Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

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To understand clearly the chemistry of Baby Jane, it is necessary first to delve into the deep and rather enduring riff between its two stars: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. One cannot be certain exactly what is was that made the two detest each other so voraciously. Some would argue that it was Crawford’s excessive gift-giving that drove Davis up the wall (it is said that upon arriving at Warner, Crawford literally showered her new colleague with flowers and chocolates); others are truly certain that Joan made a pass at a horrified Bette; still others believe that they simply didn’t hit it off.

Whatever the origins of this ongoing tension however, by 1962, every average Jolene of the moviegoing public knew about it. And so when Aldrich was faced with a pitiful budget and no real studio backing to speak of, he did something totally inspired: he cast Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as his two demented bitches.

Actually, calling this decision merely inspired is almost an understatement. Just imagine the scene  —you sitting in a darkened theatre in ’62, facing the thrilling prospect of seeing not only two icons (who famously loathed each other), but two personas which you have seen grow over a period of 30 years, and grown also to love yourself. When we watch the old movies of “Blanche” and “Jane”, (whose dreadful films, incidentally, were never released in the US) it simply works. Just as one needed a Gloria Swanson to play the supreme silent queen, so too does one require the pair of Crawford and Davis to pull off such a tale of classic Hollywoodian proportions.

In fact, the two movies of Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane are often mentioned in sympathy. One terrific fellow even went so far as to dub Baby Jane as the tacky daughter of Sunset Boulevard, which I think is just bizarrely spot-on. On a purely superficial level, they are indeed very similar: both feature a big ol’ mansion of the most Hollywood persuasion, and both revolve around an aged and forgotten star, slowly losing her touch with reality. Clear distinctions however, can be made between the two. Whilst the Wilder masterpiece has about it self-aware, sardonic wit, Baby Jane throws itself into its garish implausibility with an utterly endearing abandon. It takes its delicious hamminess completely in its stride, and arguably emerges all the stronger.

Take, for example, the scene in which Jane orders (and I quote) “some” liquor over the telephone.  After being refused —apparently according to the wishes of her sister— Jane does a dead-on impression of Joan Crawford (even the wide eyes and the saccharine smile à la Joan are employed) and subsequently orders “six bottles of scotch and three bottles of gin”. Throughout the rest of the film, we constantly see Jane glugging away from a glass the size of a tankard. Such a brazen mix of deception and alcoholism surely is not of the everyday. 

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Yet, one cannot dismiss Baby Jane as simply over-the-top  (over the years, I have heard “camp horror” tossed around a lot with regard to this film). While I can concede that it does have moments of thrilling tension and, to a certain extent, an outer core of theatricality, I am almost tempted to say that it is fundamentally  neither of these things. As we watch the story of these two sisters unfold, the humorously frightful tone derived from the supposed “campiness” (e.g. Jane Hudson prancing around in her wig of audacious blonde ringlets) seems almost to dissolve right before our eyes, to be replaced ultimately with one of emotive tragedy.

At its heart, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a tragedy of two women. The more obvious one is that of the titular Jane Hudson, utterly fixated with her long-gone days of fame and absolute adoration. Davis also subtly conveys the enormous guilt the character carries with her, and the wretched remorse Jane feels for what she did so many years ago. Then there is Crawford’s Blanche, the woman who simply cannot rid herself of the overwhelming feelings of hate she harbours for her sister. Blanche, we come to realise, also feels a defeating regret for her actions; when she finally confesses her secret to Jane, the response of her sister is pathetically innocent, like that of a child’s.

You mean all this time we could have been friends?

By this time, the Jane’s character has indeed regressed to that of a child. She dances on the beach as she once danced on the stage as a young girl. The camera pans rapidly across the people that watch her, mirroring Jane’s physical twirls on the shore, but also her mental instability —her mind as it spins ever-quickly out of control. Eventually, a crowd forms a circle around the distrait “Baby Jane”. The image is a powerful one: we see  Jane pictorially receiving the attention she has been coveting for all these years, but we feel an unsettling entrapment of ridicule, which Jane blindly misconstrues as admiration. All the while, a chirpy little tune plays, heightening the sense of irony.

19 Comments

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    1. I haven’t seen Strait Jacket yet, but having looked up the plot of the film, it certainly seems like an absolute scream :) Thanks for your comment Charles!

  1. Great review! I love this film although as I mentioned before Bette Davis scares me to death playing this part. The well know animosity between the two off screen adds to the performances. Some people just don’t get along and I think film will always increase competition as actors are competing for parts particularly when they reach a certain age. I think age was a bigger issue back then. You only have to look at the Dehaviland sisters to see how Hollywood can cause rifts.

    1. Yes, I agree! Although they were apparently (for the most part anyway :P) totally professional on set, the bubbling revulsion they felt towards each other nevertheless shows.

  2. Can you imagine a movie about two old male has beens? Wait, scratch that, Sunshine Boys!

    Could it be that Davis and Crawford are acting out their frustration at being female and of a certain age in Hollywood, that is, not qualified to work any more? I always love Bette Davis more than Crawford, and root for her the whole way. Something about Crawford is so craven, and got hard as she aged, where Davis just got more interesting to listen to with that snappy voice of hers.

    Thanks for your blog. I love what you’re doing here.

    1. Oh, I know exactly what you mean about rooting for Davis! I remember the first time I watched Baby Jane, I was just completely convinced that long-suffering Crawford had something sinister up her sleeve!

      Thank you for dropping by Patricia —Rachel

  3. Great post. I absolutely adore this film. I really enjoy it when the film characters stretch out to include traces of actors’ own lives. I think Kubrick, for instance, also chose Kidman and Cruise on purpose in Eyes Wide Shut. The tension in their marriage is apparent in the film. In Rossellini’s Stromboli, Bergman’s estrangement from Italy clearly shows through her acting. Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is more about ‘what happened to Mickey Rourke?’ than the filmic narrative of the boxer.

    1. Thank you very much! I completely agree that it is just fantastic when filmmakers cast actors who possess an intriguing real-life dynamic, and translate all the drama and intensity into a great film. The examples you have listed are some of the very best; off the top of my head I can also think of “On Golden Pond”, which sees the unease, disappointment, but also reconciliation between Henry and Jane Fonda projected onto the screen.

    1. I agree completely! Moreover, after you hear that rendition of ‘I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy’ you just know that’s never going to leave you :)

  4. I think you have it spot-on, about the film’s underlying pathos and the feelings that evokes. Davis may camp about in the Pickford-ringleted wig, but she gives a real performance here – just look at her eyes, at the thoughts and emotions she conveys, and how she uses her body (her little-girl skip on meeting creepy Victor Buono). She’s not condescending to her character, and her playing of the ending is not comic in the least. It’s an amazingly brave performance. I admire Crawford’s professionalism in her role, but there is something a little bit unsympathetic about her seemingly calm and mature Blanche; you can understand why Jane feels provoked by her. Terrific post.

    1. Yes, one of the most admirable things about Bette Davis is the simple fact that she always respected her characters. When you watch Davis, you can see her playing Jane with the understanding that she herself could have been someone like Jane in another life.

      Indeed there are moments in Baby Jane that are downright hilarious. At the same time though, Davis brings just the right amount of sincerity and woe to the tale. Consequently, she strikes such a perfect balance and, rather remarkably, we feel a great deal of sympathy for her slightly bizarre character.

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