#624) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
OR “Twisted Sister”
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written by Lukas Heller. Based on the novel by Henry Farrell.
Class of 2021
The Plot: Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) was a glamourous movie star in the 1930s before a car accident left her confined to a wheelchair. 30 years later, she lives reclusively in her old Hollywood mansion with her sister Jane (Bette Davis), a former child star in vaudeville (“Baby Jane”) who was quickly overshadowed by Blanche’s fame. Jane still resents Blanche and while ostensibly her sister’s caretaker, takes pleasure in tormenting and gaslighting Blanche. When Jane learns that Blanche plans on selling their house and sending her to a psychiatric institution, Jane continues to lose her grip on reality, further cutting Blanche off from the outside world and planning a revival of her vaudeville routine with her pianist Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono). The emotional and physical battle between the two sisters is only rivaled by the alleged off-screen battle between this film’s two stars.
Why It Matters: The NFR hails the film as “vivid and often uncomfortably terrifying” and its significance for highlighting Crawford and Davis’ “memorable, long-running feud” as well as its creation of the Hagsploitation subgenre (more on that later).
But Does It Really?: I have pushed for this movie to make the NFR for five years, so no complaint from me that “Baby Jane” finally made the cut. In addition to being a late-career highlight for both leads (Davis in particular is underrepresented in the NFR), “Baby Jane” is an iconic film that, for better or worse, has added to and helped shaped the legacy of its two stars. The film’s melodrama still plays surprisingly well 60 years later, mixed with some genuinely scary tension and note-perfect performances from Davis and Crawford. “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” is a unique bit of film history and its addition to the NFR is long overdue.
Everybody Gets One: Victor Buono was primarily a stage and TV actor before landing “Baby Jane”. After first choice Peter Lawford backed out right before filming (he worried the film would ruin his reputation), Robert Aldrich spotted Buono on an episode of “The Untouchables” and cast him as Edwin Flagg. “Jane” was Buono’s first credited film appearance (he gets an “Introducing” credit), and earned him an Oscar nomination. Buono worked in film and TV for the rest of his career, his most famous post-“Jane” role being as the villainous King Tut on “Batman”.
Wow, That’s Dated: A major plot point of “Baby Jane” is the then-current resurgence of Classic Hollywood via TV reruns. Also dated, Blanche’s reliance on a landline. Would she have been able to escape if she had a cell phone?
Title Track: In the studio era of unnecessary title songs, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” has an unnecessary title song! While the lyrics are never sung in the film proper, an instrumental version can be heard twice in the film, and Bette Davis sang the lyrics during a promotional appearance on “The Andy Williams Show”.
Seriously, Oscars?: A box office hit, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” was nominated for five Oscars, winning one for Norma Koch’s Black-and-White Costume Design. Most famous among its losses, Bette Davis (on her record-breaking 10th nomination) losing Best Actress to Anne Bancroft in “The Miracle Worker”. Adding insult to injury, Joan Crawford – missing out on a Best Actress nomination herself – arranged to accept the Oscar on behalf of the absent Anne Bancroft.
- Alright, let’s get this out of the way: the Joan Crawford/Bette Davis feud. While there are numerous articles chronicling the two actresses and their decades-long squabble, very little of it can be reliably substantiated. There are a few common threads: a potential affair in the ’30s between Davis and Crawford’s then-husband Franchot Tone, the two actresses competing against each other for roles when they were both at Warner Bros. in the mid-’40s, and the aforementioned Oscar incident (all of this exacerbated by both actresses telling exaggerated tales about each other in their later years). Only Crawford and Davis will ever know for sure what their feelings were towards each other, and while I suspect there was some level of animosity between them, I also believe that much of what we consider “the feud” is subsequent generations taking the actresses’ later tales as scripture and playing an internet trivia game of Telephone. Also adding fuel to the fire are the tell-all books “Mommie Dearest” and “My Mother’s Keeper”, as well as the former’s film adaptation. Speaking of books…
- Henry Farrell’s novel “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” was published in March 1960 and its film rights were immediately snatched up. The film’s production didn’t pick up steam until a year and a half later, when Robert Aldrich signed on to direct. Aldrich recruited Joan Crawford (star of his previous film “Autumn Leaves”), and Crawford, ever the shrewd business professional, knew this was the right script to bring her and Bette Davis together for the first time. As their “feud” was well-known by 1962, the press leapt at the chance to speculate how the two actors got along (or didn’t) during production. All accounts point to the two being courteous and professional to each other during filming (though not necessarily going out of their way to be friends). Aldrich, however, was encouraged by Warner Bros. to maintain the notion of a feud to drum up free publicity. Most famously, it was Aldrich – not Davis as later purported – who placed a few Coca-Cola bottles on set to prank Crawford, a Pepsi-Cola board member.
- Okay, all of this historical context out of the way, how are these two in the actual film? Unsurprisingly, they’re both very good as two women trapped in their own little world (Blanche literally, Jane emotionally). Davis of course has the far meatier role, leaving no scenery left un-chewed, but still finding room to develop Jane’s descent into madness. Crawford has the quieter role, but plays it with the right amount of terror and strength. The two balance each other perfectly, you can’t have one performance without the other.
