I have just watched ‘What ever happened to Baby Jane?’ What a riot. These days it is a cult classic, with a back story equally as fascinating as the tale being told onscreen. It is a psychological horror /thriller starring Bette Davis as ‘Baby Jane’ Hudson, and Joan Crawford as her sister Blanche. Blanche Hudson is a paraplegic, 1930s film star, being cared for by her sister ‘Baby Jane’. Baby Jane is somewhat eccentric – attired in gaudy make-up, and a dress and hairstyle more in keeping with her time as a child star. She is now a fifty-something, decrepit alcoholic, poisoned by bitterness and jealousy that her disabled sister is having a career comeback thanks to her old films appearing on television. In fact Jane is losing the very few marbles she ever possessed.
To the concern of Blanche – who confides to her maid Elvira, that she plans to sell the gothic mansion in which they live and have Jane committed to an asylum. Jane places an order for a case of scotch at the liquor store and realises that Blanche has contacted them to tell the shop to refuse Jane’s custom. Jane is livid, and brings Blanche her dinner on a tray. A dish of rat. Things only get worse. Why is Blanche in that wheelchair? Can Jane revive her childhood stardom with her signature song ‘I’ve written a letter to Daddy’(which sounds creepy coming from the child actress playing the young Jane at the start of the film, but utterly deranged coming from the gin-soaked voice of the ravaged Davis).
This film was a big comeback for both Davis and Crawford. Both had been massive stars in the 1930s and 1940s – Davis for her talent; and Crawford for her beauty. Now in the twilight of their careers, each was struggling to get roles, thanks to their age (both claimed to be 54 years old – which was true in the case of Davis, while Joan had shaved a cheeky four years from her actual age of fifty eight). In real life they loathed each other and had done so for decades. Davis had famously quoted that Joan Crawford had slept with every male star at MGM Studios – except for Lassie. They had never worked together previously. Their rivalry and dislike of each other had been apparent for years and went into overdrive while making this film. Joan Crawford (who was wearing ‘falsies’ and massive shoulder pads according to Davis), refused to deglamourize her image. For a scene where Davis has to drag her across the room, Crawford deliberately made her body a deadweight – with the assistance of a lead-lined bra according to Bette. As a result Davis slipped a disc in her back that would cause her pain for years to come. In a scene where Davis had to slap Crawford hard across the face, it took her thirty eight takes – rather than her customary two.’
Their bitter rivalry thrilled the press. It reached its pinnacle when Bette Davis, nominated for the 10th time as Best Actress in the 1962 Oscars, lost that award to Anne Bancroft in ‘The Miracle Worker’ which Joan Crawford graciously accepted on her behalf.
When asked to comment on the death of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis replied ‘My mother taught me, that one should only speak good of the dead. Joan Crawford is dead. Good!
Such was the commercial success of this film (so popular in fact that it created the ‘hagsploitation’ or ‘psycho-biddy’ subgenre of horror films) that the two stars were recast in another similar style film called ‘Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte’ two years later. That film was eventually made with Davis and Olivia de Havilland – after Crawford was fired as a result of taking two month’s fake sick leave during the production.
‘What ever happened to Baby Jane?’ is a wonder of a film – Davis is brilliant as the crazed Baby Jane; and Joan Crawford almost as good in a much more subtle performance. As well as being a camp classis (particularly the line when Crawford complains about being in a wheelchair and Davis snarls at her ‘But ya are Blanche, ya are in that chair’) it is also suspenseful and chilling.
It is a real shame that these two legendary stars only ever made that one glorious film together.