Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: two indisputable heavy-weight megawatt talents, who fussed and feuded, slinked and suffered as few divas of their ilk could or have. On screen each created indelible and iconic images of the classic Hollywood female star, irreproachable by any standard then or now. Behind the scenes, they were bitter rivals of the first magnitude whose mutual mean-spirited contempt for one another remains legendary. Davis would always insist that Crawford heavily campaigned to deprive her of an Oscar for 1950s All About Eve. But the rivalry began long before that, when Crawford was already a leading lady at MGM in the 1930s, and while Davis was struggling to carve her own niche over at Warner Brothers.
By mid-decade Crawford was ensconced as the reigning glamor girl par excellence with legions of fans. Davis, who would be the first to admit she was not a conventional beauty, in retrospect was probably more than a tad envious of Crawford’s flawless looks. But with her breakout in Jezebel (1938), Davis began her own rapid ascendance at WB, a journey that would surpass and eventually eclipse Crawford’s supremacy at MGM.
The early 1940s saw an end to Crawford’s reign at MGM. Indeed, by mid-decade Crawford was all but forgotten by the studios, while Davis was churning out one hit after the next at WB. But when Davis’ own popularity with audiences began to wane, studio head Jack L. Warner decided to bring in Crawford to keep his contemptuous leading lady in line, thus rekindling the animosity between them for decades to follow. When Davis and Crawford’s careers had run their course, Warner unceremoniously jettisoned the pair, even telling director Robert Aldrich “I wouldn’t give you a dime for those two washed up broads!”
But Aldrich still saw the potential in each star and, more importantly, could also smell the money from bringing their well-publicized backstage feud to the forefront by pairing them together in a single movie. Seen in this light, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is something of a very cruel joke. It plays as an almost semi-biographical grand guignol with Crawford and Davis cast as a pair of one time stars in steep decline, who spend their emeritus years in seclusion inside their slightly moth eaten mansion – itself a strangely sad relic from happier times.
The screenplay from Lukas Heller, based on the novel by Henry Farrell, not only extols the delicious hatred of its fictional counterparts, it also revels in the mold and mildew of both Crawford and Davis own cast off careers – each uncomfortably preserved in mothballs until Aldrich found a way to resurrect them from their pop culture oblivion. Viewing the film today, it’s often difficult to separate the fiction from fact. Davis’ disgust of Crawford emanates odious venom from beneath her wig and heavily pancaked face.
In the scene where Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) kicks her handicapped sister about the floor, Davis actually hauled off and struck Crawford in the head, sending her to hospital. Later, during the scene where Jane is supposed to carry her sister’s bound body out of bed, Crawford acted as a dead weight to ensure that Davis, who suffered from chronic back problems, would injure herself while attempting the stunt.
To say that the working atmosphere on the set was a tenuous détente between these two aging figureheads is an understatement. But Aldrich knew his craft and was respected by both ladies. And in retrospect, Crawford and Davis’ mutual detest creates an underlay of blood-curdling realism to this fictional story that continues to elevate Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? from B-budget fright-fest into genuine cinematic art.
Our story sets up the sibling rivalry between Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred), the reigning darling of the Vaudeville circuit, and her sister, Blanche (Gina Gillespie). It’s 1917 and Jane is a spoiled child star whose father, Ray (Davie Willock) simply dotes on her while the two are on stage, but cannot even wrangle into submission once the curtain has come down. Backstage, Jane throws a tantrum that raises a few eyebrows from her adoring fans. When Blanche attempts to quell Jane’s fury, Ray snaps at her. Mother, Cora (Anne Barton), who is both patient and sympathetic to her cast off daughter, encourages Blanche to forget. But Blanche has no such intention.
By 1935, an adult Blanche has become the movie star of the family while Jane has turned to the bottle to coddle her fearful realization that her adult film career is over. Returning to the mansion that they now share after a party, one of them consciously attempts to run the other over by smashing the car into a wrought iron gate. Aldrich keeps this moment, shot in tight close ups of legs and hands, deliberately ambiguous while ever so slightly implying that it is Jane who is behind the wheel.
After the main title sequence, our story fast tracks to 1962 with both ladies well past their prime and living in seclusion in the same mansion. Crippled in the auto ‘accident’ so long ago, Blanche (now played by Crawford) relives her glorious past vicariously through watching revivals of her own movies on the television in her bedroom. Her entire world consists of being kept inside this one room, rarely visited by the abusive Jane (Bette Davis) but looked after with sincerity by the housemaid, Elvira Stitt (Maidie Norman).
Next door neighbor, Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee) attempts to make polite conversation with Jane, even suggesting that perhaps she and her daughter, Liza (Barbara Merrill) might visit Blanche to tell her how much they admire her movies. But Jane keeps Mrs. Bates at bay, lying about Blanche’s condition and explaining that she cannot receive guests. In truth it is Jane who cannot endure the visitation. She has not been the same since the accident, her mental state precariously teetering toward manipulative and maniacal lunacy. Hence, when Jane discovers that Blanche intends to sell the house and place her in a sanatorium for her own good, she plots to preserve her own permanency by whatever means.
Jane begins by taunting Blanche with the disappearance of her parakeet. The dead bird eventually winds up as an entrée on Blanche’s plate. Next, she plots her comeback to show business by taking out an ad for a pianist in the paper. However, when Jane accidentally catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror she is genuinely horrified by what the ravages of time have done to her. Concerned, Blanche repeatedly buzzes downstairs, incurring Jane’s wrath. Blanche attempts to hoist herself to the window and make contact with Mrs. Bates by tossing a note into her yard. The paper falls short, however, and Jane retrieves it by accident. Returning later with the note, Jane informs Blanche that she will never leave the house or, in fact, her room.
