joan was sexually interested in her. She sent the gifts back unceremoniously, and never was sure what Crawford’s motives had been. “How the hell do I know if Joan was a dyke?” Bette said. “I never let her get that close to me.”
This time, Bette ignored the gifts at first, but when they continued coming she wrote Joan a terse note thanking her but asking that she stop. “I won’t be able to reciprocate,” she wrote, “because I do not have time to shop.”
The note seems to have soured any possibility of a friendship between the two women. According to B.D., when Bette introduced her to Joan on the set, she extended her hand and Crawford “pulled back from me, putting her hand behind her back as if I were diseased.”
“Hello, dear,” Joan purred to B.D. “One thing… my daughters, Cindy and Cathy, are going to be on the set with me a great deal.… I would appreciate it if you would not try to talk to them. They have been very carefully brought up and shielded from the wicked side of the world. You, obviously, have not. I don’t want your influence to corrupt them. They are so sweet and innocent, you see.… Thank you. Bless you, dear.”
When Bette discovered that Joan had vodka in the Pepsi bottle she always kept at her side, she exploded. “That bitch is loaded half the time! How dare she pull this crap on a picture with me? I’ll kill her!”
In her infamous account of her childhood, Mommie Dearest, Joan’s eldest daughter Christina wrote, “Bette Davis was the consummate match for my mother’s storehouse of intimidation tricks. She was a shrewd professional and every bit as indomitable as her costar. Years later, Mother would only have to hear her name mentioned to start a tirade.”
There were no tirades as Baby Jane filming progressed at its breakneck pace through the summer of 1962. Bette and Joan, for all their animosities, were too professional, and too hungry for a hit movie, to slow production down with outbursts of stereotypical star temperament. Still, the atmosphere was often as frosty as the fift y-eight-degree temperature Crawford demanded on the soundstage. Joan needed the set so cold, Bette told friends, because she was always overheated from the vodka she nipped between takes.
And both actresses were frantic with insecurity. Joan fretted that Bette’s much flashier role would completely eclipse her performance; Bette, always jealous of Crawford’s glamour, ridiculed her comely appearance in the film. Soon they got caught in a game of one-upmanship: Bette “shoveled” on heavier and ghastlier makeup while Joan fought all efforts to make her look anything worse than a slightly faded beauty.
“Miss Crawford was a fool,” Bette felt. “A good actress looks the part. Why she insisted on making Blanche look glamorous, I just don’t know.”
“My reasons,” Joan countered, “were just as valid as hers, with all those layers of rice powder she wore and that ghastly lipstick. But Miss Davis was always partial to covering up her face in motion pictures. She called it ‘Art.’ Others might call it camouflage—a cover-up for the absence of beauty. My character in Jane was a bigger star, and more beautiful than her sister. Once you’ve been as famous as Blanche Hudson was, you don’t slip back and become a freak like Miss Davis preferred to see her character. Blanche also had class. Blanche had glamour. Blanche was a legend.”
“Blanche was a cripple!” Bette snorted when told of Joan’s remarks. “She was a recluse. She never left: the house or saw anybody, yet Miss Crawford made her appear as if she lived in Elizabeth Arden’s beauty salon.”
As this struggle to establish dominance escalated, Joan and Bette both began to call Aldrich every night at home. “Did you see what that bitch did to me today?” Joan would wail. As soon as Aldrich finished with Joan, Bette would call. “What did that bitch call you about?” she would demand. According to Aldrich’s son Bill, “My dad had to spend an awful lot of time trying to keep them happy.”
“Mother was on the phone to Aldrich for at least an hour every night,” B.D. recalled. “She would come home, take off her makeup, then, with hair flying all over the place, she would sit in her giant bed, in her master bedroom, with her papers all around her, and the phone. We would have to bring her dinner to her on a tray; then she would call Aldrich. She’d rehash everything that happened on the set that day, that Aldrich had to apologize for—all the slights she suffered that were unfair—and the terrible things Joan had done to her, which he would have to prevent her from doing the following day.”
“First one, then the other,” Aldrich said. “I could rely on it every night. They were like two Sherman tanks, openly despising each other.”
If there wasn’t a loud, raucous, public feud between these two grandes dames, there was a subtle and insidious one. Each woman tried to vex the other, put her off her stride, adversely affect her performance. As Joan acted a solo scene, Bette turned to Walter Blake and said, loudly enough so that Joan could hear, “She can’t act, she stinks!” Afraid that Joan would storm off the set, Aldrich piped up, “I’ve got a terrible headache. We’ve got to get through this scene.” When she finished, Joan pulled Aldrich aside. “Did you hear what she said about me?”
