What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

(USA - 1962)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Marjorie Bennett, Wesley Addy, Robert Cornthwaite
Genre: Horror
Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Lukas Heller from the Henry Farrell novel
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Composer: Frank De Vol
Runtime: 134 minutes

"Blanche, you aren't going to sell this house, and you aren't ever going to leave it," - Baby Jane Hudson

Bette Davis & Joan Crawford are so highly regarded now for what they accomplished during their illustrious careers that it's hard to believe a studio wouldn't want anything to do with their only true collaboration. Both actresses were considered over the hill, with all Davis' films since 1953 being money losers. Davis' career had come to a standstill to the point where she placed a "job wanted" ad in the trade papers in 1961, and it wasn't like Crawford's films were doing a whole lot better. Director Robert Aldrich had to get his own funding because Jack Warner wanted nothing to do with a picture featuring the "old broads." Warner Brothers did wind up releasing the film, and while it's becoming harder to believe now, there were times when people flocked to well deserving films. The movie represents the high point of both actresses' post 1960 career, and its success opened the door for older actresses to star in horror films.

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Obviously the financial success wasn't all based on the quality of the film; people were very interested in seeing Davis and Crawford work together. Their rivalry is the stuff of legend, with classic quotes from Davis like "I wouldn't piss on her if she was on fire" and "She has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie." They didn't get along perfectly on the set, as Davis had a Coca-Cola machine installed to spite Crawford who was affiliated with Pepsi because her late husband had been their CEO. Crawford extracted her revenge by placing weights in her pockets for the scene where Davis drags her across the floor, which injured Davis' back. The main result of their collaboration though was tremendous acting. Tremendous acting and Bette Davis go hand in hand, but both women worked as hard as they possibly could because they didn't want the other to steal the scene or show them up. In the end, Davis won out as usual, as Victor Buono and her were the two that got Academy Awards nominations for their performances.

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? begins with a send up of the child star. We see the terrible act of Baby Jane Hudson, who "dances" on stage and sings out of tone and key with the Baby Jane doll. Although anyone with eyes and ears should recognize how atrocious she is, tons of kids don't know or care, so she is a big success with fans flocking to meet her and get their parents to shell out their hard earned money on the Baby Jane doll. The scene is important in establishing the level Jane is performing at, but the key is showing the differences between Jane and her sister Blanche.

Jane is a spoiled little brat whose success has gone to her head in a major way. She acts out even during inopportune times. The scene we see has her demanding ice cream for her and her sister while a hoard of her fans and their parents are flocked around hoping to meet her. Their father doesn't discipline her in any way; he quickly gives in to the little dictator to avoid further embarrassment. You can't really blame Jane, as almost all kids learn to do what they can get away with.

The shy little Blanche is not your typical child. She won't even eat the ice cream that Baby Jane whines to get them. Blanche doesn't like being ignored by her father, who treats her unfairly and unequally because she's the unknown sister. Instead of looking to turn the tables on her sister to get even, she vows to be just the opposite of Jane if the light ever shines on her.

As an adult, the light shines on Blanche in a big way. She uses her talent to become the top actress. Meanwhile, Baby Jane is over the hill at a young age because she still can't perform and has become an alcoholic. The only reason she's still got roles is Blanche had enough clout to get a clause in her contract that said the studio must make a movie with Jane for every movie they make with Blanche.

Blanche's good fortune comes to an abrupt halt when she's crippled by a mysterious accident. She's in front of a big gate and a car supposedly driven by Baby Jane runs into her, crushing her legs and leaving her paralyzed. Most women would have a great deal of resentment toward the person whose carelessness ruined them, but Blanche continues to love her sister and treat her well. Although both of their careers are over, they live together in a fading old house off the money Blanche has earned with Jane "taking care of" her crippled sister.

Jane may be physically healthy, but she is mentally unstable. She grew old, but never up. Instead of being grateful for all her sister has done for her, the baby is incredibly jealous. In her mind Blanche robbed her. She stole the attention and stardom that Jane once had, very undeservedly in Jane's mind. With the advent of television, Blanche's films are enjoying new life and winning over a new audience, while Jane's rest in obscurity. Jane's "best film" wasn't even released in the U.S., no doubt because it was such an embarrassment, but Jane would basically tell you that it's because the studio was too busy promoting Blanche's crap.

Jane is not totally talentless. She is a great, very cunning manipulator who has mastered the art of impersonating Blanche (the only acting skill Baby Jane ever shows). This becomes very important because their life and relationship is about to change drastically if Jane isn't able to stop it. Blanche has decided to sell the house and get much needed medical help for Jane, both of which Jane is absolutely opposed to. Blanche attempted to do these things behind Jane's back, but their relationship only works the other way.

Crawford has a famous line "If you want to see the girl next door, go next door." You have to be able to get there though. What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? is a horror of confinement. Her Blanche character is not only trapped in her wheel chair, she's trapped in the upstairs of the house. The only way down is the stairs, and obviously you can't go down a large flight of stairs in a chair. Jane is not willing to help her down, so Blanche has not left the house in several years and is thus isolated from the rest of the world.

Jane was not nice to Blanche to begin with, but she becomes much worse where we pick up the film. She is a grumpy, jealous, antagonizing, demented, sadistic, dominant tyrant who tries to totally isolate Blanche from the world and drive her insane. The reasons Jane does this aren't exactly clear. It has to do with her jealously and resentment over Blanche's undying popularity, her despair and refusal to believe that she's become obscure and irrelevant to a population that forgot her long ago if they ever knew her in the first place, not wanting to move especially to an asylum, her alcohol abuse, the lasting effects of the infamous car accident, and so on. Trying to attach any reason or logic to it may be giving her credit, as obviously she is a very disturbed individual.

