Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – this gothic masterpiece is a Halloween treat

Warner Bros. 1962. Director: Robert Aldrich. Screenplay: Lukas Hellar, based on the novel by Henry Farrell

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is one of my favourite movies. Ever. I really don’t need an excuse to watch it again but, as it is Halloween, it is the perfect time to enjoy this creepy, dark psychological thriller. Bette Davis is just plain scary as Baby Jane. I still attribute my fear of rats to this movie. And I don’t even have a cellar.

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Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s rivalry and hatred for each other is legendary and well documented. It’s also on display in their only film together, driving awesome performances, pushing beyond nostalgia and creating a new genre of horror films starring aging classic movie stars. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? received five Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for Bette Davis as the crazy, disturbed Baby Jane Hudson. She was unsuccessful, but a win would have been deserved. Joan Crawford was overlooked by the Academy but she is just as good as Bette in a less flashy role as Blanche, reacting to the crazy and trying to get away from it. It’s a gusty performance. The material is strong and the story about faded glory is intriguing, but these two actresses make the film.

1917. Baby Jane Hudson is a huge vaudeville child star. She even has a doll styled after her. But she’s also a spoiled brat. Her sister Blanche, overshadowed, watches from the sidelines with a steely facial expression. Their mother reassures Blanche one day it will be her turn.

Flash to 1935. Baby Jane is an alcoholic and making bad films. Blanche is a rich, famous movie star. A clause in her contact states the studio must make a movie with Jane for every movie they make with Blanche. Jane is a nightmare and the studio wants out of that agreement.

A gate, a car, a woman’s foot hovering over the accelerator, another woman walking towards a gate. The car is revved and speeds towards the woman at the gate. Smashed gates, a woman crying as she runs off. Cue dramatic music and opening credits. And there it is, the reason to watch this classic movie, the names Bette Davis and Joan Crawford leap onto the screen. As the credits continue, a smashed Baby Jane doll is on the ground and the car is smashed into the gate.

Yesterday (sometime in 1962). Blanche’s old movies are playing on TV. The sisters’ next door neighbours have been enjoying the films. They are aware Blanche lives next door, but never see her. They only see “her fat slouch of a sister”. Cut to Blanche watching the same film on TV. She is old and in a wheelchair. Then we see Bette as Jane. She looks grotesque as she flops around the old Hollywood house. Blanche and Jane are stuck together in this dark, oppressive house. Jane resents looking after her and Blanche is isolated and scared.

The dichotomy of once young, beautiful movie stars and their current less than glamourous state is everywhere – in old movie clips, portraits and conversations. Joan Crawford’s face lights up as she, in character, talks about her former movie career. The viewer is left with the impression that perhaps that part isn’t just acting.

When their housekeeper, Elvira, arrives she talks to Blanche about Jane’s drinking and asks if she has spoken to the doctor about Jane. Blanche admits she hasn’t. It’s too difficult. Poor Blanche. Jane has been hiding Blanche’s new fan mail from her and Elvira found them in the rubbish bin. After talking about Blanche’s plans to the sell the house and a creepy interaction with Jane, Elvira convinces Blanche to call Dr Shelby because Jane is unwell and needs help. Due to her level of interference, it is pretty clear Elvira won’t make it.

Reliving her former childhood glory in the living room, Jane breaks down when she sees her hideous reflection in the mirror. She explodes with bitter hostility towards Blanche as she continually rings the buzzer for Jane’s attention. Bette practically jumps off the screen during the feverish delivery in this scene. Following a confrontation about selling the house and sending her to an institution, Jane tightens her control over Blanche. She removes her telephone, leaving her isolated upstairs, and serves Blanche’s dead bird on a platter for lunch. While Jane is in town placing a newspaper ad for a musician to help her revive her childhood act, Blanche makes her way to the top of stairs, staring hopefully at the downstairs phone and trying to build up the courage to get out of her wheelchair and down the stairs. This scene, highlighting Blanche’s increasing desperation, is among Joan’s best work in this film.

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By now Jane is just wacko, becoming further removed from reality. No one remembers Baby Jane Hudson and she is oblivious. It is really quite sad. A young pianist, Edwin (Victor Buono), answers the newspaper ad and visits the house. Hitting a new level of delusion as Jane performs her act for him, Edwin’s confused facial expressions while playing the piano highlights the outsider’s perspective. Blanche’s expressions as she listens from upstairs communicate her fear and concern.

As the film starts hurtling towards the end, Edwin’s mother wants him to stay away from Jane Hudson. She yells at him about the car accident in 1935 and Jane trying to kill Blanche, leaving her paralysed and in a wheelchair, a reminder of where the story started and where it is destined to end. After completely losing her mind and physically attacking Blanche, dealing with Elvira and scaring Edwin to pieces, Jane abducts an injured Blanche and takes her to the beach, a scene of happy childhood memories. Soon we hear the revelation from a dying Blanche that prompts Jane’s classic line “You mean, all this time we could have been friends?” Maybe it’s just me, but you can almost hear Crawford stifle a chuckle as she talks about the past and says to Jane “You weren’t ugly then.”

For the amazing performances, the claustrophobic creepiness, the sick “din din” on the platters, the chemistry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the fun of the whole experience and its place in cinema history, it is worth finding out what happened to Baby Jane.

Images: Warners Bros

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