February 7, 1938 – Victor Buono
“My only aversion to vice, is the price.”
It sometimes looks like a lethal senior citizen show with over-the-top spoiled ham, but as in the best Alfred Hitchcock films, suspense, rather than mayhem, drives Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962), an iconic piece of camp adored by generations of gays. The film combines powerhouse acting, rich atmosphere, and absorbing melodrama. It is a taut thriller and a black comedy, and, yes, it’s a lot of campy fun.
In case you have been on Mars for the past six decades, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was produced and directed by Robert Aldrich and stars Gay Icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It’s about an aging former child star who holds her paraplegic ex-movie star sister captive in their old Hollywood mansion.
The intensely bitter Hollywood rivalry between Davis and Crawford, was important to the film’s initial success and led to the revitalization of the then-waning careers of its two stars. Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? gave birth to the psycho-biddy subgenre, which includes Aldrich’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) with Davis and Olivia de Havilland, and What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969) starring Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon; and Curtis Harrington‘s Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) with Shelley Winters, and What’s the Matter With Helen? (1972), where Winters is joined by Debbie Reynolds.
It was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for Best Costume Design. Besides Davis, the only other actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? was not Crawford, but Victor Buono.
In Feud: Bette And Joan (2017), the first season of Ryan Murphy‘s terrific television series Feud, which stars Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis, Buono is gay, which wasn’t something that was openly discussed in 1960s Hollywood. In Feud, Davis accepts him and his gayness but encourages Buono to keep his true self hidden for the sake of his career. This was the sad reality for LGBTQ actors in Hollywood. In Feud, Dominic Burgess plays Buono with uncanny precision. His reaction to Sarandon’s Davis sweeping in and tossing off a filthy insult at Aldrich is classic.
In Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Buono plays pianist Edwin Flagg, who is hired by Davis’ Jane to relaunch her career. They have an odd relationship in the 1962 film, but in the Feud version, they form a fast friendship offscreen. When Buono is arrested in a police raid at a gay movie house for performing oral sex on a young man, he calls Davis to get him out of jail. After she gets him, she admonishes him not for his behavior, but for being so careless since, and says “Something like this could ruin your career“. There is no record that this happened in real life, but it was reality for many gay men of the era.
There is not much known of Buono’s gay life. Gay actors of the 1960s started to push back at the idea of marrying women to conceal their true identity, which was how it was done in the 1940s and 1950s, and Buono was one of them. We do know that Buono lived with a series of young men throughout his life. Tellingly, The New York Times obituary for Buono ends with: “Private services were being arranged for the actor, who was not married“.
Buono himself said:
“I’ve heard or read about actors being asked the immortal question ‘Why have you never married?’. They answer with the immortal excuse ‘I just haven’t found the right girl’. Because I’m on the hefty side, no one’s asked me yet. If they do, that’s the answer I’ll give. After all, if it was good enough for Monty Clift or Sal Mineo.”
Buono was never really out of the closet, yet he was rather radical for not pretending to be straight. In Feud, he is shown not wanting to lie, which is real, and it shows how prejudiced film fans of were in the 1960s.
Buono was found dead at his home in Apple Valley, California on New Year’s Day 1982. The San Bernadino coroner’s office said that the six-foot, four-inch-tall actor, who weighed 400 pounds, apparently died of natural causes. Buono’s lawyer said:
”I think his heart gave out. He was very overweight and had put on some weight over the holidays as well. That’s almost certainly the case.”
Born in San Diego, he appeared in dozens of plays at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater, where he got his start playing the title character in Volpone (1606) by Ben Jonson, right after his graduation from high school. His girth made him appear much older than his real age, and also helped make him a natural for starring roles in the Old Globe’s Shakespeare productions.
Although he regularly appeared on television and in films, he continued to perform in summer stock and in theatre productions in Los Angeles. He was scheduled to appear on Broadway in Who Done It by Anthony Shaffer, the writer of Sleuth, but death got him first.
Buono made his television appearance playing a beatnik poet in an early episode of 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964). Over the next few years, he played menacing heavies in television series. After appearing uncredited in a few films, he was cast by Aldrich in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?. After that Buono appeared in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) as Big Sam Hollis, the father of Davis in the title role. In the Biblical pic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Buono plays the High Priest Sorak, and in The Strangler (1976), a film based on the real Boston Strangler Murders of the era, he finally plays a lead role.
On television, he was the evil King Tut in the Batman series (1966-69), Count Manzeppi on The Wild Wild West (1965-69), mean Mr. Schubert in Man From Atlantis (1977-79), and President William Howard Taft in the television series, Best Years At The White House (1979).
“Being on ‘Batman’ allowed me to do something we actors are taught never to do: overact.”
He commanded the screen with an unforgettable presence.
Buono wrote whimsical poems about the joys of eating and his gains and losses in weight. In the 1970s, Buono released a couple of comedy record albums where he pokes fun at his large frame, the first was titled Heavy! (1971). He published a of a book of his poetry called It Could Be Verse (1972). He would identify himself as “the fat man from Batman”. He was a favorite of Johnny Carson and on his many appearances on The Tonight Show, he would recite his poetry. One of the most popular of his poems was Fat Man’s Prayer:
We are what we eat, said a wise old man,
And Lord, if that’s true, I’m a garbage can!
At oleomargarine I’ll never mutter,
For the road to hell is spread with butter.
And cake is cursed, and cream is awful,
And Satan is hiding in every waffle.
Give me this day my daily slice—
But cut it thin and toast it twice