Director: Robert Aldrich
Writer: Lukas Heller
Cast: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford.
What an interesting movie! I’ve been aware of this film for years, as it has been alluded to in many different films or television shows (most notably, to me, the series Popular, which dedicated an episode to this film in 2000). Speaking of shows created by Ryan Murphy, this 1962 movie has seen a resurgence in the collective consciousness due to Murphy’s recent television limited series Feud: Bette and Joan, which focuses on the behind the scenes antagonism and rivalry between the two stars of the movie, Hollywood royalty Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. While I haven’t seen the new series (yet), I had been growing more curious about this film and why, over so many years, it has maintained a level of notoriety. Was it just because of the dislike the two stars had for one another? Was it a campy mess that is so bad it’s good? Or was the movie genuinely good? When I realized the film had been nominated for five Academy Awards I figured that it was worth the watch, and I am really glad I saw it. If anything then because, much to my surprise, it is the first movie I’ve actually ever seen starring either of the two main actresses, an error I must begin correcting soon.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is actually a surprisingly strong social commentary on the nature of the child star. It also offers a perspective on sibling rivalry that proves intriguing. The fact that all this is offered in an over the top, grotesquely baroque film watching experience makes this film all the more fascinating.
“Baby” Jane Hudson used to be quite the child star back in the heyday of the vaudeville circuits. She had a strong and dedicated following for her family friendly (and slightly borderline incestuously creepy) show that saw her sing a collection of songs, most of them dedicated to or inspired by her father, who worked as her agent and piano accompaniment. The star was not a great singer, but she was cute and innocent looking, and even sold merchandise, including a doll in her likeness. However, as it happens, Jane’s career waned, and her sister, Blanche, found herself becoming an acting star for the Hollywood studio system. She insisted on Jane receiving roles as well, but Jane proved to be a less than gifted actress. One evening a tragic car accident halted Blanche’s career. The details behind the crash were highly suspect.
Cutting to the the 1962 setting of the film, the sisters are still living together in the home bought by their parents during the Baby Jane days, or bought with Blanche’s movie earnings, depending on which sister you ask. Jane is now an alcoholic who cakes on makeup on her face at alarmingly clownish amounts. Blanche is relegated to a wheel chair and spends her time exclusively in her room on the house’s second floor. The friction between the two sisters is palpable and horrific. Blanche is the innocent and put upon of the two, she is the recipient of all of Jane’s instability, volatility, and abusive behavior, whether it takes the form of physical violence, or of the psychological kind.
Inherently one of the roles is showier than the other. Joan Crawford is not given much to do other than react in horror, play the angel, or appear emaciated and sickly once Jane’s abuse becomes intolerable. It’s no wonder, then, that the Academy and the critics praised Davis over her costar, as Baby Jane, Davis gets to chew scenery left and right. She sings, she interacts with other cast members, she plays deranged, she gets to imitate her sister, she plays boozy, she is the true star of the show. Even Davis’ voice is filled with resentment, a gravely tone betraying years of alcohol ingestion and smoking, an air of denial and mental abuse. I was in awe from beginning to end. Crawford was beautiful and did her job well, but the role was no match for Baby Jane.
The film could easily be made into a stage play and it is actually a bit surprising that it is not an adaptation of one, as it mostly takes place in the sister’s home, with few other sets throughout its running time. The other cast members barely stand out, and do only for negative reasons (like Bette Davis’ daughter playing a neighbor). The direction is fine, but nothing showcases the eye of a master, Aldrich just did his job, which was to stand back and let his actresses do their thing. This is a movie about a performance, and that performance is Davis’, and it is mesmerizing and unforgettable. No wonder we are still asking ourselves the question posed in the title all these years later.