What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) directed by Robert Aldrich
What’s it about?
Robert Aldrich’s horror-thriller starts off in the early 20th century as child star “Baby” Jane Hudson sings a song about her daddy in front of a theatre packed with adoring fans. For her efforts, she is presented with a doll version of herself which is for sale to punters outside of the auditorium. However, her sister Blanche is jealous of all of the attention she is getting.
Flash forward to the sibling’s adult lives and it is Blanche (played by Joan Crawford) who is the star while Jane (Bette Davis) is considered a past-it, second-rate talent. However, Blanche’s own reign comes to a nasty end due to a malicious incident involving her car in her driveway which results in her losing the use of her legs.
After the back story has been got out of the way and the film’s creepy opening credits have rolled over the image of a “Baby Jane” doll with a broken head, we cut to the film’s scenario. Blanche, now confined to a wheelchair, is living in an upstairs bedroom while being looked after by both Jane and a housemaid named Elvira (Maidie Norman). However, it becomes increasingly clear that Jane is an unhinged alcoholic who lives in resentment of the fact that her sister still maintains some semblance of popularity from reruns of her films on TV (particularly when her neighbour Mrs. Bates, played by Anna Lee, brings some flowers to the door for the latter).
Fed up with being at Blanche’s constant beck and call (via that irritating buzzer), Jane resorts to exploiting her sibling financially by impersonating her and, moreover, subjecting her to an escalating succession of abuses. When Elvira raises her concerns about how Jane is treating Blanche, Jane attempts to push her out of the picture by convincing her that her sister wants her to take a holiday. Can Blanche escape this nightmarish family situation - or is she doomed to be a victim of Jane’s deteriorating mental health?
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Why is it significant?
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is widely considered to be one of the classic psychological horror-thrillers of the 1960s. It gained much of its power from the casting its two ageing leading ladies: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Both were major Hollywood stars during the 1930s and 40s (albeit with some ups and downs) but their respective careers faded soon afterwards; as with many other actresses even nowadays (but especially back then) once the looks start to fade the offers dry up in Tinseltown. Such is the sexist mentality of Hollywood producers. Moreover, both had been longtime bitter rivals in real life. Therefore, the air of onscreen sadness surrounding faded glories and palpable air of antagonism in the film was, at least in part, genuine.
The film cost less than $1 million but made over nine times that amount worldwide. It was well-received critically and was nominated for several Oscars - including one for Bette Davis herself. In the event, however, it only won one (Best Costume Design, Black-and-White for Norma Koch).
While the filmmakers were undoubtedly inspired to make What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? after the huge success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) it went on to become a seminal picture in its own right, spawning the so-called “psycho-biddy” (or “hagsploitation”) sub-genre. Indeed, one such entry was Robert Aldrich’s own follow-up film called Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) which was intended to star Davis and Crawford but this time with the former as the victim and the latter as her persecutor. However, the real-life feud between the two put paid to them working together for a second time as Crawford decided to back out. She was replaced by Olivia De Havilland who, interestingly, once played a dual role as good and evil twin sisters embroiled in another abusive/controlling relationship in an earlier psychological thriller called The Dark Mirror (1946).
Most recently, an American TV series called Feud was centred around the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and chronicled the feud between its two stars. Susan Sarandon played Davis and Jessica Lange played Crawford.
How does it hold up?
Taken simply as a thriller, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is good but not necessarily perfect. There are moments of well-orchestrated suspense here but they tend to hinge around somewhat over-contrived situations such as Blanche attempting to alert a neighbour by crumpling up a written message and throwing it out the window - just as Jane has driven back to the house and thus ended up in a position whereby she can intercept it. At 134 minutes in length it’s also somewhat longer than it really needs to be.
On the other hand, it’s still a highly involving and disturbing tale of abuse with a number of pertinent subtexts: the cruel nature of fickle fame, the ravages of old age on the body and mind and the inherent propensity for loved ones to resort to cruelty when they are given the power to do so. Director Aldrich displays a flair for framing and composing shots in an imaginative and telling fashion. The most notable of these take place in Davis’s darkened, rather gothic-looking private room where a Baby Jane doll looms sinisterly in the foreground, a lifeless yet larger-than-life memento of glory days past. As Jane sings her old favourite “Daddy” into the mirror she breaks down at the sight of her sagging hag face reflected right back at her, it seemingly distorting all the more as she weeps. Later on, as her terrorisation of Blanche increasingly gets to her, we see the latter framed in shot from behind a table whose top and legs box the periphery of the screen - and, by extension, her - as she spins around frantically in her wheelchair.
In many ways, the sustained and protracted cruelty on display here is a precursor to he more modern “torture porn” subgenre typified by films such as Takashi Miike’s Audition as well as the Saw and Hostel series. Here, however, there is little in the way of graphic effects. However, the lengths and fevered creativity of sadistic unpleasantness that Jane goes to despite Blanche’s impassioned pleas makes for far from comfortable viewing.
A multi-dimensional monster
However, despite the fact that Jane is certainly a monstrous character she’s far from one-dimensional. While it’s not possible to truly sympathise with her actions there is an overwhelming air of pathos about the state she is in. She has been reduced to such a pitiful, booze-sozzled, wrinkled cast-off that the first meagre piece of positive attention she has received in many a year - from an overweight loser of an English pianist called Edwin (Victor Buono) who lives with his mother - is greeted by her grinning from ear to ear in his presence. Bette Davis portrays her with such an uncanny wretchedness that the fact that she was only nominated for an Oscar instead of actually winning feels like an act of robbery.
That’s not to say that Joan Crawford doesn’t pull her onscreen weight. There’s a constant on-edge air about her emaciated presence here that makes the torment she is going through feel real to the viewer. Her undoubted real-life discomfort at sharing the screen with Davis seeps through in every scene. Buono and Maidie Norman also give fine supporting performances here. The latter is particularly notable as a housemaid who proves to be somewhat pluckier and more assertive in a manner that is above her station - but more akin to seeing herself as the responsible and caring sister that Jane, frankly, isn’t. There are one or two scenes here where her presence towers above Davis’s and truly makes the latter look like the pathetic being that she is.
The world of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is still very relevant today when we are moving from one “next big thing” to another at a faster rate than ever before. One year’s “It girl” is the next year’s tabloid gossip subject, then the year after that’s I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here contestant. Another troubling real-life relevance is touched upon hear as so many people behind Hollywood’s glossy facade have turned out to be monsters behind the scenes: Johnny Depp, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey being amongst the most recent examples. Joan Crawford herself has been accused of abuses by her adopted daughter Christine in her memoir Mommy Dearest (1978) which was made into a film in 1981. The film is an uncomfortably true reflection of the dark side the cult of celebrity that has never gone away and, as long as its glittering stars aren’t held to proper account, never will.
Runtime: 134 mins
Dir: Robert Aldrich
Script: Lukas Heller, from a novel by Henry Farrell
Starring: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Anna Lee, Maidie Norman