What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
US (1962) Dir. Robert Aldrich
What do you do when you have two of the biggest stars of the Golden Era of Hollywood who have a famous long-standing personal and bitter rivalry? You cast them as sisters in a film of course! That is the big draw for this classic adaptation of Henry Farrell’s psychological drama novel, a bold move which, against all odds, reaps great rewards.
In 1917 Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred) is a popular child star of the stage, working a double act with her doting father (Dave Willock) while Jane’s elder sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie) watches from the wings. Fast forward to the 1930’s and Jane is trying to make it in movies but it is Blanche who is now the star.
One night after a showbiz party, an accident involving the sisters’ car leaves Blanche paralysed. It’s now 1962 and wheelchair bound Blanche (Joan Crawford) relies on a bitter and resentful Jane (Bette Davis) to look after her, along with their cleaner Elvira (Maidie Norman). Upon learning Blanche plans to sell their house, Jane begins a campaign of terror and mental abuse against her sister.
The Crawford-Davis rivalry has become a thing of legend and this film is the central hub of reference for the general public, almost overshadowing the film itself, a crime as this is a dark and gnarly classic of its type. Comparisons can be made with the classic Sunset Boulevard due to the shared theme of stars from a bygone era basking in their former glories, but where Billy Wilder’s film was a satire, this one is pure psychodrama.
Arguably the most miraculous thing about this film is how to the two legends didn’t kill each other, and while pranks were played and psyches were toyed with, they remained professional and co-operative. Yet this palpable enmity is the very friction that gives the film its unnerving edge and steely tension, as if one can feel Davis wanting to break character and do Crawford some serious harm.
Conversely the few tender scenes between them in the final act feel genuine and whatever malicious intent was permeating from Davis like a demonic spirit is gone and the mood is quite touching and loving. Again a testament to the talent and power of the two legends, Davis in particular.
So how did the relationship between the Hudson sisters get so sour? Beyond Blanche usurping Jane as the big star and breadwinner for the family, the car accident also triggered an emotional switch in Jane when she was accused of deliberately harming her sister, despite being too drunk to remember.
As time passed, Blanche was still fondly remembered while Baby Jane Hudson was long forgotten, a huge bullet to the ego of Jane. Much like Norma Desmond, Jane clings onto her fleeting fame, right down to still wearing clods of stage make-up and dressing in a style similar to her childhood days, looking like a gothic 60 year-old Shirley Temple.
Blanche refuses to accept her sister is so vituperative even after Elvira presents her with evidence, only taking the hint when Jane serves Blanche her pet bird for lunch! It’s not long before Blanche is completely at Jane’s mercy, every attempt to seek help or escape is met with harsher punishment. Meanwhile Jane hires a pianist Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) to help revive her career and works with him while Blanche is bound and gagged in her room upstairs.
The tension created by Blanche’s desperate but futile attempts to get help or to escape is surprisingly effective, relying solely on Crawford’s performance to encourage the viewer to will her on while fearing the worst as Jane’s imminent return fills us with dread, but surely the ultimate cruelty is putting someone in a wheelchair upstairs in the first place?
Robert Aldrich wisely lets the horror and psychological violence grow exponentially as Jane’s obvious mental instability spirals out of control. Initially the film was to be shot in colour but Davis argued it should be in black and white; clearly she was right – her ghastly Baby Jane make-up wouldn’t have been as effective in colour while losing the scenes shot with shadows would have been a huge detriment.
The feud between the two leads off screen – such as Davis having a Coca Cola machine on set when Crawford was married to the CEO of Pepsi – spilled over onto the screen. Apparently Davis went rogue with the kicks on Crawford during a scene where Jane attacks Blanche and injured her ribs, so in retaliation, Crawford reportedly hid some weights under her dress for when Davis had to carry her body about.
Yet the chemistry they create is undeniable, surely suggesting a professional – if begrudging – respect between them and I doubt anyone else could have pulled it off with the same success. Arguably this is Davis’s film (she got the Oscar nod) who relishes every second of her screen time to reach deep into her darkest emotional corners to make Jane such a deliciously unhinged and macabre antagonist.
However Davis needed Crawford’s sympathetic and gracious Blanche to bounce off, this light vs. dark dichotomy being the engine of the story. In many ways Crawford had the harder job – confined to a wheelchair, tied up in her bed or having to manoeuvre without using her legs. As Davis’s performance was energetic and outlandish, Crawford was subtle and nuanced, the conflicting styles complimenting each other perfectly.
For two women who won Oscars in their prime, it is debatable that Davis and Crawford gave their best performances here when their stock was diminishing, and at least for Davis saw the start of a resurgence. Ironic for a tale about two has-beens living of their pasts.
Some modern viewers might find a few contrivances here a little hard to swallow, but it would take a brave film fan to deny What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? its place as true classic with two legends cementing their legacies.