If you haven’t seen it:
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is great thriller, starring two legends of the silver screen, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
It is the story of two sisters, both aging retired movie stars, living together in a house in California. When one of them decides to sell the house and move away, the other becomes angry, and old jealousies and resentments resurface.
Bette Davis gives a great scenery-chewing performance as the unhinged Jane, and this is still a creepy and effective movie five decades after it was made. Its influence on the more recent Stephen King film Misery is quite obvious.
The movie is perhaps best known today for the behind-the-scenes stories about how much the two stars quarrelled during filming. They hated each other. They really, really, hated each other.
One last thing, in case you were wondering – What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has nothing to do with the 1983 Rod Stewart song “Baby Jane.” Rod was certainly not singing a love song to Bette Davis’s character from the movie. From what I understand of the man, he was at that time emphatically not into deranged senior citizens. I will admit, I have been wrong about 80s pop stars in the past, but not this time.
If you have seen it:
Scroll down past the trailer for more.
SPOILER ALERT: The plot summary and comments below contain details that might spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you have not already seen it.
“Baby” Jane Hudson was a child star in the old days of vaudeville music hall. As an adult however, she failed in her attempt to break into movies, and had to watch her sister, Blanche, become a huge star instead. Blanche’s career was cut short however, when she was injured in a car crash, for which a drunk Jane was blamed. Blanche was left paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.
Now, many years later, the two sisters are a pair of retired old spinsters. They live together in a house in Los Angeles. Blanche is totally reliant upon Jane, who has become a bad tempered and bitter alcoholic, a menopausal monster who abuses her position of authority, bullying and tormenting her invalid sister.
The bullying becomes worse when Jane learns that Blanche intends to sell the house and move away. She deprives Blanche of her food, or serves the food up with dead birds or rats in it. Fearing for her own safety, Blanche tries to summon help, from her doctor, and from a neighbour, but Jane always manages to intercept the messages.
Meanwhile, becoming increasingly unstable, Jane is attempting to arrange a comeback. She employs a penniless and desperate English musician, Edwin, to help her, and the pair start rehearsals.
When Elvira, their maid, discovers what is going on, she is about to raise the alarm, but Jane kills her with a hammer.
The police soon come to talk to Jane about Elvira’s disappearance, but she manages to put them off the scent for a while. Shortly afterwards however, Edwin stumbles across Blanche bound and gagged in her room, and he flees the house in horror and calls the police. Jane drags her sister into her car, and drives out of town. Blanche attempts to calm Jane down, by telling her her big secret – that the car crash was really her own fault, not Jane’s, but it makes no difference.
They stop at the beach, where Jane appears to revert to her childhood, playing in the sand and the sea, and eating ice cream. When the local police recognize and confront her, and crowds gather round, she starts to put on a performance of her old show, as the police notice her sister lying nearby.
Steve Sunday Says:
A lot of reviewers back in the day called this a “camp horror film”. I saw it for the first time recently and would disagree with that assessment. By today’s standards it is not a horror film. I would also argue that, again by today’s standards, it is not particularly camp. Reviewers back in the 1960s did not have Top Gun, Strictly Ballroom or Legally Blonde to compare it to.
I would just say it is a dark thriller, with lots tense moments. Sometimes it is a little predictable (such as the bit where Mrs Sunday and I both simultaneously shouted at Elvira “Don’t put that hammer down!”) but it’s still fun.
The twist at the end of the movie had me scratching my head a little. I am not sure why Blanche thought it would help to win her sister round if she confessed to being responsible for the car crash. If I was at somebody’s mercy and suspected they had murderous intentions towards me, I would probably keep quiet about the fact that I had once tried to kill them, and that I had being lying about it to them for decades and making them look after me out of misplaced guilt.
Also, I find it difficult to visualise how Blanche actually managed to get so badly injured driving a car at what must have been quite a low speed. And how did she miss her sister at that range, and how could it possibly have appeared to the police that she was the victim – was she not in the driver’s seat? Perhaps Blanche made the confession up in a desperate attempt to … no, that does not make sense either…forget I said that. The confession has to be true otherwise the scene with angry young Blanche at the beginning makes no sense. Also, it explains why it seems that Blanche has always made excuses for her sister’s behaviour.
