On March 5 the first episode of Feud aired on the FX cable network. This mini-series features Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and over the course of the next eight weeks viewers will watch as they re-enact the turmoil and havoc created by those two diva movie actresses on and off the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I’ve seen that cult classic, the grandmother of the badass biddy or hagsploitation suspense movies of the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of times. But I’ve never read the book. Now is as good a time as any to see how closely the movie script sticks to the original forgotten novel.
I expected some similarities but I didn’t expect such a reverent translation from page to screen. The first two thirds of the book are literally exactly the same as the movie, from prologue at the turn of the century to the unexpected murder of a supporting character in the Hudson house. There are minor tweaks here and there like the 50ish housekeeper Mrs. Edna Stitt who has a much larger part in the book being transformed on screen into a younger African American housekeeper named Elvira now relegated to the background with only two key scenes. Edwin Flagg also has a larger supporting part in the book and we learn a lot more of his pathetic unambitious slacker life and his sick co-dependent relationship with his mother Del. But other than those minor alterations, the addition in the movie script of one extra surprise meal for Blanche, and a more interestingly rendered finale at the beach in the last two chapters what you see in the movie is exactly what’s in the book. Which is better? If I’m allowed I'd like to take one half of each -- preferring the movie version of Baby Jane and the book version of Blanche. Overall, I’d say that the movie improves upon the story of the book immensely. Lucas Heller, the scriptwriter and adapter, definitely understands suspense in cinematic terms much better than Farrell does in his novel.
For those of you uninitiated here’s my briefest possible summary. (Those who know the story already can skip this paragraph.) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1960) tells the story of two sisters who live together in relative seclusion following their previous success as actresses. Blanche Hudson, the older sister, now crippled for life as the result of a car accident and confined to a wheelchair is under the care of Jane, a former child actress. Jane was a headliner throughout her childhood and the breadwinner for the Hudson family in the days of vaudeville but her fame quickly faded as the sisters grew older. Blanche became a star of Hollywood romantic comedies, had a much longer career in the 30s and 40s while Jane was consigned to bit parts thanks to a charitable clause written into all of Blanche’s movie contracts that gave her sister those jobs. Now in their twilight years Jane finds herself acting as nursemaid and waitress to her invalid sister and resenting her more and more each day. A bitter rivalry and jealousy long dormant will now explode in a display of cruel psychological and physical tortures as Jane prepares to make her comeback in a delusional belief that she will finally outshine Blanche though both their stars have long since been extinguished from the Hollywood firmament.
Henry Farrell’s novel offers the reader a chance to know both Blanche and Jane in ways that Davis and Crawford only hinted at in the movie. There are long passages of interior monologues in which their present lives and former lives are described. We know their thoughts more than a close-up can provide. Blanche as an invalid has a rich interior life in which she retreats into her past just as Jane does, but it seems to be more of a longing for what could have been if not for the crippling accident. Jane as depicted in the novel is actually less interesting than what Davis brought to the screen. She’s more loathsome in her delusions rather than the pitiful creature Davis managed to make Baby Jane in the movie. What little empathy we can conjure up for her comes far too late in the final heartbreaking scene in which the truth about the car accident is finally made known.
Jane has one section that I think is the triumph of the novel. She has a true epiphany about how her retreat from reality and immersion in a fantasy life was actually a descent into madness. Her horror of the realization at the monster she has become, how what she valued most -- the love of her sister -- was perverted and abused, and how she has reached a point where she cannot ever go back and try to repair what could have been mended between the two women. The book has a subtly nihilistic viewpoint at this point and it succeeds as a true noir. Prior to those few pages in Chapter 14 (out of a total of eighteen) the book sustains its momentum and macabre fascination with scenes intended alternately to shock and repulse.
QUOTES: Blanche turned her gaze upward to the ceiling and her lips twisted in a smile of wry amusement. Against a field of vivid blue an artful scattering of stars winked down at her dully. Her smile faded, and she let her eyes fall to the mantel and the framed photograph of the blank-faced girl who had once believed she could actually possess the sky and the stars and had ordered them fixed upon her ceiling. What a vain, profligate child that one had been. What a contemptible fraud, really. And hardly in a position to charge Jane with poor taste.
