Film Title: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Studio: Warner Brothers
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Bette Davis
- Joan Crawford
- Victor Buono
The notorious rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis came to a cinematic head in this 1962 thriller directed by Robert Aldrich. Aldrich had previously worked with Crawford in 1956’s Autumn Leaves and would go on to work with Bette Davis again in 1964’s Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. If not for the clash of titans alone, the film is regarded as a classic and still enjoys a cult following over 45 years after its release.
Baby Jane Hudson was a phenomenon. As a young girl, her singing and dancing captivated audiences and made her an instant star. She demanded attention from everyone and blatantly expressed her displeasure when the smallest whim went unfulfilled. Her sister Blanche was forced to watch, all the while unhappy with her own lot in life as the less-popular sibling and vowed to get even. As the two girls got older, Blanche had become a famous movie star, much more revered than Jane who was stuck playing minor roles. It seemed as though they’d become the opposite representations of their younger selves. Annoyed with her personal fall from grace, Jane (Bette Davis) intentionally drives her car into Blanche (Joan Crawford) and cripples her. Years later, now confined to a wheelchair, Blanche is completely dependent upon Jane for her most basic needs. Both women are no longer in show business, though Jane believes it’s only a matter of time before she’ll hit the stage once again.
Blanche spends her days holed up in her bedroom while Jane slops around the house in a bathrobe. Jane hates having to be a caretaker. She continually belittles her soft-spoken sister and makes cruel remarks with the intention of hurting her feelings. Jane’s mean streak hits a new high when Blanche’s old blockbuster films are shown on television for a week straight. A neighbor stops by hoping to meet Blanche in person, but Jane remarks that her sister is unfit to receive visitors. In her twisted opinion, Jane holds Blanche accountable for ruining her career. Blanche is a virtual hostage. Her only contact with the outside world is her maid Elvira (Maidie Norman). Elvira notices Jane’s evil ways and tries to protect Blanche in any way she can, but isn’t around often enough to make a significant difference. Things begin to escalate when Jane takes Blanche’s birdcage out to clean it, only to return claiming that the bird flew out the window. When Blanche is served lunch later in the day, there is a horrific and unexpected main course. Jane’s mind games continue when she remarks that rats have infiltrated the basement. Blanche’s next platter is again dreadful and she becomes afraid to eat anything Jane serves. As she withers away physically, Jane withers away mentally, focusing on ways to revive her faded career. She is certain that everyone in town remembers her as “Baby Jane”, but no one does. To generate interest, she runs an advertisement in the newspaper to find a pianist.
Jane soon receives a call from Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), a struggling musician looking for an easy buck. They set an appointment to discuss a musical partnership, which sends Jane into a euphoric whirlwind. When Edwin arrives, Jane launches into her plans for a routine. Not surprisingly, the material is comprised of the same tired songs from her adolescent hey-day. She belts out her signature tune “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” in an ear-shattering, nails-across-the-chalkboard screech. Edwin’s subtle expressions allude to the fact that Jane simply can’t sing. But in order to keep the job, he applauds her “talent”. When Elvira shows up on one of her scheduled workdays, Jane tells her that she’s no longer needed. Suspecting that something is amiss, Elvira waits until Jane is out of sight and goes upstairs to find Blanche’s door locked. She tries to remove the bolts from the door in order to open it but Jane suddenly appears at which time Elvira demands the key. Reluctant, Jane initially refuses but hands it over. When Elvira opens the door to find a malnourished Blanche tied up on the bed, her shock is short-lived. Jane hits her with a hammer and kills her. Edwin shows up at the house again and receives no response. He storms off angrily, only to return later after a few drinks. This time, Jane answers the door. Right away, a noise from upstairs catches Edwin’s attention and he goes up to Blanche’s room to find her bound and gagged. Horrified, he runs out of the house. Jane, believing that the police will soon arrive, runs upstairs and drags Blanche out of bed. The two sisters drive through the city and end up at the beach. The shocking truth about Blanche’s handicap comes to light on the beach, paving the way for an eerie conclusion.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane was based on Henry Farrell’s novel of the same name. Bette Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance. However, Joan Crawford wasn’t nominated, causing a great deal of dissatisfaction with fans and film lovers alike. Many believe that both women deserved a nomination, as their combined talents made the film as great as it was. Nevertheless, Crawford had her own plans in mind. Prior to the 1962 Academy Awards, she worked out an agreement with the other actresses nominated in the same category, stating that if any of them were to win and couldn’t attend, she would accept the award on their behalf. Low and behold, Bette Davis did not win the Oscar; Anne Bancroft won for her performance in The Miracle Worker and Joan took the stage to accept the award. It was a major slap in the face to Davis, who sat watching from her seat in the audience. Both Crawford and Davis were extremely gifted actresses who may have disliked each other’s star power. It’s likely that their real-life feud powered the emotion behind this film. Had they relied on acting alone, the result would still be a classic. But the genuine contempt made for a harder punch. An interesting bit of trivia: the young girl next door, who plays the daughter of the inquiring neighbor, was portrayed by Bette Davis’ real-life daughter Barbara Merrill.
Warner Bros. released What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in 2006 as a two-disc special edition. The first disc includes the film, theatrical trailer and an Audio Commentary by Charles Busch and John Epperson. The two female impersonators chat about their love for the film in a comedic way, though very genuine. The second disc is busting with extras, including: Bonus Footage – Andy Williams Show – Excerpt Featuring Bette Davis Singing; 3 documentaries: Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition, All about Bette (Hosted by Jodie Foster) and A Film Profile: Joan Crawford. Additionally we’re treated to a featurette entitled Behind the Scenes with Baby Jane. Though short, the featurette is a nice glimpse into the technique of director Robert Aldrich.
Talent. Real talent. This film is a moving textbook that all actors and actresses should be required to watch. There isn’t a CGI safety net or a million expletives to camouflage a weak script. This is raw emotion at its finest. Despite the fact that they may not have enjoyed working together, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis gave the world 134 minutes of timeless Hollywood cinema. What ever happened to films like this?
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