Another scene, one of the script’s most harrowing, called for Jane to kick Blanche senseless on their mansion’s tiled floor. To obtain the proper sound effects, Bette first viciously kicked a dummy out of camera range. Then she repeated the shot with Joan, feigning the blows. She performed the stunt flawlessly—except for one kick that grazed Joan’s head.
“I barely touched her,” Bette insisted, but Hedda Hopper reported that she had “raised a fair lump on Joan’s head.” Crawford got her revenge a few days later as Jane hauls the half-dead Blanche off her bed and drags her into the hallway. It was a difficult scene, and according to Aldrich, “Crawford wanted Bette to suffer, every inch of the way.”
Just prior to action, Joan strapped a lead-lined weight lifter’s belt around her waist, adding considerably to her heft. “It was one continuous take,” the screenwriter Lukas Heller recalled. “Bette carried her from the bed across the room and out the door. Then, as soon as she got in the hallway, out of the camera’s range, she dropped Joan and let out this bloodcurdling scream.”
“My back! Oh, God, my back!” Bette shrieked. Seemingly oblivious of Bette’s agonies, Joan stood up, and as a small smile of satisfaction spread across her face, walked elegantly off the set.
Joan had one last laugh on Bette. As Blanche nears death from starvation, there was no way Joan could look anything but awful, and her makeup reflected that. But Bette noticed that Joan’s bosom grew fuller each day. “Christ!” she bellowed to B.D. “You never know what size boobs that broad has strapped on! She must have a different set for each day of the week!… She’s supposed to be shriveling away while Baby Jane starves her to death, but her tits keep growing! I keep running into them like the Hollywood Hills!”
During the last week of filming, Bette pulled Walter Blake aside and asked him, “When is this goddamn picture gonna end?”
“It’s supposed to wrap this Friday night,” Blake assured her. “Why?”
“I want to go to bed with Bob Aldrich.”
“But he’s married!” Blake sputtered.
“You old-fashioned sonofabitch,” Bette laughed. “What’s the matter with you? What the hell do I care if he’s married?”
Bette had convinced herself, B.D. recalled, that Aldrich “was madly in love with her and couldn’t stand Joan.” Apparently Bette felt it more honorable to sleep with the director at the end of filming, rather than at the beginning, as Joan had preferred.
“I’m going to throw a big party the last day of filming,” Bette told
Blake. “I want everybody who worked on the picture to be there. And I want you to be certain that Bob shows up.” The clear implication, the producer knew, was that Bette planned to seduce Aldrich that night.
Aldrich wanted nothing to do with Bette’s romantic fantasy, and he used the heavy rain the evening of the party as an excuse not to go. Bette, however, wasn’t about to let her prey off the hook that easily. Amid more than a hundred guests (they did not include Joan Crawford, who, Walter Blake says, had “high-tailed it back to New York”), Bette kept asking Blake, “Where’s Bob?”
“I don’t know, Bette.”
“Well, call him, for crissakes!”
Blake did as he was told. “Do I have to go through with this?” Aldrich pleaded.
“We’ve got to keep her happy, Bob. You don’t want her getting her nose out of joint and refusing to do publicity or something. Come to the party. You can finesse things.”
Aldrich relented, but when he got to Bette’s house his car became mired in mud. He honked his horn and Blake ran out to his boss’s little sports car. “I’m going back!” Aldrich called out through the driving rain. “This is ridiculous! Find somebody to take me home.”
Frantic, Blake looked back toward the house. “But what about her)”
“You take care of her,” Aldrich responded, and rolled up the window.
If Bette was disappointed by Aldrich’s lack of sexual interest in her, she was greatly encouraged by the word-of-mouth on Baby Jane. Even in rough cut, it was clear that the picture was good, the performances were vivid, and that the picture had a strong chance to be a blockbuster. Confident that she was on the cusp of a major comeback, Bette approached Jack Warner for a $75,000 loan against her share of the film’s profits so that she could buy a New England-style cottage at 1100 Stone Canyon in the exclusive enclave of Bel Air. When Warner saw the picture, he wrote out a check. Bette christened her new home Honeysuckle Hill.
Back in Hollywood permanently, and certain that her star was again on the ascent, Bette was emboldened to announce to the motion picture industry—in a unique, provocative way—that she was ready for more work. On the morning of September 21, readers of the motion picture bibles Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter raised their eyebrows when they saw a help-wanted ad accompanied by a photo of Bette Davis:
Situation Wanted, Women: Mother of Three—10, 11 & 15—divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in motion pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway.) Bette Davis c/o Martin Baum, G.A.C. References upon request.
