What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Two screen divas known for their outsized egos, mercurial temperaments and larger-than-life personalities, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were icons of their day.What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? exploited those notorious personalities and the equally infamous tension between the two screen legends.
The pairing of Bette and Joan was, by most accounts suggested by Crawford, who had worked with Aldrich on Autumn Leaves (1956) and claimed she had always wanted to work with Davis. Aldrich saw the perfect vehicle for the two stars in Henry Farrell's novel. Farrell's bizarre tale was a chance to resuscitate both actresses' flagging careers with a novel, publicity-generating concept.
Aldrich's 1962 chiller stars Davis and Crawford as two aging sisters forced to finish out their days in claustrophobic intimacy living in a gloomy, decaying Hollywood mansion. Jane (Davis) is a former child star who built her reputation on her cloying, sugary songs for the vaudeville stage and Blanche (Crawford) is movie star royalty whose own cinematic stardom exceeded Baby Jane's, driving a wedge of jealousy and resentment between the two sisters. Years earlier in a suspicious "accident" Blanche was run over by Jane's car, and is now confined to a wheelchair, completely reliant on her sister for care. When Jane finds out Blanche intends to sell their home and commit her to a sanitarium, her already fragile mental state further erodes. She begins to badger and torture her sister, as her drinking increases, as well as entertain a perverse dream of reviving her Baby Jane act, complete with blonde curls, saccharine songs, and a childish on-stage demeanor.
Each actress played some version of her star persona in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: Joan, the suffering stiff-upper-lipped martyr familiar from roles like Mildred Pierce (1945) and Bette, the willful, brash, brazen straight-shooter from Beyond the Forest (1949). And the tension between Blanche and Jane onscreen was by most accounts equaled by the rivalry between the two fading movie divas. Though in her autobiography The Lonely Life Davis claimed "Joan Crawford and I got along famously much to the huge disappointment of the Hollywood press," most eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Even before filming was underway, the stars reportedly bickered over salaries and who would receive top billing. A great deal of friction was apparently also generated mid-production by Joan and Bette's very different acting styles -- Davis played Baby Jane to the excessive, hysterical hilt, while Crawford tended to cower and remain passive and understated. But Davis's scenery chewing apparently paid off, as she, and not Crawford was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (though the honor that year went to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker). The film received a total of 5 Academy Award nominations, and a Best Costume Oscar for designer Norma Koch's imaginative garments which underscored the personalities of the players from the slatternly, frumpy get-ups Jane wears around the house, to the creepy little girl dresses she later wears when she pathetically attempts to revive her career as a child star.
Despite mixed reviews in the press, (The New York Times' Bosley Crowther called the stars "a couple of formidable freaks") What Ever Happened to Baby Jane was a box office hit, grossing $9 million and undoubtedly attracting audiences who relished the campy, extreme spectacle of two former screen giants, Davis and Crawford, chewing the scenery in this unforgettably bizarre, gothic horror production. And yes, that is Bette Davis' daughter, Barbara Davis (nicknamed "B.D."), in a small role as the teenage girl next door.
Producer/Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Lukas Heller
Set Design: George Sawley
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Costume Design: Norma Koch
Film Editing: Michael Luciano
Original Music: Frank De Vol
Cast: Bette Davis (Jane Hudson); Joan Crawford (Blanche Hudson); Victor Buono (Edwin Flagg); Marjorie Bennett (Mrs. Dehlia Flagg); Anna Lee (Mrs. Bates)
by Felicia Feaster