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TV Reviews : A Magical Rapport in ‘Baby Jane’ Remake

Should movie classics be remade at all? Sometimes--if, like the made-for-TV version of Robert Aldrich’s 1962 Hollywood Grand Guignol shocker, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"--different spins can be found for the material.

Aldrich’s famous thriller, taken from Henry Farrell’s novel, was a hard-edged look at two faded Hollywood stars, sisters Baby Jane and Blanche Hudson, yoked together in a trap of poisonous resentment, acting out a wacko passion play of hatred and revenge in their secretively dark Hancock Park domicile. The remake, which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42, was produced by Aldrich’s son, William--and in it, the action is updated from 1962 to the present.

The original Hudson sisters, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford--whose star charisma was peerless but whose chemistry was minimal (offstage, they disliked each other)--are replaced by the Redgrave sisters. Lynn takes Davis’ role of blowzy, cutesy-mean, ravaged, ex-child star Baby Jane, and Vanessa plays long-suffering ex-romance queen Blanche--whom Jane imprisons and subjects to endlessly campy and depraved abuses.

The new version isn’t remotely the equal of the old, though writer Brian Taggert and director David Greene work to iron out some old logic kinks and chart more closely Baby Jane’s descent into madness. John Glover, the master of smarm, replaces Victor Buono as Baby Jane’s threadbare accompanist, but his new scenes weren’t written with as much pungency or wit.

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Nobody here can match Davis--whose toweringly brilliant Baby Jane is one of the great virtuoso pieces of self-conscious Hollywood ham. But the Redgraves offer something Davis and Crawford couldn’t: an almost magical sisterly rapport. Their scenes together have a spontaneity, sensitivity, exact judgment and utterly unselfish interplay that give this remake real emotional verisimilitude. Aldrich’s movie had overwhelming, almost hypnotic power. This remake gains in subtlety--even though subtlety is not exactly the story’s strong point.

(By coincidence, Vanessa Redgrave is also starring Sunday in a new two-part movie on the TNT cable channel, “Young Catherine,” about Catherine the Great of Russia. Redgrave portrays the Empress of Russia, with Julia Ormond as Catherine and Marthe Keller as Catherine’s mother. It airs Sunday and Monday at 5 p.m., with repeats each night at 7.)


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