Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What Ever Happened to that 1991 TV Remake of Baby Jane?

In 1991, ABC aired a TV movie remake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the 1962 Bette Davis classic whose success launched the entire “old ladies doing fucked-up shit to each other” genre.

This new Baby Jane is to the original as the Carrie Underwood Sound of Music is to the Julie Andrews version — by no means better, but perhaps an object of curiosity to the morbidly pop culture-minded. Aside from updating the original’s plot to that wonderful late-80s, early-90s inter-decade bleed, the remake happens to star two real-life actress sisters in the lead roles: Vanessa Redgrave as the wheelchair-bound Blanche and Lynn Redgrave as the able-bodied but demented Jane. For me, that was gimmick enough to seek out the film online but not gimmick to make the movie especially good. Perhaps the real-life sisters angle would have worked better if the film were remade on a regular basis, pitting a different pair of famous sisters against each other — Kim and Kyle Richards one year, the Mara sisters the next, the Olsen twins after that.

A boy can dream.

I’m posting about the remake today, however, to draw attention to one scene that stands apart from the rest. Here, watch.

I think it plays like something David Lynch would direct were he to dabble in hagsploitation. The griminess of Hollywood, the further inter-decade bleed, the jazzy soundtrack to Jane’s search for her manager backstage, the fact that Lynn Redgrave is dressed like the Joker’s mother by way of Diane Ladd in Wild at Heart — it all echoes Lynch’s work, even if I’m fairly certain it’s all coincidental.

As it plays on, this scene gets more surreal in a Lynch-like way. Jane breaks down mid-performance, time slows and the camera lingers on the weirdos who have attended this performance for some reason — in particular the dark-haired woman who is also dressed in a babydoll dress and may be explicitly dressed as Baby Jane Hudson. (Is Jane then duetting with herself? That seems like a particularly Lynch-y question.) The scene would tie in very neatly to the “theater of the mind” motif that Lynch uses in Twin Peaks with the Red Room and in Mulholland Drive with Club Silencio. It’s just so happens that David Lynch didn’t direct this. I hope other Lynch lunatics see the parallels nonetheless. And I hope the Lynch-illiterate who had tuned in back in 1991 just to see those two classy British acting sisters caught this scene and wondered out lout what the fuck they were watching.

Jane may be the film’s villain, but it’s hard not to feel her heartbreak in this scene. I’m not sure if credit does to Lynn Redgrave for finding the humanity beneath the melodrama or to author Henry Farrell, who created such a compelling tragedy when he wrote the book upon which the original movie was based.

By the way, Blanche’s drag queen double is played by John Glover, the campmaster who I will always see as the very fey Dr. Jason Woodrue in Batman & Robin and the mildly less-fey-but-still-in-the-ballpark Lionel Luthor from Smallville.

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