Plot: Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was once the toast of vaudeville, a child star whose singing and dancing made her famous, while the sales of her lookalike doll made her father wealthy. As an adult, Jane’s star fell and her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) became one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actresses. Now as old women, the sisters share a house where Jane drinks heavily amidst the memories of her youth and Blanche – confined to a wheelchair following an accident for which Jane is blamed – is experiencing a minor renaissance as her old films find a new audience on television. The relationship between the two sisters is strained to begin with, but grows worse as the mentally unstable Jane begins to torment her sister, taking the telephone from her bedroom and scaring her to the point that Blanche refuses to eat anything Jane brings her, and begins to starve. Jane attempts to restart her career, hiring a piano player (Victor Buono) to accompany her.
Their maid Elvira (Maidie Norman) discovers Blanche in captivity, and Jane murders her. When the piano player stumbles upon the captive Blanche, he manages to flee, and Jane takes her sister to one of the few places she was happy – the beach. There, Blanche reveals to Jane that she was never responsible for the car accident. It was Blanche, trying to run over her cruel, drunken sister, who caused the accident that trapped her in a wheelchair. Jane, stunned at the knowledge that they “could have been friends,” fetches her sister an ice cream cone. When the police stop her on the way back to her sister, a crowd forms, and Jane does what she always did for the crowds… she begins to dance.
Thoughts: This is another entry into that whole “psychological terror” subgenre, the type of film that relies far more on the madness of your villain and the suspense developed by the director to scare you, instead of throwing blood at the screen. In fact, of the two or three genuinely violent acts in this film, I don’t think any of them include so much as a drop of blood. But the film is no less effective for that.
In many ways, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is almost prophetic. How many times have we heard tales of former child stars who were unable to cope with the real world when their fame vanished? How many of them have turned to lives of crime or drugs? How many died so much earlier than they should have as the result of an insane lifestyle they couldn’t maintain into adulthood? I have no idea if such a thing was prevalent in 1960, when the novel was written, but looking at this film today makes it feel almost as though it could be ripped from the headlines. As a rule, I’m against remaking movies that were this good in the first place (although ABC television attempted to do so in the early 90s), but if someone were to transplant this story into the modern day, I think it would hold up just as well.
Much of Jane’s cruelty is verbal. She shouts at her sister, mistreats her, and generally tries to impress upon her that Blanche couldn’t possibly live without her, which the audience knows isn’t true. Blanche has already made plans to sell their house, put Jane into an institution, and hire Elvira to care for her full time. The story carefully upgrades Jane’s madness, beginning with her angry words, then moving up to the memorable scene where she puts Blanche’s own pet parakeet on her dinner plate, then later moving on to a dead rat. That’s when the real violence begins, with Jane serving up a savage beating to her sister when she catches Blanche on the phone to her doctor, trying to summon help, and even further to Elvira’s death. There’s a steady escalation for Jane’s madness that makes it feel very authentic.
For a moment, I was a bit irritated at the end of the movie, which leaves the audience wondering whether or not Blanche survives. As I thought about it more, though, I realize the brilliance in it. Jane is already dangerously unhinged. The question is, what will be worse for her – if Blanche lives, or if Blanche dies? I’m honestly not really sure, and therefore, leaving the question hanging is a clever way to cap the tale.
Like usual, with psychological thrillers, it’s the performances of the actors that make or break the film. Bette Davis received an Oscar for her portrayal of Baby Jane Hudson, and it was well deserved. The way she ricochets from anger to insanity, from a bitter old woman to a scared little girl, is a really masterful work. Crawford, famously, was very bitter over the fact that Davis was nominated and she wasn’t. And in truth, I think she was robbed. Blanche’s character doesn’t allow for the wild array of emotion and terror that Jane does, but Crawford was just as effective at portraying a kind woman who is living a life of eternal penance for her one moment of cruelty. Victor Buono, as the piano player, is a sort of charming cad. His British accent is terrible, frankly, but he really sells the part, as he cringes through Davis’s performance of her childhood signature number “Writing a Letter to Daddy,” then turns right around and pretends he thought it was wonderful.
Some of the influence of this film has been lost – there was a brief glut of films where the villain was an old woman, but that’s mostly dried up over time. (Let’s face it, in Hollywood of the21st century the villains have to be just as sexy – if not more – than the heroes.) This movie isn’t watched or talked about as much as the likes of Psycho these days, but I think it’s right up there as one of the greats in this particular subset of terror.
Tomorrow we’re getting back to the supernatural with perhaps the greatest haunted house movie ever made, the appropriately-named The Haunting.