Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – 1962 – dir. Robert Aldrich
Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was a child-star extraordinaire in 1917. She would sell out theaters, and had best-selling songs. Her song and dance numbers were her trademark. Dolls were created in Jane’s image while her older sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) watched from the wings. As Jane grew older, her star faded into drunken oblivion. Blanche, on the other hand, became a renowned actress with a stellar career—until it was cut short by a car accident. Jane was drunk behind the wheel of a car and ran over her sister. The car crushed Blanche’s legs and bound her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The accident sent Blanche into seclusion with only Jane to care for her; which wouldn’t be a bad thing if Jane wasn’t consumed with jealousy. Jane’s plan is to stage a comeback, but first she has to get out from behind her sister’s shadow. The only way to do that is to get rid of Blanche.
There are so many things to say about this film that I don’t know where to begin. So, I thought I would break it down into the Top 5.
Bette Davis. I’m not a huge fan, but she is amazing in this film. She completely becomes this character and I have to wonder where she drew her inspiration from. Her dislike of Crawford definitely translates onto the screen through Jane, but it’s more than that. Jane is absolutely terrifying as she tortures her sister. She serves Blanche a bird and a rat on a silver platter; which makes Blanche afraid to eat. Blanche becomes weak and weaker targets are easier to kill. Oh, and of course, since there is no one else, Jane would inherit Blanche’s estate, providing all of the monetary backing for her comeback. She’s genuinely twisted and wicked and it’s absolutely fabulous.
The house. Even on the outside this house looks unbalanced. There are two wrought iron gates that must open first in order to allow entry. This could be symbolic of Jane, as nothing goes on in the house without her knowledge. She is the gate that creaks when it opens.
The guest musician. Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) is a struggling musician who answers an advertisement Jane places in the newspaper. She’s anxious to stage her comeback, and Edwin realizes almost immediately that she’s less than a mediocre talent. He’s polite and obliging only because Jane’s offered him money. Money isn’t so important once he sees what Jane’s done to Blanche, and he runs from the house in terror.
The suspicious maid. Elvira (Maidie Norman) knows that there’s something wrong with Jane, and doesn’t trust her at all. She’s really the only one who tries to help Blanche, and she’s murdered in return.
Joan Crawford. Her character Blanche is absolutely tortured. Blanche is starved, caged, kicked, beaten, bound, gagged and nearly murdered. She tries to be nice and obliging, as she realizes that her sister is truly sick and disturbed. She begs for help, and for Jane to see a doctor. And, in the end, while they’re on the beach, the last thing that Blanche says to Jane is that the car accident wasn’t her fault, in an attempt to make some sort of peace with Jane. She hopes that Jane might see the error of her ways. “All of this time we could’ve been friends.” Jane says in response to Blanche’s final plea. The two of them lived out their days in jealousy, envy and hatred—and it was all unnecessary. Jane completely snaps and her mind reverts back to her childhood; when she was Baby Jane and would rehearse on the beach; everyone would come and watch her dance with her father. In Jane’s mind, she comes full circle at the end. She dances in circles while the police try and locate Blanche.
“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was released in 1962…When I read the stories about her [Joan Crawford’s] feud with Bette Davis I could just imagine the trauma of those two women working together…Bette Davis was the consummate match for my mother’s storehouse of intimidation tricks. She was as shrewd a professional and ever bit as indomitable as her co-star. Years later, Mother would only have to hear the name mentioned to start a tirade.” –Christina Crawford, from her book Mommie Dearest.
It’s amazing that, out of such loathing, an absolutely incredible on-screen chemistry was born. The film hinges on this very tangible feeling of hatred and resentment, not only from Davis’ character, but Crawford’s as well. It’s fascinating to note that, although as Crawford puts it she “never had time to be her [Davis’] friend,” I imagine that if they had been friends their relationship on-screen might not have translated the way that it did.
This was a fascinating film that I’m glad is part of my collection.