What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is an enduring example of grotesque LA gothic so legendary from 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. Here too we are both amused by the critique of the entertainment industry and horrified by the monsters it spawns! Yet here we see an even more disturbing and claustrophobic story. Two brilliant actresses bring their real-life rivalry to the screen as sisters and faded Hollywood stars.
Bette Davis plays the eponymous Baby Jane; a former child star of the vaudeville era, now a shrill gargoyle caked in makeup pancake thick. Joan Crawford plays her sister, Blanche, once a plain child who stepped out of her bullying sister’s spotlight to become a 20-something movie star, now a paraplegic trapped upstairs.
And what stairs! Alongside Davis and Crawford they dominate the frame. Indeed within the mansion in which the sisters reside we see only very few rooms and many, many shots of that looming staircase which so effectively divides the upstairs captivity of the paraplegic Blanche from the downstairs lair of the deranged Jane. In this hothouse sibling rivalry turns vicious.
The film begins in Baby Jane’s heyday, when she ruled the vaudeville stage and was famous for saccharine performances of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy”- sealed with a kiss and sent to heaven. Offstage the girl becomes a spoiled monster, screaming demands and humiliating the ordinary Blanche. As they reach their 20s Jane’s appeal fades and her films flop just as Blanche becomes a Hollywood queen!
…Until, that is
in a mysterious incident that was probably Jane’s fault, their car crushes Blanche against a gate and snaps her spine.
And thus we come to a rather large plot hole… why on Earth Jane, who most think is to blame for the accident, is put in charge of her sister’s ‘care’ is never really explained. Blanche has just two contacts with the outside world: her telephone and their kindly maid Elvira. Yet in Jane’s venomous hatred she tears the phone from the wall and beats Elvira from the house.
Casting is crucial to the success of the film and it is hard to imagine how director Robert Aldrich convinced the two stars to appear together- their antipathy was widely know. Both noted for being competitive, vain, touchy and later accused of abusing relatives in a tell-all book from a daughter. They had been rivals since the 30s and three decades later starred together perhaps merely to crush the other’s chances of receiving awards. In which case, it was Davis who won.
Her courageous portrayal of the demented, drunken former child star, for which she sheds all vanity and overacts with aplomb won her an Oscar nomination. Crawford plays the calm, kind, reasonable sister (or so we are led to believe). But sadly her twist comes so late that she comes off as rather less interesting.
The impact of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” was immense in 1962. Today’s audiences, aware of the tell-all stories, don’t perhaps comprehend how thoroughly Crawford, and to a lesser extent Davis, trashed their screen images. Davis sifts her performance towards Jane’s pathological ego, encapsulated in macabre adult performance of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.”
During Jane’s descent into madness, the film becomes less of a ‘camp classic’ and more of a genuine psychological horror story and all the better for it.