Robert Aldrich’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” is so many bizarre and unexpected things at once; simultaneously darkly comic, terrifying, tragic and strangely exhilarating, all wrapped up in a sumptuously twisted and irresistible little package. The film’s two lead stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford portray an extraordinary relationship of two bitterly conflicted sisters, but the film’s production and the genuine off screen hatred between the actresses has become part of movie folk lore. It’s a shame that the film itself has been somewhat overshadowed by the legend of Davis’ and Crawford’s feud, because it’s an absolute ripper.
The film opens on the Shirley Temple-esque child star Baby Jane Hudson performing to an adoring crowd in 1917, while her plain older sister Blanche looks on enviously from the wings. Baby Jane is spoiled and nasty, running rings around her father who manages her act and Blanche vows that she’ll never forget how Jane has treated her. Some years later, Blanche has become a highly sought after film star and the Hollywood executives only keep Jane in pictures because good natured Blanche has insisted that they produce one film for Jane for every one of hers. One night after one of their glamorous parties, Blanche is mysteriously injured in a car accident and confined thereafter to a wheelchair. Jane is unofficially held responsible for Blanche’s injury, but she can’t remember a thing about it and is found three days later drunk and holed up in a hotel room. When Davis and Crawford finally appear on screen, they live with each other in a grand home in Los Angeles, the good natured and long suffering Blanche (Crawford) confined to her wheelchair and Jane (Davis) bitterly and sardonically bringing her trays of food while mercilessly mocking and antagonising her. The film gradually turns into a psychological thriller as Jane becomes more and more unhinged, Blanche’s attempts at escape are foiled and she is eventually bound and gagged in her room while Jane becomes infatuated with a local musician amid hopes she will revive her childhood stardom.
I’m sure that Crawford has done great work in other films, and she does a reasonable job here, but she’s completely overshadowed by Davis. Perhaps some sense of jealousy fuelled some of their off screen angst, but I do think a lot of it has to do with Jane being the more interesting character. Davis is incredibly gutsy to appear on screen as she did; her costuming is unflattering and Davis herself has said that the applied the make-up herself with the idea that Jane wouldn’t have ever washed her face or looked after herself, just drowned herself in booze and reapplied the make up on top of it. Her iconic voice is absolutely dripping in poison and she takes such delicious glee in torturing her sister: “No Blanche! You didn’t eat your din-dins!” “But you are Blanche! You are in the chair!” I expected the story to be mainly a character study between the two sisters, but its actually one of the better thrillers I’ve ever seen. You can sense Blanche’s desperation every time Jane leaves the house and we are sitting with our hearts in our mouths as she throws that note asking for help to her neighbour and Jane finds it instead. There are many similarities for instance to Rob Reiner’s “Misery”, and both do well by making the tension and danger bound by the rules of the real world. The themes found throughout the story are universal and even though its a little strange for us today to think of child stars in the early twentieth century, it still works on so many levels today. It works as a horror, as a thriller, as a cult classic, as a comedy, as a cautionary tale for jealousy and the brutal world of show business where talent is thrown out as soon as something more relevant comes along.
I was a little confused by the side plot with Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), as it seemed to try and emulate the infatuation created in “Sunset Boulevard” but just didn’t seem to fit Jane’s character. Her decline into insanity and her girly, sickly sweet disposition at the end of the film took me by surprise too; if she was regressing to her state as a little girl, shouldn’t she still be as spoiled and selfish as she was as Baby Jane?
Perhaps the dynamic between Jane and Blanche would have been as electric had they been amicable off screen, but its definitely more fun this way. When the scene came where Bette Davis had to slap Joan Crawford to the floor and drag her across the room, Crawford attached heavy weights under her clothes to make it more difficult for her. Bette Davis installed a Coca Cola machine on set, knowing that Crawford was the widow of Pepsi chairman Alfred Steele. When Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her role, she was the favourite to win and would have been the first woman to ever win three Oscars in history, but Crawford campaigned heavily for Anne Bancroft to win instead, even accepting the award on her behalf when she won. What’s bizarre about this in particular is if Davis had won the award, the film would have done better and they both would have earned an additional $1 million US.
Cinema owes a lot to this film, especially so for older actresses. Its incredible watching these two actresses who were seen to be beyond their prime, delivering such powerful performances and producing such an iconic entity which is still quoted now. Bette Davis famously said during an interview promoting the film that when the two women were suggested to star in the film, Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner replied that “(He) wouldn’t give a plugged nickel for either one of those two old broads.” The next day, Crawford sent her a telegram saying “In the future, kindly do not refer to me as an ‘old broad'”.
By Jock Lehman