Via Correspondence: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written byLukas Heller(based on the novel by Henry Farrell)
Starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Victor Buono
The Story: A tale of two sisters. Both are former stars. Blanche is a much beloved actress who was forced to stop working after being crippled in an automobile accident. Jane is a forgotten child star of Vaudeville. She's mentally unstable and plagued by bitterness toward her more successful sister. When Blanche decides to sell the house they both live in, Jane snaps and turns her wheelchair-bound sister into her prisoner and their idyllic Hollywood home into a prison. Even the rats tremble in fear.
Isaac: Last week, there was a Buzzfeed checklist a few of my friends were sharing on Facebook called How Many Classic Horror Films Have You Seen? I scored 88 out of 102, which apparently makes me a horror professor! But that isn’t good enough for me; I want to be the dean of Horror University.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is one I’ve been meaning to see for a long time. I’m a big fan of Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (another collaboration between Bette Davis, director Robert Aldrich and writer Lukas Heller) and since Baby Jane has an even better reputation than Sweet Charlotte, I figured it was a safe bet I would love it. And I did. This is a great movie.
For me, it succeeded on just about every level, but I think a conversation about this film has to start with Bette Davis’ performance as Baby Jane Hudson. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. She plays Jane as an unstable, unpredictable lunatic but maintains a fragility and humanity. It’s a performance that is as understated as it is over the top. It hits every right note. The insanity in Jane’s eyes is completely authentic. Jane’s descent into madness is expertly portrayed; believable and unsettling, especially for a film that’s over half a century old.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are electric together. Their much publicized, real-life hatred of each other seems to have only enhanced the product. Fun fact: Joan Crawford and Bette Davis hated each other so much that when Davis was nominated for an Oscar for Baby Jane and Crawford was snubbed, Crawford publicly lobbied against Davis (and therefore against the movie in which Crawford herself also starred). She even asked nominee Anne Bancroft, who was unable to attend the ceremony, if she could accept the award on her behalf. She did this just so she could stick it to Davis. When Bancroft won, Crawford is said to have sneered at Davis, saying "I have an Oscar to accept" before triumphantly strutting to the podium. Davis was furious. Their rivalry directly led to Crawford being fired from Sweet Charlotte and replaced by Olivia de Havilland.
Jason: That is amazing. It's interesting when extra-textual information like that can bleed into a movie or story. The best part is the movie doesn't even need it to work. Some movies are defended as being "intentionally" a certain way, which is usually just an excuse for being lazy. Or a way to smokescreen a disastrous result. Here, it is just the cherry on top of the sundae.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is the kind of movie that even those who disparage anything even remotely close to the horror genre can get behind. It's not just a "good horror movie" but a good movie. Those people are kind of horrible, but I digress.
This is not really a horror movie, though. It is holding up a microscope on mental illness and the harm of overexposure. You're right that Bette Davis is incredible. She's grotesque at moments and really sympathetic in others. For much of the film I couldn't decide if her childlike performance was an automatic defense mechanism or something more conscious. It might be a bit of both. The first time she replicates her sister's voice is chilling.
But I think in some ways Crawford is just as impressive if not more so. She has the harder role to pull off in a way. She has to make Blanche more than just a helpless victim with mounds of garbage constantly piling up around her. And she does it physically as well as verbally. Her efforts to get downstairs is very intense considering she can't move her legs. It's one of those moments where the movie completely sucked me in and I was a part of its world wholly.
Isaac: I completely agree with all your points. I hate making the caveat of “it’s not just a good horror movie but a good movie” because that presupposes horror is a less worthy genre than the rest. I also think my own personal interpretation of the term “horror” is broader than most, overlapping into fantasy, science fiction and suspense. Baby Jane has no torture scenes or masked maniacs but it’s far more horrifying than any film that does.
Beyond its exploration of mental illness, I thought the movie had a lot to say about how people deal with aging. Both Jane and Blanche have lived long enough to see life lose its luster and the way they react to it defines their characters.
Blanche’s best years were in the 1930s when she was a twenty something movie star. By the 60s, she’s in a wheelchair and retired from acting. There’s a sadness at the core of her character (She spends all day wistfully watching her old movies on TV) but she possesses a self-awareness that her sister lacks and so she carries on with outward dignity. But that strength is also a product of her narcissism. Outward appearance is very important to her. Like Jane, her life is built around artificial happiness; the plastic sheen of stardom, popularity. As a result, she and her films are fondly remembered by everyone yet she is alone.
Jane, whose prime was when she was a child star, reacts to aging with denial. She’s almost the extreme version of the prototypical Hollywood star. Instead of clinging to her early twenties like the clichéd Hollywood actress, she clings to pre-pubescence. She wears baby doll dresses, covers her face in childishly smeared makeup (including a faux heart shaped mole on her cheek) and wears her hair in ringlets while singing about her daddy in a cutesy Shirley Temple voice. Baby Jane is, in many ways, a grotesque parody of Hollywood’s obsession with youth and the fantasy world Hollywood affords itself. There’s a great scene where Jane, alone in her basement, is reciting all of her old routines and she begins reverting into her younger identity. It’s almost a transformation scene where adult Jane is buried alive and baby Jane takes over. You can see the change happen in Davis’ eyes. I think, like you said, it’s automatic but there is a part of her that is more deliberate.
