It’s Oscar season. It’s time to go crazy

What happened to Baby Jane

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend of diving into adjacent queer and queer past titles worth watching or revisiting.

The Horror Show: What Happened to Baby Jane

What happened to Baby Jane has a reputation as a camp classic. It’s easy to see why: Former Hollywood starlets Joan Crawford and Bette Davis star in the film, both playing their roles with utter abandon. The film also helped popularize the very campy genre of “hagsploitation” or “psycho biddy,” that is, films about and usually starring an aging actress who looks haggard and goes mad.

That said, as a movie, Baby Jane doesn’t really deserve the burden of camp. The Story: Davis plays Jane Hudson, a former child star who is half-crazy with too much makeup. Crawford plays Jane’s sister Blanche, herself a former actress and bombshell, crippled by Jane in a car accident. The two women live together in virtual seclusion, yearning for their glory days. When Blanche plots to get Jane to a lunatic asylum, Jane begins to psychologically torture Blanche in a wheelchair. Jane also hires a self-effacing and sycophantic pianist named Edwin (Victor Buono), in hopes of reviving her childhood act.

Baby Jane features a deranged acting set of Crawford, Buono and, in particular, Davis, as the characters in the film begin their excruciating descent into madness. Director Robert Aldrich embraces the Gothic outrageousness of it all: thus, what starts out as an exaggerated exercise in style quickly turns into a tense thriller, a claustrophobic and ever more savage horror show … and a sneaky statement about Le sexism. Hollywood’s penchant for using, then giving up, talent. There’s a reason Davis and Buono both won Oscar nominations for their work: They don’t chew landscapes. On the contrary, they both offer performance without inhibition. And to be clear: Davis gives one of the bravest performances in history.

Drag queens, Feud, and the Camp Legend aside, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is one of the greatest of all horror thrillers, just as scary as The Shining, The Exorcist, Psycho, or Halloween. Take a look at it this weekend and clear the camp. This movie is scary as hell.

To note: If you really want a campy version of this story, check out the 1991 remake starring real sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave. Consider yourself warned.

Streams on HBO Max, Amazon, YouTube, and VUDU.

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