What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Dir: Robert Aldrich, 1962. Starring: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono. Classics.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a movie lodged right into our pop cultural DNA somewhere between Psycho and Stonewall, and I would wager that its reputation as a “camp classic” might precede it to the film’s detriment because its greatness is in spite of its cultural baggage as a Hollywood Babylon-style punch line. Throughout the years since its release the film has been referenced, paid homage to, and parodied more times than I probably know about. There’s just something about the premise of two notorious aging movie queens tearing into one another—no one seems able to resist that glamorously morbid premise. By the early 1960s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were at the point in their careers where they had to spoof themselves in a Hollywood horror story to get the attention of an audience that had long since deserted them. It was a risk that paid off and ultimately redefined the kinds of roles being offered to aging movie stars. …Baby Jane? was more than just a sleeper hit that resuscitated a few careers; it became a phenomenon that helped spawn a whole cottage industry of films starring has-been actresses pouring on the fake blood and brandishing pick axes. People wanted to see these one-time "it girls" playing murderous grandmas. It was the age of the Hagsploitation horror flick and …Baby Jane? was the one that started it all.

But let me reiterate, I come to praise What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a sharp Hollywood satire, not to bury it under more faint praise as a “camp classic,” though there’s no denying it’s the Shakespearian gold standard for that. The problem is that identifying something as camp tends to negate it as anything other than a joke—even a knowing joke— and what makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? memorable goes far beyond its kitsch value. It’s a darkly comic satire in the vein of Sunset Boulevard but with weirder and more compelling characters. And it’s not just Davis and Crawford who remind us of why they were great to begin with. The supporting cast is just as good as they are—Victor Buono as the portly would-be suitor and artistic collaborator of Jane is particularly excellent. And in Robert Aldrich the film has a curiously awesome choice for a director. Aldrich could be described as a man’s man kind of director who made war pictures and nasty offbeat noirs like Kiss Me Deadly. Hiring him to direct a movie about two old Hollywood legends at each other’s throats was an inspired choice. Aldrich liked perversity and clearly the innate perversity of the film’s premise must have appealed to him. But he also locates the pathos in the characters and makes us care about what happens to them. It’s hard to categorize What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as anything other than a classic. It’s a Hollywood satire, it’s a lurid tragedy, a gothic noir of sorts - kind of horrific, certainly camp, and very funny. It has much to say about the two legendary leads and their notorious dislike of each other as it does about an industry that treats women terribly.

It starts with a scene of showbiz familial discontent. It’s 1919 and Baby Jane Hudson, the little darling of the vaudeville circuit, is performing a charmingly macabre song called “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” (“his address is heaven above…”) onstage for a rapt audience. Her father accompanies her on piano and, after the cheers and curtsies, she is offstage and goes from being sugar and spice to a whiny, vindictive brat demanding ice cream and taunting her wallflower sister, Blanche. There’s an ominous exchange between the mother and little Blanche, setting up what we know will be a lifelong tension between the two sisters.

We flash forward to the 1930s, at which point Blanche is a famous movie star and Jane has grown up to be her boozy loser of a sister who survives by getting casting favors from Blanche. The studios love Blanche and her box office power and loathe Jane for her talentless tirades. This is all set-up for the tragedy that ruins Blanche’s career and sends Jane into a psychological freefall. The two sisters argue after one of Blanche’s Hollywood parties. It appears that Jane gets into Blanche’s car, revs the motor, and smashes right into her sister, crippling her for life.

It’s now 1959 and Jane (played by Bette Davis) and Blanche (played by Joan Crawford) live together as two Hollywood exiles in a decrepit Westside mansion. Jane is Blanche’s caretaker and she has aged into a terrifying version of who she was as a little girl. She wears ragged doll clothes and powders her face into a scary clown death mask. Davis relished these kinds of performance opportunities. She loved to look grotesque and prove herself the less vain actress, and she plays Jane’s monstrous qualities to the hilt. Blanche is now wheelchair bound and dresses like a Victorian spinster. She’s an old maid confined to her room with only her memories of her movie career and her pet bird (for awhile) to keep her company.

A TV station is running a marathon of classic Blanche Hudson movies and this is the impetus for Jane to sadistically torture her sister. Jane has never gotten over her own glory days as their father’s favorite and as the biggest star in her time. Blanche’s newfound attention on TV drives Jane over the edge. Jane goes from being abusive towards her sister to being completely psychotic. She presents a dead rat from the cellar on a silver platter for Blanche’s lunch. The exploits get more colorful from there. There is plenty to laugh at in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Joan as Blanche may be fighting for her life, trapped in her bedroom at the mercy of her insane sister, but she still types and elegantly signs her panicky messages pleading for help from her neighbors. Her maid Elvira almost deserves her fate for being so unbelievably dumb. The list of ridiculous plot points goes on and on.

But all of this would be cheap if the film wasn’t so sharp. Aldrich doesn’t pull his punches with the material. He clearly likes watching the sparks fly and pushing the story and its characters off the deep end, but I think it comes from a place of empathy for what Davis and Crawford were up against. I think his crazy film is more a tribute to their outsized personalities than anything. They may have been has-beens and slumming by their old standards, but they’re still the consummate pros. Their identities as stars and rivals inform their performances in a way that feels entirely modern. And there’s a fitting irony to the fact that the lives and careers of two of the biggest giants of the silver screen are most eloquently summed up in a horror film. After achieving the Hollywood dream and being dispensed with by the star machinery it seems fitting that the last movie the world remembers them for is a murderous tragedy.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 17, 2009 5:08pm
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