Dec 30, 2014

The Gay Connection of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

I heard that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) was a gay classic, the coming-out film of the pre-Stonewall Era, when gay men snipped "But ya are, Blanche!" at each other as gleefully as my generation said "Come up to the lab, and see what's on the slab!"

Legendary drag queen and dramatist Charles Busch, who recorded the DVD commentary, says that it's "one of those handful of movies you have to see to get your gay card."

Well, I got my gay card quite a few years ago, so I thought I'd better get around to seeing what all the fuss was about.

Previously I had seen Bette Davis only in All About Eve, Return from Witch Mountain, and Death on the Nile, and Joan Crawford in nothing (unless you count her portrayal by Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest), so I was coming in fresh.

There are 3 parts.

1917: Baby Jane Hudson is a 10-year old Vaudeville star whose signature song is the maudlin "I Wrote a Letter to Daddy."  Her older sister Blanche is jealous.

1934: The young adult Jane Hudson is a flop in Hollywood, but Blanche has become a big star.  Jealous, Jane runs into Blanche with her car, crippling her.  The director cleverly avoids showing Blanche, and shows Jane only in one of Bette Davis's old movies.

1962: Jane (Davis) and Blanche (Crawford) have spent their lives in seclusion in a decaying Hollywood mansion, seeing only their housekeeper and business manager.

When Blanche's old movies are broadcast on television, gaining her a new generation of fans, Jane gets jealous again, and starts torturing her.  During a two-day period, she kills Blanche's pet bird, tries to feed her the bird and a rat, rips the phone out of the wall, ties her up, and...well, that's about it.

Blanche tries to signal to various people that she's in trouble, but Jane always intercepts the message.

Finally Jane has a complete breakdown, dragging Blanche to the beach and reverting to her child self.

Then comes the stunning reveal: Jane wasn't trying to kill Blanche the night of her accident.  Blanche was trying to kill Jane!

Ok, so that makes no sense at all.  But really, nothing about this movie makes much sense.  Like, shouldn't a wheelchair bound person get a room on the first floor?

And I still can't figure out the gay connection.

1. Buddy-bonding male friendships?  No.  There aren't any significant male characters, except in a humorous subplot about the middle-aged Jane trying to revive her child star career.  Victor Buono plays Edwin Flagg, a layabout she hires to help with the musical arrangements, who gamely asserts that her idea is genius, and even flirts with her in the interest of getting his paycheck.

2. Lesbian bonds, then?  No.  Blanche and Jane hate each other.

3. Same-sex desire of any sort, even hinted at?  Not a bit.

4. Critiques of hetero-romance?  Maybe a little.  No one is involved with anyone.  The next-door neighbors consist of a mother and daughter.  Blanche's courting of Edwin Flagg comes across as creepy and unhinged, like her incest-tinged relationship with her father.

5. Gay symbolism?  When Blanche laments, "If only I weren't in a wheelchair!" Jane replies acidly, "But ya are, Blanche!"  Maybe the gay men of a certain age used to lament, "If only I weren't gay!", to which their witty friends replied acidly, "But ya are, Blanche!"

6. Gay author or director?  No.

7. Beefcake?  A little, maybe.  Victor Buono looks like he might have a nice hairy chest, and during the beach scene,  some hunks in swimsuits stare aghast at Jane's breakdown.

I guess you had to be a gay man in the pre-Stonewall era to get it.

The 1991 remake was, apparently, even more over-the-top. Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave play Blanche and Jane.  Instead of a housekeeper, there is massage therapist Dominick  (Bruce A. Young), who is probably gay, and instead of a drunken musician, Jane flirts with aspiring filmmaker, drag queen, and pedophile Billy (John Glover, top photo).

See also: All About Eve