Directed by Robert Aldrich
Screenplay by Lukas Heller, based on the novel by Henry Farrell
Starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono
Hollywood is tough on aging actresses. There seems to be a career path from sexy girlfriend, to wife, to “whatever happened to?” But the glamour is still part of it, and it’s often difficult for an actress to admit to herself that she isn’t as attractive, and even more difficult for a star (especially an old Hollywood star) to play an unglamorous role. In Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, director Robert Aldrich managed to get Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in a movie about a pair of aging actresses.
Baby Jane Hudson is a very successful child star in vaudeville, much to the envy of her sister Blanche.* And when movies come in, both go to Hollywood, but Blanche (Joan Crawford) is now the star, while Baby Jane (Bette Davis) is the flop.** Jane turns to alcohol and, on one drunken evening, there is a car crash and Blanche is left permanently injured.
The film then moves to the 1960s. The two sisters live together. Jane is a bitter woman, lost in the bottle, but spending her time caring for Blanche mostly out of guilt. And Jane is becoming more and more erratic, even planning a comeback, grotesquely singing the songs she did as a child star, despite the fact the are hideously inappropriate. She hires Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) to help, and begins to psychologically torture Blanche in a portrayal of classic controlling behavior.
Director Robert Aldrich was even then best known for action films, and Baby Jane is more about psychological torture than action. Jane’s erratic behavior terrifies Blanche, and he manages to make the use of a single set – the sisters’ house – in terrifying ways.***
Bette Davis may have been the best of the actresses of Golden Age Hollywood, and her Jane is terrific – childish, bitter, nasty, and walking around with tons of makeup that make her look grotesque. And yet, at the end, she says one of the most pathetically sad lines in film history, completely changing your opinion of the character.
Crawford was also one of the greats of the time, and her Blanche is, by necessity, a far more subtler performance. She is the one the audience identifies with, and is the focus of the terror. She makes a good victim partly because you can sense her inner strength, but helplessness due to the accident.
This is the first time the two actresses worked together. Often, big Hollywood names of the 40s didn’t have their paths crossing, usually because they worked for different studios.**** In this case, however, there was another reason: the two women hated each other. This predated the movie, and there was some wonder in Hollywood as to whether Aldrich could even finish it, given that it had a very low budget. He knew of the issue, however, and kept them apart except for any scenes they were required to play together. They two women also appreciated that they needed a good role to keep their careers alive, so swallowed their hatred and made the film.*****
The movie was a major hit, and gave a boost to Davis’s career and garnering her an Oscar nomination. Aldrich was able to make more hits, including The Flight of the Phoenix and The Dirty Dozen. Crawford did less, devolving into movies like Trog, though she was memorable in an episode of Night Gallery, one of Stephen Spielberg's first TV assignments.
Despite its success, which made the title a catchphrase, the movie seems to have fallen off the radar. Its type of horror – called Grand Guignol at the time, though it seems far from that today – seems tame, and audiences are more interested in younger actors and more bloody scares. But Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? still stands as an important landmark in film.
*The dynamic is similar to that in Gypsy, though with far more conflict between the sisters.
**Actual clips from some of their films of the time were used to show their careers. Bette Davis suggested Parachute Jumper as the worst film she ever did, so footage from that was use.
***The movie was my first realization of the “gun on the table” principle of writing: I noticed the door to Blanche’s bedroom opened outward, not into the room as is usual. It turned out that became an important plot point later on.
****Davis worked for Warner Brothers, while Crawford was as MGM.
*****After the success of Baby Jane, Aldrich wanted to get the two actresses together again for Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but Crawford dropped out and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland (whose feud with her sister Joan Fontaine made the Davis-Crawford one seem like a playground spat). Davis was photographed drinking Coca-Cola, a dig at Crawford, who was on the board of Pepsi and insisted on product placement for Pepsi in every film she was in.