[Jane] had dwelt for a time in a world removed, utterly, from reality. [...] She was like a child who had shocked herself out of her own temper tantrums by inadvertently breaking a treasured piece of china; the angry delirium was past, but the calm present was made even worse by the imminent threat of some terrible retribution.
She was lost in hell, she told herself in sudden anguish, lost and doomed forever to a burning hell of unavailing remorse. Her madness had begun in her fear of losing Blanche, of losing, at last, Blanche's forgiveness. [...] What was the use of anything? Of anything at all?
The only real criticism I have are in the sections where we see the physical struggles and the intense agony that Blanche suffers in doing something as simple as getting out of her wheelchair. There are three separate scenes where she must act quickly in order that Jane not catch her out of the chair or out of her room or both but her paralysis is her curse. Blanche can't move quickly at all obviously. Farrell goes into intricate detail describing every minute movement as she raises herself up, slips, falls, stumbles, misses a handrail... One scene lasts four pages describing her arduous journey from the gallery on the second floor to the first floor hallway where the only working phone is kept. Another scene goes on for two pages as she lifts herself out of her chair and clutches at the grillwork barring her bedroom window while simultaneously trying to get the attention of the neighbor working in her garden below to whom Blanche wants to toss a handwritten note. I guess this is Farrell's idea of suspense, but those sections are extremely unnerving to read. A few paragraphs could easily have conveyed what Farrell chooses to spread out over pages. There's a kind of sadism on display in his lurid focus on her pain and agony.
MOVIE: Davis fares more successfully in her grotesque portrayal of the overweight, slovenly, and alcoholic Jane Hudson. Paradoxically poignant in her childish regressions into her past and a fury of hatred in her explosions of unrestrained violence. She was willing to let herself go in way I think she never had in her early career. She understood the character thoroughly, even better than Henry Farrell. Deservedly, she earned her 11th and final Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her performance as Jane Hudson. The bizarre business surrounding her Oscar nomination for this movie while Crawford got nothing is the focus of one of the episodes in Feud.
Crawford, always more of a movie star than an actress, does a fine job but there's something missing. Her acting has always struck me as artificial style consisting of her limited gallery of facial expressions and vocal tricks. She was belittled by Davis for wanting to appear glamorous even though her character is a recluse confined to a wheelchair who had never been outside her home in over twenty years. Crawford's obsession with her looks and her reliance on camera close-ups to do her acting for her were her undoing. She never fully inhabits Blanche, there's a surface element that is more apparent with repeated viewings of the movie. Crawford is too self-conscious of her performance, never surrendered, and wore a mask of fear and paranoia while adopting poses.
Victor Buono made his movie debut in a supporting role in this movie. He brings to life everything that Edwin Flagg is in the novel and moreso. Buono succeeds in making Flagg a lot more human and humorous than Farrell's caricature of a morose, cynical, mother hating boy-man.
In adapting the novel to the screen Lucas Heller (who would go on to collaborate with director Robert Aldrich on five more movies) masterfully makes use of the novel's best scenes, does a little tinkering with story chronology by moving some scenes that occur late in the novel to earlier points in the movie. And he structures the script with parallel storytelling and editing to make the most of cinematic suspense. The movie is pretty much all about Jane and her transformation from bully to murderer to madwoman. Blanche still has her important dramatic scenes as well, but Jane's story as performed by Bette Davis is what everyone remembers even after one viewing.
EASY TO FIND? Approximately 50 copies, mostly of paperback reprints, are available for sale at the usual bookselling sites. Both US and UK hardcover editions are scarce and are not surprisingly priced in the "collectible range" primarily due to the cult status of the movie. I imagine some unscrupulous sellers will raise the prices as soon as they find out about the TV series. No recent reissue came up in my research which seems a genuine missed opportunity for a new edition as a tie-in with the series.
Feud is airing every Sunday night from March 5 to April 23 on the FX cable station. Though the story in the first episode sometimes drags to a standstill in the interview sequences which serve as superfluous narration, whenever Sarandon and Lange are on screen they are riveting. Episodes can be watched after their initial air date via streaming on the FX network website.