Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
If you don’t pay attention to things, movies slip through the cracks. For one reason or another, I’d never seen the classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? until today. I’ve heard of it, of course, and heard about the legendary feud between stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But I’d never gotten around to watching it. For my fellow bloggers pursuing Ryan McNeil’s Blind Spot series, this was one of my picks, and for obvious reasons. There’s no genuinely good reason I’ve waited until now to see it.
We start with Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred), a child star who is more demanding than she has a right to be. Her father (Dave Willock) gives in to all of her whims, which upsets the other daughter, Blanche (Gina Gillespie) and her mother (Anne Barton). She tells Blanche that someday, their roles will be reversed, and that when that happens, she should be kinder to them than they have been to her. It’s prophetic, because a few years later, Blanche (Joan Crawford) is a successful star (we see clips from her early films) while Jane (Bette Davis, again in clips) is a train wreck of an actress. Then there’s an accident as one sister evidently tries to kill the other, and we flash forward to the present.
In that present, Blanche, the victim of the accident is now in a wheelchair and is tended by Jane and the occasional help, Elvira (Maidie Norman). Jane, we learn, is cruel beyond all measure, getting a sadistic pleasure from keeping Blanche confined to the upstairs of the house, preventing visitors, and terrorizing her in small ways. At least to start. By the time we’ve gone halfway into the film, Blanche has been served both her pet parakeet and a rat for meals. Jane, alcoholic and abusive, is becoming more and more unhinged before our eyes, initially because of a series of Blanche’s films on television and then simply because once started on that road, there is nowhere else for her to go.
What we get from this point forward is a descent into real life madness and horror, the sort of thing that the makers of slasher films can only dream of. This is horror as it is meant to be done, composed equally of terrible things on screen and horrors only imagined as we watch them. The real horror is Baby Jane herself, addled with booze and anger, taking out every frustration on her sister, seeing every action as a slight and taking terrible vengeance for each imagined wrong. Just as horrific in its own way is Jane’s dream of a showbiz comeback, not so much reinventing herself as attempting to recreate the act that made her a star as a child.
This, more than anything, is what makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? so effective as a film. Jane, wanting to make a comeback, places an ad for an accompanist and comes up with Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), a chubby pianist desperate for work. She performs for him in one of the most frankly terrifying scenes I have ever seen in a film. Bette Davis, wearing a blonde wig, caked white makeup, and an adult version of a child’s dress screeching “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” is horrific, and because of it, fantastic.
Both actresses are at the top of their form here. Crawford is both sympathetic and tragic as Blanche, particularly tragic based on the ending of the film. This is a fantastic performance from her, especially the scene in which she must get down the stairs of the house on her own without the use of her legs. It is Davis, though, who takes center stage here. Her fall into paranoia, depravity, and insanity is believable and awful. She is, without question, one of the most frightening screen creations ever conceived.
Needless to say, this film is considered a classic for a number of reasons. The performances are as good as they get, and with Crawford and Davis, this is saying quite a bit, indeed. In many ways, it feels like it should have been done by Alfred Hitchcock, although in a number of other ways, it is almost too much for Hitchcock to have done. It goes in ways he never did and possibly couldn’t. It’s far too dark, going to a level not dreamed of in Psycho or The Birds. It’s subversive and terrifying, and that more than anything makes it noteworthy for its time.
So I ask myself why the hell I hadn’t watched this before. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? influenced any number of films after it, and Aldrich was smart enough to take his inspiration from the greats, too. There’s no question that he’s referencing Sunset Blvd. at the end, and in just the right tone. Dammit, I should have seen this years ago.
Why to watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: It might be the greatest thriller of the 1960s.
Why not to watch: It’s as disturbing now is it was back then.