What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
Not Rated (a PG-13 equivalent)
(for terrifying situations involving physical and psychological abuse)
Released: October 31, 1962
Runtime: 134 minutes
Director: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Maidie Norman, Anna Lee
For as stylized and occasionally over-the-top as this suspense melodrama is, one senses that the line between fiction and reality in 1962’s What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? is pretty thin.
To see Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in these roles is, in essence, to see exaggerated forms of themselves. Or, if Ryan Murphy’s classically rendered, mesmerizing behind-the-scenes “Making Of” FX TV series Feud: Bette and Joan is to be believed, they’re versions of how Crawford wanted the public to perceive each of them – not just individually but also in relation to each other.
In one of many ironies, the response to the final material ended up having the exact opposite effect that Crawford desired (on a few levels) when she first jumpstarted the project herself. More on that later.
Based on a popular pulp novel, Crawford saw this as rich material for a comeback (particularly since no good parts were being written for women her age), and from a pure marketing perspective she asked her longtime Hollywood nemesis Bette Davis to take the title role. Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros. Studios, agreed, especially in light of Alfred Hitchcock’s recent black-and-white horror smash Psycho.
It’s the story of two aging sisters; they’re both former acting legends of varying reputes. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) struck early success under the moniker “Baby Jane”, a pre-Shirley Temple child star on the Vaudeville circuit, before being eclipsed by her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) in the movies as adults.
Now, with both careers long over, the two live together in seclusion, with Blanche essentially held captive by the mentally unstable Jane. Blanche has been a paraplegic for nearly three decades following a car accident that ended her career, crippled from the waist down, and Jane is her increasingly violent caretaker.
To use an old Hollywood reference, Jane is like Scarlett O’Hara gone mad and Blanche the genteel Melanie Wilkes who only wants to assume the best of Jane…until Jane’s compounding psychosis can no longer be denied, shifting from passive aggressive psychological abuse to overt physical beatings and torture. By the final act, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? becomes the “Norma Desmond Meets Saw” of its day.
Crawford may have launched the project with Oscar hopes of her own but it was Davis that stole the show and snagged the Academy Award nomination. It’s easy to see why. Going full tilt in a way that embodies Davis’s bold makeup choice (“Bette Davis Eyes” indeed; she reportedly came up with that powdered adult doll look all her own), the infamous acerbic actress doesn’t so much chew the scenery as devour it like a glutton, with complete conviction, yet still provides enough layers to make Jane much more than a caricature.
Unfortunately, Davis’s pyrotechnics overshadowed Crawford’s more appropriately restrained approach, so much so that Joan didn’t get her due. Indeed, it’s Crawford’s turn here that’s the better, richer screen performance, employing nuance rather than excess (even though the genre would’ve allowed the latter). She does what few actors in her position truly do: take the scenario seriously, 100% all in.
For his part, director Robert Aldrich does right by the material even if he’s largely trying to mimic Hitchcock, more workmanlike than artistic (while also stealing some Psycho visual motifs). Still, on the whole, Aldrich mimics well, particularly in the black-and-white aesthetic with stark, chilling images. The whole movie was clearly pushing boundaries of the time, perhaps best exemplified by Davis mouthing the word “Bitch!” at one point, rather obviously, despite her audio being dropped for censors in the final cut.
Co-star Victor Buono also received an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actor category, though one wonders how thin the crop must’ve been that year (actress Maidie Norman, the African-American maid, is much better and more crucial). Perhaps the movie struck that strong of a nerve in the zeitgeist, it’s hard to say, but his adequate portrayal as a potential collaborator with Jane belies no talent beyond what Buono would go on to be best known for: the super-villain King Tut on the campy 1960s Batman TV series.
There’s certainly heavy doses of camp here, too, but more the kind that’s swinging for the fences than the merely goofy brand. The end result is mixed but consistently engaging, and occasionally spellbinding. The finale, however, really ends up being a letdown. It involves a twist, one that – while effectively causing you to rethink everything you’ve seen – ends up undercutting the sympathies the whole movie has been asking you to extend and invest in. It’s simultaneously clever and unsatisfying.
An imperfect film, where the parts are much better than Aldrich’s collective whole, but What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? remains a fascinating bit of post-Studio Era risk-taking. Its leading grand dames make it unforgettable – Crawford especially (although Davis is undeniably juicy).
And to those ironies I alluded to earlier? Not only did Davis get the Oscar nomination that Crawford coveted, but the net result essentially sealed each actress’s perceived status in the industry (Crawford waning, Davis still relevant) rather than flipping it as Crawford had hoped. Furthermore, with Baby Jane being such a huge hit, Aldrich soon followed it up with another black-and-white thriller (Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte) that starred Davis but not Crawford.
Taking Joan’s place? Olivia de Havilland (aka Melanie Wilkes from Gone With The Wind), whose persona Crawford was so clearly trying to emulate in Baby Jane. It was, in a sense, the ultimate betrayal by Aldrich who only got the Baby Jane gig on Crawford’s insistence to begin with. (This, too, is explored in Feud, and is much more complex and intriguing than I’ve only hinted at here.)
And, in the final belated irony, not only did Crawford fail in her attempt at an image makeover comeback, but once her adopted daughter’s scandalous memoir Mommie Dearest was published, and then adapted to the screen starring Faye Dunaway (“No wire hangers!”), the world would eventually see Crawford not as the victimized Blanche Hudson but, rather, the incarnation of Baby Jane herself.