Behind the Camera On WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?
Monday May, 22 2017 at 08:00 PM
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When production began on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were excited about the project. The budget was shoestring and the schedule was tight, but they were thrilled to go to work every day and trusted that Robert Aldrich would make a wonderful movie. The film would be shot in black and white, thanks to Davis' insistence. "Seven Arts wanted to film it in color," said Davis. "It was a black-and-white story. Color would have made it too pretty. Tragedy should never look pretty."
Early on, Bette Davis made the decision to create her own makeup for her character Jane. "What I had in mind no professional makeup man would have dared to put on me," said Davis. "One told me he was afraid that if he did what I wanted, he might never work again. Jane looked like many women one sees on Hollywood Boulevard. In fact author Henry Farrell patterned the character of Jane after these women. One would presume by the way they looked that they once were actresses, and were now unemployed. I felt Jane never washed her face, just added another layer of makeup each day." Davis' garish makeup made her look something akin to a grotesque version of an aging Mary Pickford gone to seed, and she loved it. She took pride when original Baby Jane author Henry Farrell visited the set one day and exclaimed, "My God, you look just exactly as I pictured Baby Jane." The outrageousness of Davis' appearance caused some concern for Aldrich and the producers who feared it might be too over-the-top. However, as time went on, they came to see that Davis' instincts for the character were right.
While Davis took delight in looking dreadful for the film, the opposite was true of Joan Crawford. Even though Crawford's character Blanche had once been a beautiful young actress, Blanche was now is her 50s, confined to a wheelchair, emaciated and wasting away. It was difficult for Crawford to appear unattractive, since she had always been considered one of Hollywood's most glamorous stars. "It was a constant battle to get her not to look gorgeous," said Davis. "She wanted her hair well dressed, her gowns beautiful and her fingernails with red nail polish. For the part of an invalid who had been cooped up in a room for twenty years, she wanted to look attractive. She was wrong."
Little by little, according to Davis, Robert Aldrich convinced Crawford to let go of some of her glamorous embellishments. "It took him one entire morning to talk her into removing her nail polish for a scene in which she came downstairs with her hand on the railing," said Davis.
Crawford also refused to dispose of her falsies. "As part of her wardrobe, Miss Crawford owned three sizes of bosoms," said Davis. "In the famous scene in which she lay on the beach, Joan wore the largest ones. Let's face it, when a woman lies on her back, I don't care how well endowed she is, her bosoms do not stand straight up. And Blanche had supposedly wasted away for twenty years. The scene called for me to fall on top of her. I had the breath almost knocked out of me. It was like falling on two footballs!"
"Miss Crawford was just not my kind of actress," said Davis. She didn't like the way Crawford shied away from physical fight scenes and accused Crawford of regularly spiking her own Pepsi with vodka on the set (Crawford was a board member and spokeswoman of Pepsi-Cola). "The final scene in Baby Jane was supposed to be filmed on the beach in Santa Monica," recalled Davis, "but Joan could not stand the heat of the sun at the beach. Alcohol in the body exposed to heat makes one perspire freely. So a set had to be built at the studio and tons of sand brought in. It was in Joan's contract that the stage had to be kept at a certain temperature. Members of the crew wore lumberman's jackets. In southern California. In August. On a soundstage."
Despite her criticisms, Davis did have some praise for Crawford every now and then. She called Crawford a "pro" who was always on time and always knew her lines perfectly. She also saw some similarities between herself and Crawford. "...I suppose we have the same drive," she told writer Whitney Stine. "She's a survivor and so am I. And, I suppose I do infuriate people the same way she does." On Baby Jane, Davis felt that Crawford's behavior was reasonably under control--"because I suppose, she wanted to be as professional as I was," said Davis.
The budget was so limited that the production wasn't able to use the usual process screen shots for Jane's driving scenes. Bette Davis did her own driving around Hollywood with cameraman Ernie Haller perched either in the backseat of the car or over the front fender in order to get the shots he needed. "To this day," said Davis in 1987, "I smile when I remember the first time 'Jane' drove down Beverly Boulevard in an old Hudson. The expressions on the faces of people in other cars when they saw me were hysterical. Lots of mouths dropped."
Bette Davis found doing the scene in which the adult Jane sings her maudlin childhood signature song, "I've Written a Letter to Daddy," particularly memorable. "The old Jane gazing in the mirror from about twelve feet away looks pretty good," described Davis. "Then she walks forward. Ernie [the cameraman] had a high light, straight down, which is always bad for a woman. Especially me. When Jane finally gets up to the mirror, she sees herself as this decrepit, old hag, when in her mind, she's still young. I covered my face with my hands. [Aldrich] had wanted a loud scream, but what came out was a hoarse cry -- I'd been having laryngitis. It was right and we both knew it. [Aldrich] had tears in his eyes. 'You just won yourself an Oscar®,' he whispered. I went home that night singing, 'And the Angels Sing.'"
The principal shooting was completed on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in roughly a month. "[Aldrich] really cut the picture in the camera," said Bette Davis. "He had to, because we didn't have time for many setups, and he wanted to show the picture for a week in the Los Angeles area to qualify for Academy consideration." Aldrich told the New York Times, "We finished shooting on schedule on September 12. Exactly one month later, we held our first sneak preview, at the State Theatre in Long Beach, California. That we were able to get the picture in shape in this incredibly short time is due to a group of dedicated craftsmen who performed above and beyond the call of duty--and almost beyond physical endurance--who worked virtually around the clock to meet our schedule."
From the moment What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was released, it was a box office smash. People lined up around the block to see two of Hollywood's finest go head-to-head on the big screen and make mincemeat out of their former screen images. Davis and Crawford worked hard to promote the film, both knowing that their profit percentage points would pay off in spades with the film's success. Davis traveled to seventeen New York State theaters in three days for personal appearances and helped give away promotional "Baby Jane" dolls to patrons with a "lucky envelope" under his or her seat.
by Andrea Passafiume