Watching What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? fills one with a sense of nostalgia for a time they may never have known but can always relive. In 1962, Baby Jane's year of birth, the cinema was a wonderful place to be. Films mattered, genres were being stretched, and classics were produced. To Kill a Mockingbird, Lolita, The Manchurian Candidate, Lawrence of Arabia, and Baby Jane - it was quite a year. It was also the time when the late Bette Davis, Hollywood's own Elizabethan matriarch, was performing. A vehicle for Davis and archrival Joan Crawford, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a stunning testimony to a golden age.
Baby Jane Hudson (played in her older years by a gloriously dilapidated Davis) was a star. As a goldie-locked kindergarten beauty, Baby Jane performed to sold-out audiences in 1917. Sister Blanche, then the plainer of the two, was always reminded of that depressing reality. Standing off-stage left, enviously watching her sister screech through a set of syrupy "I love you daddy" numbers, Blanche could only dream of a future when the audience's eyes and inclinations might shift. And they do. Flashing decades forward with superb audacity, director Robert Aldrich introduces us to a new world, where Blanche is a superstar who, though crippled, is still adored by her fans. Baby Jane is as Baby Jane was destined to be, a pale shadow of her juvenile success.
Aldrich's macabre psychodrama is an exploration of what moderns might call the "child star syndrome." When Baby Jane's star fades and her features droop, her tempestuous calls for ice cream become bitter and twisted latter-life jealousy. "Caring" for the wheelchair-bound Blanche, in a rotting unkempt home, Jane parades around in caked make-up and baby doll dresses slapping meals together and rehashing her stage numbers for an audience of dusty walls and dirty kettles. Blanche (an undernourished Crawford) has sympathy for what she increasingly realizes is her sister's "condition," but the affection is not mutually shared. With a series of television specials airing celebrating Blanche's career, Baby Jane casts an envious and evil eye over her ailing sister, and Aldrich's brilliantly twisted film unwinds.
The greatest pleasure of Baby Jane is the performances of its two leads. Davis was nominated for an Oscar for this role and deservedly so. Jane is a diabolically bizarre creation, neurotic and schizophrenic but oddly endearing. As Davis plays her, Jane never really grew up. Whether batting her eyelashes at opportunistic pianist Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), or hammering at the head of her suspicious housekeeper, Jane is always pathetic and sad more than frightening. Her darkest hours tick on desperation rather than inherent evil. Crawford, in the less noisy role, is equally commanding. Squeaky and domineered, Crawford's physical transformation is astounding. Her fading greatness speaks in her sunken cheeks and arched eyes. Neither performance is internal, subtle, or understated. Davis and Crawford are overacting here, but it is always fascinating, funny and frightening. The two divas were bitter enemies in real life and that tension crackles on screen. Of working with Crawford, Davis had said, "That bitch hated working with me on Jane, and vice versa... She was a pain in the ass before, during, and after the picture was made." Their rivalry is enough to make one think they toned it down in the film.
Yet Baby Jane is more than just a realization of this enmity and a celebration of these performers. It is a taut, tense, intriguing, and an exploratory psychological experience. In great thriller style, it shocks and titillates. Aldrich and screenwriter Lukas Heller embrace the grisly and the gruesome; Jane's pet dinners are particularly wicked inclusions. The film follows a type of cycle to suspense. It builds marvelously; each trip Jane makes up the stairs to Blanche's bedroom is crueler than the last. First, the phone goes, and then the pets, and then... well we don't want to spoil it. Suffice to say the film is a master class in the type of escalating suspense one sees in Rear Window and more recently in Misery.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is as close to genre perfection as one is likely to come. As a trip back in time, it is an endearing testimonial, but as a film, it is a complex and frightening, ferocious event.
Aka Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?