Trivia Trish Says:
- The actress playing the teenage girl living next door was Bette Davis’s real-life daughter.
- What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was remade in 1991 with real-life sisters Lynne and Vanessa Redgrave in the lead roles. There have also been recent rumours of another remake with Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, but this has not been confirmed.
- The film was a box office smash.
Bette and Joan’s Feud
The enmity between the two stars, Davis and Crawford, created one of the most famous celebrity feuds of all time. They already hated each other before Baby Jane, but it was during the filming of this movie that things got really nasty.
Both had been huge stars in their day, but by 1962 their best years were behind them. Both had left Warner, and both were badly in need of a hit. Crawford went to see Davis, and pitched What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to her. After reading the novel, Davis was interested, and went to see the proposed director Robert Aldrich. She had only two questions for him: would she be playing Jane, and was Aldrich sleeping with Crawford? Assured on both points, the project was a go.
Filming started well, both stars seemed happy, and they were polite in public. Before long though, they were at each other’s throats:
- When Crawford started sending little gifts and notes to the crew to win their affection, Davis sent her a note telling her to “GET OFF THE CRAP”.
- Both called the director nightly to complain about the other.
- Davis used to talk loudly about “that phony cunt” within Crawford’s earshot.
- For the scene where Jane beats Blanche, Crawford was concerned that Davis would actually hurt her, and asked for a body double. There was one close up however, that a double could not be used for. When this was filmed, Davis did clip Crawford’s head – Crawford screamed, and filming stopped. “I barely touched her” said Davis, unapologetic. Others claim that she left Crawford in need of stitches.
- The following week Crawford had her revenge. During the scene where Jane drags Blanche out of bed and across the room, Crawford, knowing that Davis suffered back problems, made herself as heavy as possible. “There is a way of making it easy on the actor who is doing the carrying” said director Aldrich, “but Crawford wanted Bette to suffer”. Some even say she wore a special lead weightlifter’s belt. She certainly spoiled at least one take by stopping to cough halfway through. When the filming was finished, Davis was screaming in agony, and Crawford strolled back to her dressing room.
- It was Davis, not Crawford who was nominated at the Oscars for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? the following year. Davis was the favourite to win, so as the nominations were read out she put out her cigarette and handed her purse to a friend, ready to go and collect the award. When the winner’s name was read out, she was surprised it was not her; however she was flabbergasted when Crawford pushed past her, saying “excuse me, I have an Oscar to collect” and stole her limelight again. What Davis did not know was that Crawford, as well as campaigning against her, had arranged with several of the other nominated actresses, who could not be present, that she would collect the award on their behalf.
Amazingly, a couple of years after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis and Crawford did actually agree to work together again, on Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte. However, after a few days filming, during which Davis was even more poisonous than usual (she had not forgotten the Oscar night humiliation) Crawford feigned an illness and pulled out of the movie.
They never worked together again after that, and there were no more recorded encounters.
Chris the Critic says:
It begins as a claustrophobic melodrama, a nightmare of family dysfunction, but it is suspense, in true Hitchcock style, that drives it onward.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a great thriller worthy of its two legendary stars. Davis and Crawford attack their roles with gusto. Davis is the better actress, and she has the better role, but Crawford has poise, and she makes it work for her. With her subtle expressions and body language she makes us wonder if Blanche is relishing her martyrdom a little, and if there is perhaps something slightly sinister about her.
Gloria Swanson had paved the way for this movie as the original “horror hag” in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, but it was the success of Baby Jane that led to an entire cycle such movies in the 1960s and 70s, none of which managed to capture the intensity that made Baby Jane so electrifying.
Main Cast and Crew:
Bette Davis … Baby Jane Hudson
Joan Crawford … Blanche Hudson
Victor Buono … Edwin Flagg
Director: Robert Aldrich