For an investment of $500, Bette’s ads brought her enormous publicity, but not all of it was positive. Her associates knew of her sometimes sardonic sense of humor, and saw the ad as vintage Davis cheek. But others were stunned by what they perceived as a washed-up former great begging for work. The truth lay somewhere in between, and Bette’s comments at the time reflected both sides. “The ad was tongue-in-cheek,” she told the press, “but it was a deep dig as well. My career was not in jeopardy; if I was truly unemployed, I could never have taken the advertisement.”
Four days later, Bette spoke to the Hollywood Women’s Press Club, and admitted that she had placed a lot of stock in the advertisement: “I have flung down the gauntlet.… I am back with a vengeance.… I may fail in my attempts to regain my place in the sun, but I do ask for the chance to prove whether I can or can’t.”
Less than a month later, her prospects looked good. Baby Jane was previewed at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, and Boxoffice Magazine sensed a phenomenon in the making. The picture, their critic thought, was “a memorable movie-going event… the applause was so tremendous at times it was difficult to hear the dialogue. Both actresses give nothing less than Oscar-winning performances.” Word spread that Baby Jane was a stunning comeback for both these movie legends, and when a second screening was held in New York, the crush of fans was so thick that it took Joan Crawford thirty minutes to get from the theater lobby to her car.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? opened on November 6 in a national saturation booking. Overnight, the picture became a sensation, the movie everyone had to see. The film earned back its production cost in just eleven days, catapulting Joan and Bette back to the top of the heap—and back in the money as well.
While audiences—especially young viewers—loved the movie, it sparked fierce controversy among some critics whose memories of Bette and Joan were locked into Dark Victory and Mildred Pierce. The reviews ran the gamut from raves to harsh put-downs.
“Baby Jane is one of the best shockers since Psycho,” Harrison Carroll wrote in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. “Robert Aldrich has extracted the utmost in shudders from this tense thriller. It makes the flesh crawl.” For Saturday Review, Arthur Knight raved that “Baby Jane achieves its goal with something breathlessly close to perfection. It is a shocker, and at the same time a superb showcase for two of Hollywood’s most accomplished actresses. Scenes that in lesser hands would verge on the ludicrous simply crackle with tension—or, as in the shots of Miss Davis dancing raptly on a crowded beach, they are filled with unbearable pathos.”
Most of the naysayers were concentrated in New York. The Daily News gave it just two and a half stars out of a possible four and questioned the taste and judgment of Davis and Crawford for accepting such an “unworthy” vehicle. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times labeled Bette and Joan “a couple of formidable freaks” and added that the picture “…does not afford either the opportunity to do more than wear grotesque costumes, make up to look like witches and chew the scenery to shreds.”
When B.D. saw the picture, she turned to Bette and said, “This time you’ve gone too far, Mother.” But at least one of Bette’s associates thought she wasn’t acting at all. Her former secretary, Bridget Price, told Virginia Conroy after she saw the film that this was “the true Bette—screaming, laughing hysterically and generally being as bawdy as possible.”
The most perceptive of the critics was Andrew Sarris in Movie magazine, who predicted, “Like Psycho, Baby Jane seems destined to be seen and not honored.” The comparison was apt. While Baby Jane wasn’t in the same league as the Hitchcock classic of two years earlier, both films had been crafted on a limited budget by a sure-handed director who wasn’t afraid to limn some delicious moments of black humor out of a gothic horror story. Both films broke box-office records even as they polarized the critics.
Where Baby Jane differed most from the story-driven, delicately acted Psycho was in the staggeringly over-the-top performance of Bette Davis. With her face caked with chalky-white makeup, her eyes ringed in heavy black mascara, her wig a frowsy mass of ringlets, Bette attacked the role of Jane Hudson with all the strength, courage, vigor, and abandon that only a cinematic artist of her genius could muster. Sloppy, bellicose, and bitchy, she slouches defiantly through the first few scenes in a flatfooted walk she told a friend she modeled on her sister Bobby’s. In many ways her Jane is not unlike what the Mildred Rogers of Of Human Bondage might have turned into had she lived long enough.
Bette delineates Jane’s mercurial emotional shifts with acuity. She is a vile harridan one moment, a simpering, terrified child the next. Hateful, she nonetheless evokes real sympathy when she sees her haggard, grotesque face come into sharp focus in the mirror—perhaps for the first time—in the midst of one of her pathetic vaudeville flashbacks.
Crawford’s performance, far subtler, is outstanding as well, especially considering what a passive victim Blanche must have seemed on paper. Her almost masculine face and keenly expressive eyes give Blanche an inner strength that would have been missing with most other actresses and that makes her growing dependence on Jane all the more pathetic. As one critic observed, Joan’s performance provided “the eye of the hurricane” around which Bette stormed. One actress was fire and wind and fury, the other granite. Together they created an unforgettable team.