Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?

Released: 1962
Director: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford

Trashy, campy nonsense – loved it!


Given my love of all things camp and the amount of time I spend with men who regard Bette Davis as the ultimate icon it seems incredible that I’ve made it to 2011 without seeing What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? Thanks to a reader’s suggestion I’ve now been able to rectify that appalling situation.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a film I knew bits and bobs about especially the acrimony between stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, but I was only vaguely aware of the actual story of sibling rivalry.

The film begins in 1917 with bratty child star “Baby” Jane Hudson being the centre of attention, a cute singing and dancing beauty who charms audiences until they encounter her brattish reality.  Jane’s sister Blanche is a plain child who is ignored by all those around her, except her mother who pleads with her to show Jane the kindness she has not received herself.

By 1935 the roles are reversed.  Both women are actresses but Blanche is the glamourous and powerful film star, while Jane is a washed -up, talentless drunk who only gains employment due to a clause in her sister’s contract.  One night after a studio party one sister deliberately drives a car into the house gates, seemingly crushing the other.

All this before the credits have even rolled.  The action then moves to “Yesterday” and we learn which sister has been injured.  Blanche, now played by Joan Crawford, is confined to a wheelchair and reliant on Jane to do everything for her.  Blanche has, despite her problems, remained a handsome, well presented woman.  Jane is a grotesque creature drinking to excess, caked in make-up, still wearing girlish clothes with her hair in ringlets.  As Jane’s grip on sanity falters she begins to mentally and physically abuse her helpless sister.

Bette Davis’s performance is fantastic.  She’s pathetic, cruel, sad and even a little touching and this is a big role to play.  Her monstrous appearance fills the screen and causes the viewer to genuinely fear for Blanche’s safety.   Joan Crawford’s performance however is the stronger of the two.  It is much quieter, more subtle and nuanced and simply better acting but subtle is never going to beat crazy, not in a million years.  The supporting cast isn’t very memorable with the exception of Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg, who is impressive in his first film role.  This film is all about Bette and Joan, no-one else matters in the slightest.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is best described as a psychological horror, the anticipation of how Jane is going to next torment Blanche is spine-tingling but there is very little actual violence portrayed, unless you count the horrific scene where a stunt woman (actually it’s obviously a floppy mannequin!) is viciously kicked across the floor.

This is a trashy, campy, schlocky film and I absolutely loved it.  Everything falls into place perfectly from the black and white presentation, to the really bad music and the clear animosity between the stars.  Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a very, very bad film and that’s exactly why it’s so wonderful.

This movie is of real interest to fans of the film-making process (and bitch fights) because of the sheer hatred the stars had for each other.  It wasn’t uncommon for physical fights to take place on set.  Davis kicked Crawford in the head and Crawford wore weights for a scene where she had to be dragged across the floor.  The director, Robert Aldrich, was powerless to stop the fighting.  The animosity was further fuelled when Davis was Oscar-nominated for her role as Jane.  She lost out as Best Actress to Anne Bancroft, whose award was collected in her absence by Crawford who had offered to receive the honour on behalf of any actress who defeated Davis.

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? is a classic with great acting, a genuinely troubling story and great on-set fodder for the gossips.  I can’t believe I’ve waited so long to watch it and am now kicking myself.  If you’ve not seen it and you enjoy campy, over the top nonsense then get hold of a copy right away.  Trust me – you’ll love it.

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  1. Sounds Great. I haven’t seen this but it sounds like it would stand up well against modern psychological thriller/horrors like Black Swan.

    Thanks for writing this and enlightening me on a film I knew very little about

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