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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Divas Battle in a Campy Horror Tale

About.com Rating 2.5 Star Rating


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane

Warner Brothers
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? starts with a car wreck, which is perfect. This movie is a car wreck. The audience just can't look away.

Two aging divas from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, play out a white-hot rivalry that began when they were young screen goddesses. And Bette Davis delivers an astonishingly courageous performance as a drunken, grotesque, former child star falling into madness, hiding nothing from a pitiless camera.

The Plot

Faithful to the Henry Farrell novel, Davis plays “Baby Jane” Hudson, a spoiled, petulant child star whose golden curls and cloying vaudeville “daddy’s girl” routines paid the family bills back in 1917. Older, gentler sister Blanche, ignored during Jane’s heyday, becomes a big star in the ’30s, while Jane fades into obscurity and becomes a nasty, messy drunk.

One fateful night, a car accident cripples Blanche at the gates of their Hollywood mansion. Drunken Jane is held to blame, and left to care for her wheelchair-bound sister, dependent on Blanche financially, with both of them caught in a weird emotional dependence as well.

Unfortunately for Blanche, trapped on the second floor of their decaying mansion, Jane is losing all kinds of marbles. She finds ingenious ways to terrorize her sister, gets rid of the suspicious house cleaner, and foils Blanche’s attempts to contact the relatively normal neighbors next door. (Don’t even ask what happens to Blanche’s beloved parakeet.) Meanwhile, Jane hires an accompanist for her delusional comeback plans, and has her saccharine kiddie costumes copied to rehearse again the creepy routines of her childhood.

The gold-digging piano player finds out a little bit more than he should, and the whole thing comes to an almost surreal climax on a California beach. But the preposterous plot is beside the point. The real fun of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is watching these two battle axes rip. They deserve each other.

The Cast of ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’

Crawford underplays. She understood Davis would chew up the scenery and spit it into the next county, and made the only choice she could - a somewhat restrained, self-doubting performance that plays well against Davis’ raving harridan. Unlike Davis, Crawford clearly retained her need to look good. Even disheveled and abused, she looks glamorous in every shot, if quite lined.

Davis allows herself to sink into utter depravity. She’s slovenly, slutty, scheming and deranged. She schlumps about the house with a heavy tread, a sunken chest and a voice that could peel paint. Rather than attempt to cover up the ravages of age, she allows the camera angles, costumes and freakish makeup to accentuate them. She's a hideous caricature of herself as Baby Jane - the little lollipop with a rotten center who lives on in the form of a life-size doll Jane keeps in the house.

Consciously or unconsciously, the divas mock their younger roles. Crawford is the strong and long-suffering martyr (think Mildred Pierce), Davis is a macabre caricature of the flirtatious, devious belle (think Jezebel). The cast is rounded out by Maidie Norman as the stalwart house cleaner, Victor Buonoas the sleazy accompanist and Anna Lee as the clueless next-door neighbor.

The movie is overly long and the pace is uneven. Buono does a nice turn, but it feels as though some of his scenes near the end were cut - either because they weren’t working, or to leave more time for the divas’ histrionics. The result is an odd and choppy interval in a movie that otherwise gives its stars too much time to emote.

The Backstory

If Davis was trolling for an Oscar, she came close. She earned a Best Actress nomination, but was beaten out by the superb Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker. The movie did win one Oscar : Best Costume Design, Black and White, no doubt for Davis’s array of frumpy house dresses, faded Hollywood glamor street clothes, and icky little-girl get-ups with lace, ribbons and ringlets.

Although both stars said publicly that they got along fine during filming, their long-standing, bitter rivalry continued. Most reports indicate that they argued over billing, salary and each other’s approach to the script. Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to believe that the two characters in the movie loathe and fear each other so completely.

Despite tepid reviews, the movie was a box office smash, inspiring several more crazy-old-bat gothic tales, including Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, which also starred Davis.

‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ - the Bottom Line

It’s not much of a movie, really. Gothic horror has been done better in other films, and any power this story once had to shock or chill is long gone. But hey, it’s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in a campy, quotable slow-motion car wreck. Just try not to watch.

If you liked 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

You may like Sunset Boulevard, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, or What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?.

Just the Facts:

Year: 1962, Black and white
Director: Robert Aldrich
Running Time: 134 minutes
Studio: Warner Brothers
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