The fading careers of two of Hollywood's most famous actresses, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, received a boost in 1962 when they starred together in the claustrophobic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? As if to highlight their linked fates, Warner Bros. has chosen this month to set them against each other with dueling boxed sets that contain five pictures apiece.
Each set features one film from 1939, three from the '40s, and one from the '50s, giving appropriate weight to a period that was fertile for both women. The Davis set includes Dark Victory, The Letter, Now, Voyager, Mr. Skeffington, and The Star. Crawford's collects The Women, Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Possessed, and The Damned Don't Cry!
The packages aren't comprehensive best-of collections by a long shot. Some of the titles could charitably be called dated, and Pauline Kael, who reminded us that Davis' The Star was originally written for Crawford, calls that one "very bad." Others are rightly considered classics though, and together the films provide a broad view of the "women's picture" world these actresses inhabited (and sometimes, wielding granite-heavy personae, overpowered).
Crawford's legacy is forever colored by Mommie Dearest, the sordid memoir written by her adopted daughter. But you don't have to know about the infamous wire hangers to find her credibly demented in Possessed, a melodrama with a surprisingly subtle (for its time) approach to mental illness. When we're introduced to Crawford, her face is ashen even by black-and-white standards - her eyes vacant and haunted as she is wheeled into a psychiatric ward. Through flashbacks we see her character's sad evolution: from love through rejection to seeming recovery and eventual madness. For much of the film, Crawford's face is the most interesting thing onscreen: The lonely fear in her eyes when she realizes her man will never love her; her hard, crazy look when she threatens to stalk him. The story itself only becomes consuming in the final third, as Crawford really starts to disintegrate and the man who spurned her takes up with her stepdaughter. (Mother-daughter sexual rivalries are shockingly common here, popping up again in the classic James M. Cain noir Mildred Pierce and in Davis' Mr. Skeffington.)
Davis, on the other hand, could frighten an audience without seeming insane. In William Wyler's very enjoyable The Letter, our introduction to her is her confident, remorseless expression as she empties a revolver into a man she claims has tried to rape her. She remains in complete control of herself - and the men around her - for most of the film, even as she is arrested and put on trial for murder.
Davis goes through torturous loss or disfigurement in all of these stories, and we sometimes see the sort of screen-queen self-parody that would remain in the public's memory for decades. In Mr. Skeffington, for instance, she plays an intolerable woman who uses her beauty to keep a bevy of suitors strung along, even after she is married. When her looks finally go (thanks to a bout of diphtheria), it's hard not to wish the movie would rake her over the coals a bit more, instead of giving her the noble Claude Rains as a consolation prize.
Crawford also suffers a lot in her pictures, but what makes her Joan Crawford is the way she bootstraps herself out of hardship; even when things end badly, she gets some credit for sheer guts.
Warner has a new DVD of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in the works, possibly due this fall. It should be an in-demand title then, after movie fans have spent some time getting re-acquainted with these icons of Hollywood melodrama.
On to current events. Let's make mention of two new releases that may interest moviegoers who want a little more of what they're getting at the multiplex this week:
Fans of Batman Begins who would like to get to delve deeper into Christian Bale's dark side can do no better than American Psycho: Uncut Version (Lions Gate). Here Bale plays Bret Easton Ellis' yuppie psychopath on a gory killing spree that is either horrific or a hilarious satire, depending on the viewer's state of mind and attitude toward class warfare.
Zombie-lovers who remain unsated after George Romero's Land of the Dead can get a more intellectual take via They Came Back (Wellspring). Robin Campillo's French film begins much more calmly than its peers, depicting the undead as folks who, upon returning, mainly just want to take up their former lifestyles. What? Staggering around gnawing on somebody's leg isn't preferable to your old 9-to-5 grind? •
By John DeFore