And you’re right about Crawford. She does an amazing job. Both actresses are exceptional at conveying silent thought process. Like in the scenes of Blanche trying to make it down the stairs. There is no dialogue but we know everything that is going on in her mind. A lot of those scenes (Blanche trying to descend the stairs while Jane could show up at any minute) made me think of Stephen King’s Misery. I wonder if this film was one of the inspirations swimming around in his head when he sat down to write that book. They have a similar tension and Annie Wilkes (the murderous nurse in Misery) lives in a similar fantasy world and has that same crazy mixture of innocence, denial and rage.
Jason: I've neither seen nor read Misery but I thought of it as well since I'm fairly familiar with its story. It does work very well as a pointed attack on agism and the focus on youth. Baby Jane is basically what might have happened if Shirley Temple was more like Lindsay Lohan. A cautionary tale, for sure.
It also serves an interesting concept about being blessed with prodigious talent. Jane never worked hard to become more than she was, she never adapted, which is more to blame for her failures as an adult actress than anything. Similarly, Edwin -- Jane's would be accompanist for her "comeback" -- is hinted at having gone through something similar. He peaked early and has rested on his laurels far too long. Luck goes a long way in finding artistic success, but luck can run out and you're left with your skills and however you choose to develop them. Jane and Edwin both exhibit arrested development tendencies, only Jane's psychosis has eroded her humanity to the point where she's prepared to act in a dangerous manner to preserve what little control and safety she has left. Edwin may not have reached that level just yet, but with how sleazy he is as he attempts to prey on her delusions he shows he might be capable of that darkness later on.
And yet neither is played to solely be pitied or hated. No matter how unlikable they are, the scene where he plays the piano for her as she sings, really poorly, brings about a collective sadness that evokes genuine empathy. In that moment, the two of them are at their most vulnerable and human. It's the only time neither are truly pretending. Which is tragic, because all Jane really has is the skeletal persona of her lost childhood.
But she's still a maniac. A dangerous one at that.
Isaac: That kind of moral ambiguity is pretty rare for American films of this era. Though Jane is clearly the antagonist, there are no clear-cut heroes or villains in this story and, as we come to find out at the end of the film, even Blanche isn’t as innocent as she seems. Every character displays shady morals and moments of goodness. Even the next door neighbour whose politeness is partially motivated by nosiness. In one scene, we see her over-do the charm when conversing with an unreceptive Jane, hoping to catch a glimpse of Blanche, and in the next scene she’s telling her daughter how much she hates Jane. Her reaction may be justified, Jane is constantly rude to her, but it still shows a dichotomy in her personality. It’s these touches that bring the characters to life.
The script is airtight. The neighbour and Edwin both have a tiny amount of screen time but feel fully developed. Screenwriter Lukas Heller shows remarkable skill at efficiently conveying character information without resorting to exposition, or at least disguising the exposition so that it feels natural. By the end of Edwin’s first scene, I had a firm grasp on his personality and motivation. And it’s a masterwork of suspense. The tension is constantly mounting but the movie never goes totally overboard. It doesn’t have to. I wish more Hollywood scripts of today showed this much skill and confidence.
I found it interesting that the most famous scene in the film (when Jane serves Blanche a dead rat for dinner) wasn’t one of the scenes that really stood out for me. It worked, it was gross, but there were so many other scenes that were much more chilling. I’ve heard Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho) bemoan that film critics and teachers consider Psycho to be a movie about a shower scene. I was long under the impression that What Ever Happened to Baby Jane was a movie about a rat for dinner. It’s so much more than that. It’s a movie that speaks truths and delivers thrills. It’s hard enough to do one or the other.
Jason: It's true, in fact I found the earlier scene where Jane tries to feed Blanche the dead pet bird to be a bigger shock. The rat isn't exactly superfluous, because it seems designed to heighten the arc, but it wasn't nearly as effective as the rest of the film.
In connection with Psycho, the inside stairwell was so reminiscent of Norman Bates' home. I could have sworn it was the same set. Maybe it was the overall tonal similarity that brought it to mind.
It's a really good film that earned its place in the same breath as other high tension psychological thrillers of its era and since. It's funny, because the idea of fading fame was predominant in many films of this era. In different styles, too. Both Singin' in the Rain and Sunset Blvd. deal heavily in that spotlight being lost. Meanwhile in All About Eve (also starring Davis) there is quite a lot about the obsession with celebrity. Those three were all in the early 1950s, too, before What Ever Happened to Baby Jane came about. It does seem like one of those universal and timeless themes as the world is even more consumed by celebrity culture today, especially as everyone has the opportunity to be seen and heard (not always in a good way) through the internet.
Next, we take a look at William Friedkin's (French Connection and The Exorcist) 1977 film, Sorcerer. It's a remake of the excellent Henri-Georges Clouzot film The Wages of Fear!