GUIDE | CORE HORROR

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

(Robert Aldrich, USA, 1962)

BY STEVEN MEARS | April 19, 2022
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When Bette Davis as Jane served Joan Crawford’s Blanche her pet bird for “din-din,” a new strain of horror was born. Either “Grande Dame Guignol” or “psycho-biddy cinema,” depending on your degree of reverence—critic Renata Adler, showcasing her own brand of excess, termed it “the Terrifying Older Actress Filicidal Mummy genre”—and often employing derivatively coy, interrogative titles (What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?), the subcategory that began and arguably peaked with Robert Aldrich’s 1962 cult classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? cast top female stars from eras past in gothic, typically tongue-in-cheek thrillers. Playing off the notorious grudge between rival studio queens Davis and Crawford, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane stands apart for the hostility that animates its central relationship, which never could have been simulated this authentically, even by two of Hollywood’s finest.

The film opens in the vaudeville heyday of 1917, with spoiled child star “Baby Jane” Hudson a top act, warbling syrupy songs like “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” while her demure sister Blanche looks on from the wings, scorned and neglected. Eighteen years later, fortunes have reversed, and elegant Blanche is a major movie star while mortifying drunk Jane gets studio scraps as a favor to her sister. A puzzling car accident ends both of their Hollywood careers, and in 1962 we find Blanche a paraplegic and Jane her increasingly cantankerous caregiver, rattling around their shared mansion that once belonged to Valentino.

The dueling divas’ behind-the-scenes battles are legion enough to have inspired a superfluous Ryan Murphy miniseries (Feud); on-screen, however, Crawford retains her dreary dignity and adds another martyr to her résumé while Davis gives one of the horror pantheon’s most indelibly grotesque tours de force, devising her own kabuki-but-more-so makeup (with the operative assumption that Jane, fully submerged in alcoholic self-delusion, wouldn’t wash her face but would merely apply a new coat of paint every day). When she’s not physically and psychologically torturing the helpless Blanche, Baby Jane, having reclaimed the soubriquet, plans an absurd comeback tour with the help of a cash-strapped, mother-dominated pianist (a sublime study in corrosive sycophancy by Victor Buono, looking easily twice his 24 years). The most perversely memorable moment in a film with more than its share is Jane’s raspy revival of her “Letter to Daddy” number, half a century past its sell-by date. Seizing the opportunity to demolish her glamorous image, Davis is at once monstrous, mawkish, and indisputably affecting. Like the letter in question, her performance is pitched brazenly heavenward, and like the actress’s erstwhile Now, Voyager heroine, it claims the stars as its reward. 🩸

STEVEN MEARS

is the copy editor for Field of Vision’s online journal Field Notes and for Film Comment magazine, as well as a frequent contributor to Film Comment, Metrograph’s Journal, and other publications. He wrote a thesis on depictions of old age in American cinema.

TWITTER: @mearsontap

How to see What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

The film is also available on Blu-ray and various DVD editions.
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