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Psycho is given a great deal of credit for redefining the direction American horror would take in the 1960s, and rightly so, but another film also deserves recognition for its innovations and influence. Like Psycho, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? signaled a shift from aliens, giant bugs, and atomic monsters to the more subtle and psychological horrors hidden behind the closed doors of modern society. Rather than taking place in an isolated gothic castle, Baby Jane is set in an affluent neighborhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles and the monsters are very human, twisted by common emotions like jealousy, loathing, and bitterness.
The film is a case study of the effects of jealousy on relationships and the bitterness that imprisons two sisters who have spent their entire lives harboring resentment toward each other. One of the film’s great innovations is its long prologue, lasting about ten minutes before the opening titles. It begins in 1917 with Baby Jane Hudson, a young vaudeville star, performing her act. Behind the scenes, she is a cruel brat that does nothing but antagonize her sister Blanche as well as her mother and “stage-dad” father. When the public catches a glimpse that her sweet and innocent routine is just an act, it immediately turns its back on her. The scene then cuts to 1935 where film producers are viewing one of now grown-up Jane’s films and are not impressed. We learn that Blanche has become a big movie star and insists that the studio give roles to Jane as well, but the producers make it clear that this stipulation is becoming a drag on her career. We then see one of the sisters attempt to hit the other with their car.
This famous cold open, one of the first of its kind in film history, beautifully sets up audience expectations and assumptions. In the next scene, set “Yesterday” according to the title card—presumably 1962, we see the now aged Blanche (Joan Crawford) in a wheelchair and Jane (Bette Davis) as her begrudging caretaker. Through the neighbors and the characters of Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) and his mother, played by Marjorie Bennett, we hear the rumors that Jane, while drunk, tried to kill Blanche with the car out of jealousy, disabling her in the process. Now, the sisters live off the money Blanche made as a Hollywood star. These simple situations allow room for the real key to the success of the film, the central performances of screen legends Davis and Crawford, now long past their ingenue years and in relative low points of their careers.
Joan Crawford’s career was in a slightly stronger position in the early sixties, having made some notable films in the 1950’s including Torch Song (1953) and Johnny Guitar (1954), but it was a far cry from her heyday of the 30s and 40s. When she was approached by director Robert Aldrich for Baby Jane, it was surely a welcome call. Crawford gives a subtle and serious performance in the role of Blanche Hudson. In early scenes, she watches her old movies on television, softly smiling at a life that is long past. Even in some of the more sensational scenes she appears in, such as when she is served her pet parakeet and later a dead rat for lunch, Crawford reacts unexpectedly. There are not shrill screams, but pained whimpers and tears of psychological trauma. Her face betrays the carrying of a heavy burden, in this case a nearly thirty-year secret that weighs heavy on her mind and conscience. By the end, we discover that she is not only being imprisoned by her sister, but the guilt she has kept hidden from her for half their lives. Though Crawford’s performance lacks the fireworks of Davis’s, it is a brave one as well and should not be overlooked.
Of course, much of the attention goes to Bette Davis for her unbridled, even unhinged, performance as Baby Jane. When she was brought on to the film, Joan Crawford was already attached, and Robert Aldrich suggested that Davis would be the kind of actress needed for the role, no doubt aware of the tension between the two stars. Crawford agreed not only that Davis should be in the film, but also to play the less attention-grabbing role of Blanche. Davis had not had a substantial role in some time and threw herself into the part. She envisioned the look of Jane and insisted on applying the make-up herself, saying that any professional who did what she had in mind would be fired. Davis allows herself a total lack of vanity as Jane, accentuating the grotesque with the white face powder, heart-shaped beauty mark, excessively applied lipstick, baby-doll wig, and unflattering dresses. She imagined that Jane never washed her face and just added more make-up to what was left from the previous day each morning. The performance is the definition of camp at its best as she did not set out to create a campy portrayal but did what she felt was right for the character and the film. The result is one of the most memorable and certainly iconic performances of Davis’s long career.