- Having a pre-credits scene in your movie was still a novelty in 1962, but having it take a full 12 minutes before the first credit appears is excruciating. And it’s another 8 minutes before Davis and Crawford finally show up! That being said, the actors playing young Jane and Blanche are well-cast (Davis’s counterpart in particular has her exaggerated articulation down pat). Side note: The films used for young Jane’s early movies are real-life Bette Davis flicks “Parachute Jumper” and “Ex-Lady”, while Blanche’s film shown on TV is Crawford’s “Sadie McKee”.
- The Hudson’s nosy neighbor Mrs. Bates is played by Anna Lee, a longtime film actor best remembered today as the nun who steals the car parts in “The Sound of Music“. Her daughter Liza is played by Bette Davis’ real-life daughter B.D. Merrill, future author of “My Mother’s Keeper”. Whoops.
- There’s a lot of racy (by 1962 standards) dialogue in this movie. Jane calls Blanche’s movie “crap”, Edwin insinuates that his mother was promiscuous, and Jane’s muttering of “bitch” is drowned out by Blanche’s buzzer. Was the Production Code on vacation that week?
- Shoutout to Maidie Norman as the Hudson’s housekeeper Elvira. Aware of her limited roles in film and TV due to her race, Norman always played her roles of maids and servants with dignity, to the point of re-writing her “Baby Jane” dialogue to remove – as she put it – “old slavery-time talk”.
- It amuses me that no one in the “real world” seems phased by Jane’s haggard appearance. But then again, she is a woman over 40 in Hollywood: she might as well be invisible.
- As far as gigolos to aging movie stars go, Buono is good, but he’s no Bill Holden. Points, however, deducted from this movie for going out of its way to make a fat joke at Edwin/Buono’s expense.
- Also dated: people memorizing phone numbers. When Blanche finally gets downstairs to call her doctor, I assumed she wouldn’t be able to call because she left the number upstairs. Turns out people used to just know important phone numbers off-hand. What a skill.
- Say what you will about Jane, she’s an excellent mimic. Her Blanche is uncanny; it’s like Joan Crawford is dubbing it in for her (wink wink).
- Even with Davis’ advantage, I can see how Crawford missed out on an Oscar nomination. In addition to being the more passive lead role, Blanche is literally sidelined for most of the film’s second half. There’s not a lot you can do acting-wise when you’re tied up with tape on your mouth.
- The movie’s beach finale is heartbreaking, as the final reveal is made and both women finally recognize the Hell they have created for themselves. Fun Fact: The beach used in this scene is at Malibu, the same stretch of beach Aldrich used to film the final scene in “Kiss Me Deadly“.
- The moral of this movie: For the love of god, work out your childhood trauma, I am begging you!
- “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” premiered on Halloween 1962, and while receiving mixed reviews from critics was an immediate hit with audiences. As previously mentioned, “Baby Jane” spawned the Hagsploitation (aka “psycho-biddy”) subgenre; low-budget thrillers in which Classic Hollywood stars of a certain age (Olivia de Havilland, Barbara Stanwyck, Shelley Winters, etc.) are either the tormenter or tormented.
- Aldrich, Davis and Crawford all reunited for an immediate follow-up/spiritual sequel “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”. As with their previous interactions, stories of Crawford and Davis’s on-set issues are tough to nail down precisely. What we do know is that Joan Crawford left the film one week into the shoot (Crawford cited an illness, Aldrich disputed this) with Davis’ longtime friend Olivia de Havilland coming in as Crawford’s replacement.
- Among Robert Aldrich’s post-“Jane” filmography are action movies “The Flight of the Phoenix”, “The Dirty Dozen”, and “The Longest Yard”. Looks like I have a few more Aldrich pictures to replace “Jane” on my NFR nomination list.
- “Baby Jane” has also remained popular as a cult classic with queer audiences, especially the drag community. Given both stars’ larger than life personas and Davis’ ghoulish makeup, I’m not surprised.
- Perhaps the film’s most parodied moment: Davis’ line reading of “But’cha ARE, Blanche! Ya ARE in that chair!” It’s spoofed by George Costanza of all people!
- “Baby Jane” has received the remake treatment once, as a 1991 TV movie starring real-life sisters Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave. It’s updated for the ’90s, and seems like one of those movies that should work in theory, but somehow doesn’t.
- A reminder that the character of Baby Jane Hudson appears as a background extra in the climactic game of 2021’s “Space Jam: A New Legacy”. I’m sure that went over as well with the kids as Big Chungus.
- But of course, the film’s true legacy is its place as the epicenter of the Davis/Crawford feud. Whatever the truth is, this film will always serve as a fantasy embellishment of what might have transpired between these two titans. The feud was further immortalized in Shaun Considine’s 1989 book “Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud”, which was eventually adapted into the 2017 miniseries “Bette and Joan” with Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange.
Further Viewing/Listening: The history of the Crawford/Davis is well covered, and while there’s plenty of speculation out there, the two dissections that seem to hue closest to the facts are the “Be Kind Rewind” video embedded below, as well as this episode of the podcast “You Must Remember This”.