What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
By 1962, Bette Davis’ days as a leading lady were long over. After successes like Dangerous (1935), Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), and Mr. Skeffington (1944), Davis became unhappy with the assignments she was provided. Almost all the films she made from 1946-1949 were either financial and/or professional disappointments. Davis was also getting on in age (in Hollywood years anyway, she was only late 30s) and was not being cast in the romantic leading roles she had been given a decade earlier. In 1949, she was cast in the film noir, Beyond the Forest. At the time, Davis knew it was a clunker and the critics like Hedda Hopper provided the same assessment, even going as far to say, “If Bette had deliberately set out to wreck her career, she could not have picked a more appropriate vehicle.” At the conclusion of the filming of Beyond the Forest, Davis was finally released from her contract, after eighteen years with Warner Brothers.
By 1950, Davis was working as a freelancer. After completing Payment on Demand, Davis was offered the leading role of Margo Channing in All About Eve. ‘Eve’ provided Davis with one of her best known roles. While Davis worked steadily after ‘Eve,’ she wasn’t able to recapture the success she achieved in the 1930s-1940s. By the early 1960s, Davis’ career had segued into horror films. She made many horror films during the 1960s-1980s, including: The Nanny (1965), Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973), Burnt Offerings (1976), and Watcher in the Woods (1980). Her most famous one however, is What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). A film that is just as notorious for what went on behind the cameras as what went on in front of them.
In 1962, Davis was cast in Robert Aldrich’s psychological thriller/horror film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? She was cast alongside longtime rival, Joan Crawford. Davis’ character, “Baby Jane,” was a huge child star. Crawford’s character, Blanche, spent her childhood in Jane’s shadow always standing in the wings watching her sister perform. When the girls reached adulthood, Jane’s star was snuffed out. She was too old to be “Baby Jane” and wasn’t talented enough to be an adult actress. Blanche on the other hand, ended up becoming a famous actress and achieved the Hollywood stardom that Jane always wanted for herself. The pre-credit scenes are a flashback showing the two women’s careers in Hollywood. The sequence ends with one woman purposely hitting the other woman with her car and paralyzing her. It is assumed that Jane is the one who paralyzed Blanche.
The contemporary part of the film depicts Jane and Blanche as they are today–two sisters, former stars, living in a decaying Hollywood mansion. They are living off of Blanche’s money (which is quickly running out) and Jane is her caretaker. Jane however, is insanely jealous of Blanche’s success and career and does what ever she can to torment her. Jane is bonkers and the things she does to Blanche are terrifying. When Jane discovers that Blanche is planning on selling the mansion, her mental health deteriorates even further. She cuts the cord to Blanche’s telephone, essentially cutting her off from the world. Jane also starts tampering with Blanche’s food, making her scared to eat. On one occasion, there was a rat on the platter and on another, a dead bird. Jane ends up catching Blanche on the phone trying to get outside help and she beats Blanche unconscious, gags and binds her and locks her in her bedroom. When Blanche’s cleaning lady returns unexpectedly, Jane murders her.
The levity in the movie (if you can call it that) is when Jane decides that she is going to recapture the fame she experienced during her youth. She dusts off her old sheet music, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” and hires a pianist (Victor Buono) to accompany her singing. Jane, a woman in her late 50s, still dresses like the 10-year old girl she was when she was superstar Baby Jane. She even still wears her hair in blond ringlets, except for now they’re ringlets of dirty and greasy hair. She also wears pounds of makeup which only highlights how haggard she is. Apparently, Bette Davis designed her character’s makeup, by stating that Baby Jane seems like someone who would never take her makeup off, she’d just put more on. Baby Jane looks like she’s wearing 30+ years of makeup, all at the same time.
Davis and Crawford’s animosity toward one another during the filming of ‘Baby Jane,’ was well known and in the 55 years since then, their feud has evolved into one of the most notorious stories in Hollywood history. There is even a new mini series, Feud: Bette & Joan, that is on right now that depicts the off screen shenanigans of Davis and Crawford. There is no way to know the real truth, unless you happened to be on the set with Davis and Crawford, but their feud definitely makes the on-screen drama even more juicy. Their feud was legendary and hard to place where and how it started. Did these two ladies really dislike each other that much? Or was it played up for publicity for the film? There are theories abound regarding professional rivalries (Crawford winning an Oscar for Mildred Pierce, a film Davis turned down), romantic rivalries (Davis’ crush Franchot Tone marrying Crawford), and even award rivalries (Crawford was upset that Davis was nominated for the Oscar for ‘Baby Jane’ and not her. However, she got her revenge by accepting winner Anne Bancroft’s Oscar that year after Davis lost).
Two years later, Robert Aldrich tried to recapture the “magic” (if you want to call it that) of ‘Baby Jane,’ by re-casting Davis and Crawford in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. However, Crawford just couldn’t get through another period of drama with Davis and she feigned illness and eventually was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland and Davis were friends, so there would be no drama with the new casting decision. ‘Hush, Hush’ shares many commonalities with ‘Baby Jane’ (except this time, Davis is the one being tormented). However, while it is entertaining, it isn’t as good as ‘Baby Jane.’ De Havilland, a wonderful actress in her own right, just doesn’t bring the right vibe to the film. The palpable tension between Davis and Crawford just makes ‘Baby Jane’ the film it is–a film that is delightfully creepy, hilarious, campy, and macabre, all at the same time.
Whatever the dynamic was between Davis and Crawford, it worked for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s a shame if their disdain of one another was all because of something petty or a misunderstanding. Depending on the circumstances, this final line from the film could have been applicable to Davis and Crawford’s relationship:
“You mean all this time we could have been friends?” BABY JANE to BLANCHE