The more Jane tortures Blanche, the more Jane’s bitterness forces her to regress into her childhood glory. In a tour-de-force scene, Jane sings one of her old vaudeville numbers alone in the living room, replicating the voice and mannerisms of her pre-teen glory days. She steps into the light and sees herself in the mirror, horrified by her now age-ravaged face. Later, as the housekeeper Elvira, powerfully played by Maidie Norman, orders Jane to unlock Blanche’s door, she reacts like a four-year-old throwing a tantrum, screaming “I won’t! And you can’t make me.” When Elvira discovers that Jane has tied Blanche to her bed with a large bandage over her mouth, Jane murders Elvira with a hammer, which only causes her to regress further. As Blanche’s prison is the secret she keeps, along with her physical disability that keeps her literally confined to her upstairs bedroom, Jane’s prison is forged by her inability to let go of her past glory and her jealousy of Blanche’s success.
Both actresses lean into their age, accentuating the lines on their faces, dowdy dresses, and disheveled hair and wigs. The closing sequence at the beach is not only a display of the power of the narrative but the acting prowess of the two lead performers. Blanche lies on the beach, near death from starvation and the heat as Jane has regressed almost entirely into a childish state. She makes sandcastles, tries to play ball with two young girls, and dances and twirls on the sand. Blanche, convinced that she is going to die, confesses that she, not Jane, was driving the car and injured herself in the accident. Jane ran away in fear but was so drunk that she didn’t remember what happened. Blanche allowed Jane to believe she had confined her sister to her wheelchair.
As powerful as this confession is, it is Jane’s reaction that ascends to true greatness. Instead of anger and a raving response, Davis delivers the lines with subtle, sad relief. “You mean, all this time we could have been friends?” but delivered more as a fact than a question. Seeking to renew her relationship with her sister, Jane runs to the nearby refreshment stand and gets an ice cream cone for each of them. As she does so, she is recognized as announcements of Jane kidnapping Blanche have just been broadcast over the radio. As the crowd and police approach her, Jane begins to dance, basking in the attention she has sought all these years. It is an ending that, like much of the film, echoes Billy Wilder’s oddly horror-adjacent masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950), in which faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) has descended into madness and agrees to leave her room only when she hears that there are cameras present.
Whether or not an all-out feud existed between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis before shooting began, there certainly was tension present, which only enhanced their performances. This became a matter of art imitating life and eventually, life imitating art as their animosity grew after the release of the film and that year’s Oscar season. Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, Crawford was not. Davis desperately wanted to win and be the first to collect three best actress Oscars. Meanwhile, Crawford offered to accept the award for anyone who was unable to attend the ceremony. Anne Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker and, as the story goes, Crawford swept past Davis backstage saying, “excuse me, Bette, I have an Oscar to accept.” Davis never forgave her, later commenting that she believed Crawford convinced all her New York friends to vote for Bancroft over her for the award. The two were set to reteam with Robert Aldrich for Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), when Crawford claimed she was ill before backing out of the project. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was the first and last time the stars ever worked together.
Both would experience career revivals, often appearing in horror films and psychological thrillers. Crawford would star in Strait-Jacket (1964), written by Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, and I Saw What You Did (1965), both directed by William Castle, as well as Berserk (1967), and Trog (1970), along with an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery famously directed by then newcomer Steven Spielberg. Davis would continue to appear in various kinds of horror films and thrillers for the next two decades including Dead Ringer (1964), The Nanny (1965), The Anniversary (1967), Burnt Offerings (1976), and The Watcher in the Woods (1980).
Baby Jane was also the beginning of a Hollywood trend in which prestigious actors over fifty starred in genre films. Beyond Crawford and Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Agnes Moorehead, Debbie Reynolds, Geraldine Page, Ruth Gordon, and Shelley Winters starred in films like the previously mentioned Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971), and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972). This trend has been rather insensitively dubbed “hagsploitation,” but several men also got in on the act. Joseph Cotten appeared in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Baron Blood (1972), and The Hearse (1980) among several others, and Ray Milland starred in X-The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), Frogs (1972), and Terror in the Wax Museum (1973) in the later years of his career.
None of these subsequent films, even the best of them, quite reach the heights of Baby Jane. This may well be because of its deep psychological underpinnings that tap deep into the human experience. Despite its more sensational elements, it is highly relatable. We have all experienced jealousy and bitterness, perhaps even toward a sibling. Sometimes family members are capable of a level of cruelty that others cannot reach simply because of familiarity. We just know how to press each other’s buttons. But, as the film illustrates, maybe all that can be avoided. Maybe we don’t have to be at the mercy of hatred, envy, and bitterness. Sadly, in the end, the possibility of renewal comes too late for Jane and Blanche, it is after all a cautionary tale. And the possibilities of “if only” illustrated by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? are part of the reason why its power endures.
In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.