THE NEW version of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" is like a fireplace that's perfectly set up with well-cured logs, plenty of kindling and all the crumpled newspaper you need. You keep waiting for the match that will set the whole thing ablaze. But it never seems to appears.
Yet even as a still-life, this ABC remake of the 1962 film is so appealing that it rises above the average television movie. It will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) at 9 on Sunday night.
Widely touted as the first professional collaboration between the sisters Redgrave, Lynn and Vanessa, it really is an image-shattering showcase for Lynn, with Vanessa providing excellent support.
Lynn has the Bette Davis role of Baby Jane Hudson, the child star whose career faded just as the spotlight was moving to her sister Blanche, the role Vanessa takes over from Joan Crawford.
Needless to say, enough resentments abound to wear out a Freudian couch. But, as we come upon these two sisters in 1991, Blanche is the one who has a solid head on her shoulders but unfortunately not any useful legs under her.
Her career ended when she was paralyzed in an automobile accident years ago. Hollywood legend has it that Jane ran her down in a jealous rage. Now, living in the old family mansion, Jane nips at the bottle and alternates between caring for and tormenting her sister and rival for both fame and their late father's love.
They live in recluse, Jane angrily fending off friendly advances by the neighbors because they remember Blanche, but not her. An occasional visit by Blanche's physical therapist -- yet another would-be actor -- is their only contact with the outside.
But once, while seeking one of her own movies at a video store, Jane finds another dreamer caught in the Hollywood nightmare. Store manager and movie buff John Korn, played perfectly by low-life specialist John Glover, thinks there's a career, or at least a thousand bucks, to be made by putting Baby Jane back on stage. Jane, eager to be deluded by such enthusiasm, thinks there's a career to be re-made.
Despite Lynn's wild makeup and short skirts, this "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" doesn't have the campiness of the black and white original. It's played straight as a psychological thriller that eventually becomes a semi-bloody horror flick.
The production suffers in the updating. In 1962, the public relations wall around Hollywood stars was as strong as the one that had just gone up in Berlin. Both have disappeared since. These two sisters could not live in the dark shadows today, they'd be all over the tabloids. Mary Hart would be on their front lawn. They'd have done a passel of guest shots on "The Love Boat" and probably would have a career in some oldies dinner theater tour.
Thus robbed of the believability of its confined world, this "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" can't generate the dynamic tension needed to make the appearance of the would-be promoter the catalyst for an explosion.
Still, Lynn's performance is of an exceptional caliber, a true transformation into a character, as she plays this peculiar dementia with exquisite care. Her Jane is at once completely evil and completely innocent, a magnificent high-wire act by an underappreciated talent.
Though upstaged by her sister's more extravagant role, Vanessa is her usual brilliant self. In the film's last scene you see her dip deeply into her well of talent and come to appreciate the subtlety of her entire performance.
So, while "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" is a case of the whole being less than the sum of the parts, its parts are strong enough to stand on their own.
"Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" *** A remake of the 1962 Bette Davis/Joan Crawford film about two sisters, both former movie stars, now living a secluded and sinister life behind Hollywood's closed doors.
CAST: Lynn Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, John Glover
TIME: Sunday at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)