Blanche doesn't want to believe that Jane treats her a tenth as bad as she does. She is very sentimental, longing for the days when Jane was "well" even more than the days when she was on top of the world before the accident sunk her. She's one of those people that's so good hearted that she's incredibly naïve. Crawford does a great job of making us like and care about Blanche as she slowly realizes the score and tries to regain control of her life.

The biggest factor that makes this a great film is the realism Davis' gives the horrifying side of her Baby Jane character. What usually happens in horror movies is the antagonist overacts to scare people, which actually has the opposite effect. It's not scary when it doesn't feel real; it draws you out by constantly reminding you that it's just a silly film. Scary is Michael Rooker as Henry. Jane isn't leaving bags on the side of the road and there are many differences between the personalities of Baby Jane & Henry, Davis' Baby Jane is worthy of mention in the same breath because she's so creepy, sadistic, twisted, and demented. Although Jane regularly does things that help herself at her sister's expense, she is clearly more interested in torturing her sister than her own betterment. Her entire life revolves around using every method to undermine Blanche's attempts to be more than a rat in a cage. One thing that made Henry so terrifying is that his deeds were to random victims. Jane is totally focused on Davis, but with mental instability that makes her unpredictably predictable. You know she will pull something soon enough, but she messes with Blanche's mind so much that it's just as scary for her when she doesn't do anything evil.

The best examples of the psychological terror are the scenes where Jane brings Blanche her meals on a covered platter. Crawford shows us that she's hungry, but terrified to eat. One time there's a dead bird on the plate that may be Blanche's bird that "escaped when Jane was cleaning the cage" another time Jane mentions that there are rats in the basement and one "mysteriously" turns up on the plate. What's great though is the time when Blanche won't eat the piece of chicken because she fears Jane has poisoned it. Jane has a few bites of it to prove it's fine and, with Blanche begging for the remains, Jane carries the tray off proclaiming her starved sister isn't getting any food until lunch because she didn't eat her "din-din."

The fun of the movie is watching all the ways Davis mentally tortures Crawford. It's not so much what Jane does, but the various ways Davis' character announces that she's up to something without letting Blanche know what really happened or is going to happen. Davis is wonderfully diabolical. At one point Blanche says, "You wouldn't be able to do these awful things if I wasn't in this chair," so Baby Jane simply and coldly replies, "But you are in this chair."

No one was ever going to confuse Bette Davis with Rita Hayworth when it came to looks. There's a funny story when she was trying to get started in the business where a studio representative was supposed to meet her in the train station, but he left because he saw no one that looked like a movie star. Anyway, Davis looks absolutely wretched here. She was around 54 when she made the movie, but she looks like she's pushing 70, largely because her character is a grotesque of the out of touch aging performer. Her pale, fading look helps add to the uneasy feeling she gives you in virtually all her scenes.

The look makes the scenes where Baby Jane tries to recapture the glory of her youth stand out that much more. This aspect of the film is somewhat reminiscent of Norma Desmond in the Billy Wilder classic Sunset Blvd.(both Gloria Swanson for her brilliant portraly of Desmond and Davis for All Above Eve were worthy of the best actress Oscar in 1950, so of course Judy Holliday won instead), but it's several times more implausible that Jane could make a comeback. Norma Desmond's stardom was derailed by the advent of talkies as well as getting old, but she was a big star as an adult that had screen presence. Aside from being ungodly awful, Baby Jane's act is an image sensitive one that no longer works after puberty. Jane's biggest problem may be that when it comes to the Baby Jane act, she never outgrew it mentally. She has no concept of why it can't work for her today, so she hires a mamma's boy musician named Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) to play the music so she can practice for her glorious comeback. These hilarious scenes where the saggy powder faced old hag is attempting to dance with her doll that now looks nothing like as she wails such lines as "I've written a letter to daddy" in her cracked unchildlike voice represent the pinnacle of delusion. I picture her father looking like Leatherface's dad, and being no more lively. Anyway, Bette Davis' purposely awful croaking was so atrocious I was begging for Jennifer Jason Leigh's signing in the great Georgia. At least her Sadie poured her heart and soul into the singing, which I can respect. Edwin is probably the only one that can take Baby Jane's act, and he only tolerates and humors her because he needs the paycheck.

Like every other actress from the black and white era, Joan Crawford was not a good as Bette Davis. Crawford is able to hang with her though. She starts off incredibly naïve, but it's never in an annoying way where you want to club her over the head because Blanche is too good a person to believe her sister has such cruel intentions. Sometimes it's hard to believe someone so close to you for so many years could be such a polar opposite. Blanche starts off incredibly timid, but grows slowly. For the most part wising up doesn't translate into any gains or improvements, but Crawford credibly turns her into a fighter with perseverance.

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Although Baby Jane is primarily a horror, it is also loaded with wry humor and very satirical. This was long before the days when the action "needed to be broken up" by corny one-liners that lessens the impact of the scenes and makes the films weightless distractions from the monotony of life. Here, we get scenes that can make you laugh and feel sad at the same time, such as the various send-ups of the has-beens and never- was. There are scenes of brutal irony like Baby Jane asserting to Edwin how her daddy told her "you can lose everything else, but you can never lose your talent." Most of the humor is dark and twisted, just like the rest of the picture.

The biggest point the film makes is that our relationships with other people are so deeply rooted in what we believe is true about them. Blanche has been living in a dream world for years. It takes her realization that her beliefs about her sister are untrue to get her to try to change their relationship. Jane is so positive she knows everything Blanche is up to that at one point she says "Don't you think I know everything that goes on in this house?" No one can know everything about another person though. What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? does a great job of proving this because these two spent most of their 50+ years together, yet neither really knows nor understands the other. Instead, they spent this time reacting to what they saw in the caricature of their sister that they painted in their head.



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