In the meantime portly effete mama’s boy and con artist, Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) arrives at the Hudson home in response to Jane’s ad, offering his services as a pianist for her act. Jane shows him a yellowed scrapbook of her past clippings and suggests they review her material for a revival. But when Blanche repeatedly buzzes downstairs to alert Flagg that someone else is in the house, Jane quietly excuses herself before tearing upstairs where she assaults Blanche and rips the buzzer out of the wall.
The next day Blanche discovers that Jane has been forging her signature on checks and decides to take matters into her own hands. While Jane is out shopping Blanche painfully drags herself downstairs to the only available phone to call for the doctor to hurry over at once. But before the call can be put through Jane comes home and beats Blanche senseless, kicking her repeatedly in the head and stomach. Disguising her voice, Jane telephones the doctor to inform him that his services will no longer be needed as ‘Jane’ has found a new physician who will be looking after her. Dragging Blanche back to her room, Jane binds and gags her in bed, then promptly fires Elvira.
Suspicious of Jane’s motivations for her dismissal, Elvira begrudgingly leaves the house but returns later to find Blanche tied up. Unable to warn Elvira that Jane is standing behind her, Blanche helplessly watches as Jane murders Elvira with a hammer, waiting until nightfall to hide the body in the trunk of the car and finally dispose of it. A short while later, police arrive to investigate Elvira’s disappearance but are cordially thrown off the trail by Jane who is plotting Blanche’s demise. Edwin arrives for his first payment and hears Blanche knock something over in her room. Concerned, particularly after he is repeatedly told by Jane that there is nothing to worry about, Edwin rushes upstairs, finds Blanche bound and gagged and in horror runs off to get the police.
With her world imploding, Jane frantically carries a very undernourished and dehydrated Blanche down to the car, driving them both to the beach. Realizing that she will likely die, Blanche confides the truth to Jane – that it was she who was driving the car on the night she became paralyzed. In a deliberate attempt to run Jane over, Blanche lost control of the car, snapping her own spine instead. As Jane was too drunk to remember the incident, she has lived all these years with the guilt of believing it was she who was responsible for her sister’s paralysis. Jane’s grasp on reality evaporates. In her decaying imagination she reverts to childhood, telling Blanche she will bring her back some ice cream. As Jane joyously skips and prances about the sand she unwittingly attracts the attention of the police, who rush to discover Blanche lying dead in the sand.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? remains as darkly disturbing as the day it was made. Jack L. Warner reluctantly agreed to distribute the film but absolutely forbade Aldrich to shoot any of it at the studio or on the back lot. Warner’s reluctance may have been partly predicated on the content of the story, but more likely it was his final snub at the two aged actresses he considered ‘washed up broads’. When Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? became a sleeper smash, Warner suddenly became quite chummy with Aldrich, even posing for pictures with Crawford and Davis. Immediately following the film’s success, Aldrich began planning something of a reunion, ‘Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte’. But by the time cameras began to role on that project Crawford had emphatically decided she wanted nothing more to do with Davis – regardless of their co-starring success.
Between Crawford and Davis, it’s difficult to gauge which actress gives the better performance. Undeniably, Davis’ Jane is the showier of the two – veering into a sort of macabre camp that is utterly bone-chilling. But Crawford’s paraplegic is much more than just a sympathetic counterpoint to Davis’ grand-standing. She infuses Blanche Hudson with an empathy derived from her sheer incapability to defend herself. The audience sides with Crawford’s hopelessness, feels the weight of her dread and fears with mounting anxiety as Davis’ supreme gargoyle is seen skulking around corners or creeping up the stairs.
The revelation that Blanche, having deliberately plotted to murder her own sister, and in absence of fulfilling that goal, has instead chosen to raze Jane’s sanity with an insurmountable application of lifelong guilt, has crippled both women in different ways and it remains the penultimate shocker that realigns our perceptions of these two potent adversaries. Which sister has been the more destructive influence? Ultimately, that depends on one’s point of view. But Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? remains a very disquieting exercise in sibling rivalry run amuck. In an age of filmic affectation, it is, was and will always be a very troubling reflection of its two aging stars.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray delivers an impressive 1080p transfer of a film that has long suffered in its various DVD incarnations. Contrast takes a quantum leap forward. The 1:78.1 hi-def image evokes the sumptuousness in Ernest Haller’s cinematography – deliberately lit to create a very claustrophobic environment. The film’s grain structure is immaculately represented. Truly, nothing to complain about here. The audio is a slightly different matter: DTS mono and continuing to suffer from ever so slight distortion in its mid-range.
Extras are the other glaring disappointment: virtually a regurgitation of the 2006 DVD extras, including an audio commentary by Charles Busch and John Epperson and thirty minute contrast and compare piece on Crawford and Davis. We also get an electronic press kit, excerpts from the Andy Williams Show featuring Davis singing and dancing, an almost hour long documentary on Davis hosted by Jodie Foster and thirty minute fluff piece on Crawford. Theatrical trailers and a dance mix of Baby Jane’s song round out the old extras. Warner’s packaging is new, collectible with some glossy photo art but otherwise largely forgettable. Bottom line: recommended for improved overall video/audio quality of the feature.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)