The Big Idea Behind WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?
Monday May, 22 2017 at 08:00 PM
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In 1956 actress Joan Crawford had appeared in the film Autumn Leaves directed by Robert Aldrich. Ever since then, according to Aldrich, Crawford had regularly expressed interest in working together again. She felt he was innovative, had good instincts and knew how to handle a challenge.
Crawford had also always wanted to work with Bette Davis. She and Davis had been major stars in their heyday during the 1930s and 40s, and they were both Best Actress Academy Award winners. Davis was someone that Crawford had always deeply admired, finding her "a fascinating actress." In a later interview Crawford explained, "Kate Hepburn and Bette Davis top my list of those I admire, because they're so vastly talented and strong-willed and indestructible. Bette can be such a bitch, but she's so dedicated and honest."
According to Davis, she and Crawford were never more than passing acquaintances despite their close proximity at Warner Brothers. "We did not compete for parts," said Davis in her 1987 memoir This 'N That, "since we were opposing types of actresses."
Joan Crawford kept after Robert Aldrich to find a project in which she could co-star with Bette Davis. Several years later, a secretary sent him a suspenseful 1960 novel by Henry Farrell titled What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. The rights to the book about two aging sisters who hate each other were for sale. Aldrich read it and immediately sent it to Joan Crawford, thinking it might be just the right story to fulfill her wish to work with Bette Davis.
Joan Crawford's response to the book, according to Aldrich, was "prompt and enthusiastic." Aldrich immediately worked on securing the movie rights to the book--the final price being $61,000. Writer Lukas Heller was then hired to adapt the book into a screenplay.
With the screen rights secured to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Joan Crawford attached to co-star, the next order of business was for Aldrich to get Bette Davis. "From the time Henry Farrell's novel...was published," said Davis in her memoir, "I kept hearing about it. Friends insisted I should play the title role." One night in 1961 when Davis was appearing on Broadway in The Night of the Iguana, Crawford came to see her backstage. She told Davis about Aldrich's plans to make Baby Jane and how he wanted the two of them to star.
"Weeks later, Aldrich flew into New York," said Davis. "We met after the theater at my townhouse on Seventy-Eighth Street. The first question I asked was which part I would be playing. He said, 'Jane, of course.' I said, 'Good. I just wanted to be sure.'" There was never really any question as to which actress would play Jane. According to all accounts even Joan Crawford knew that Bette Davis would be perfect for it and had no problem letting her play the meatier role.
In her initial meeting with Aldrich, Davis asked him a personal question. "Miss Crawford was famous for developing a 'meaningful relationship' with either her male star or her director," recalled Davis. "She felt these relationships gave her a certain power, and there is no doubt in my mind that they did. I do not know, or care, if she was the sexual athlete others have described. My guess is that she was a very skilled sexual politician." She asked Aldrich if he had had a "meaningful relationship" with Crawford. "In the silence that followed," said Davis, "I hastened to add, 'You may think this sounds silly, but if you ever had, then you couldn't be fair to both of us while filming Jane.'" To that Aldrich replied with a laugh, "The answer is no...not that I didn't have the opportunity." With that reassurance, Davis had no trouble agreeing to do the film. "As the producer-director, one of the challenges of his job was to show no partiality of any kind to either of his female stars," said Davis. "And he didn't."
With both Crawford and Davis on board, Aldrich's next obstacle was to secure financing for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. It was a problem that Bette Davis described as "nearly overwhelming." Crawford and Davis had both agreed to work for salaries that were well below their usual rates with the added bonus of a percentage of the film's profits--should it make any money. "Four major companies declined to even read the script or scan the budget...," Aldrich told the New York Times. "Three distributors read the script and looked at the budget and turned the project down. Two of these said they might be interested if I would agree to cast younger players." Even Davis' and Crawford's old studio Warner Brothers turned the project down. The two aging actresses, Aldrich was told again and again, simply weren't bankable any more.
Just as he was beginning to lose hope, a life preserver was tossed to Aldrich by Eliot Hyman, head of the small Seven Arts production company. Hyman believed in the project from the beginning, though he knew it was also high risk. To Aldrich's delight, he was adamant that Baby Jane should star Crawford and Davis and was willing to put his money where his mouth was. The budget he offered would be bare bones, but the film would get made.
There was a great deal of publicity when Crawford and Davis officially signed on to make What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. The public was thrilled with the pairing of such Hollywood legends, and they loved the idea of there being a feud between the two. It was an angle too delicious for the press to pass up, and stories began to circulate about the presumed rivalry between Davis and Crawford. The publicity was good for the film, but both actresses insisted that there would be no fighting. Crawford even agreed to let Davis have top billing. "Of course Bette gets top billing;" said Crawford, "she plays the title role."
On July 19, 1962 Jack Warner, who had agreed to distribute the film through Warner Brothers, hosted a luncheon at the studio to honor Davis and Crawford, his two former stars. "Since Warner Bros. was one of the major studios that had turned us down, and since they were my studio for many years," said Davis in the second edition of her 1962 memoir The Lonely Life, "I guess the luncheon was an apology of sorts. It was the first time I had been on the Warner lot in fourteen years. It was a most nostalgic experience."
For the key supporting role of conniving mama's boy Edwin Flagg, Aldrich chose Victor Buono, an unknown actor who had appeared in mostly television parts. "I feel like an altar boy invited to the Ecumenical Council in Rome," said Buono. "I can't believe it's me emoting with two such stars."
Bette Davis' 16-year-old daughter, B.D. Merrill, was also given a small part as Liza, the teenage daughter of Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee), the Hudson sisters' next door neighbor. "[B.D.] had made her screen 'debut' at the age of three in a film called Payment on Demand ," explained Davis. "I thought it would be fun for her to see in later years...There was no thought of a career. B.D. never wanted to be an actress and I was delighted."
To prepare for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis and Crawford had lengthy discussions about their characters and how best to play the relationship dynamic between them. Davis experimented with makeup and clothes for Jane, while Crawford learned how to use a wheelchair and move her body like a real paraplegic. Soon, the two legendary stars would be ready for their close-ups.
by Andrea Passafiume