Thursday Editor’s Pick: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

by on January 27, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Feb 2 at 7:00*, 9:30 at Chelsea Clearview [Program & Tix]
*7:00 show hosted by Hedda Lettuce

Chelsea Clearview delivers the campy goods every Thursday night with classic movie nights hosted by drag queen Hedda Lettuce. This movie might be the mother of them all…


Come on, who doesn’t what a serving of this?


Don Druker for the Chicago Reader:

Grand Guignol runs head-on into 40s film noir and the result is this chilling, hysterical 1962 movie by the master of the bleak (black) vision, Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen, Ulzana’s Raid, Emperor of the North, Kiss Me Deadly). Bette Davis, garish and loony, is a former child star who passes the time torturing her crippled sister Joan Crawford. Aldrich’s direction and dynamite performances from the two old troupers make this film an experience.


Joan Crawford puts her best face forward when discussing the film and Davis, who she “never had time to be friends with.” See here. Joan and Bette both play nice to Hedda Hopper.


Mark Viera for Bright Lights Film Journal:

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, as adapted by Heller and Aldrich, was a bubbling brew of entertainment history, sibling rivalry, momism, aging, disability, guilt, grudges, hatred, insanity, and murder. The fiftyish Hudson sisters share a “Hollywood Spanish” mansion. This L.A. home is not really in Hollywood, but neither are they.
The script could have served any number of aging actresses — Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer and Miriam Hopkins, even Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich — but they might have made it a psychological study, a melodrama, or a tragedy. What Crawford and Davis brought to it was a distillation of their own well-known personas, the exophthalmic viciousness Davis had displayed in The Little Foxes and the tear-blinking self-sacrifice Crawford had shown in Mildred Pierce. By squeezing their bigger-than-life characters onto the tiny stage of a shabby mansion, Davis and Crawford created horror. What they created on a the set was a battle royal that made the ordeal of Suddenly, Last Summer look like a tea party.


Andrew Sarris seems simultaneously hostile and beguiled, in his original review for Movie:

The workaday reviewer is handicapped by the problem of not giving away too much of the melodramatic plot and and still finding something to say about a film that has no apparent theme or moral, no particular relevance to “real life,” and no implied social problem. Although Baby Jane is relatively consistent with Aldrich’s career, it is a relatively isolated phenomenon, a technical exercise to the nth power, a Pirandellian conceit violating that most fundamental of realistic conventions, the immersion of the player in the part. The thought of immersing Bette Davis and Joan Crawford at any time is formidable enough, but here the plot itself is immersed in the presences and pasts of these two ageless stars. In fact, if Baby Jane is about anything at all, it is about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.


Viera also compiles a most thorough report on the two fiesty ladies’ involvement in the picture. Some highlights:

Davis soon heard from Aldrich, who sent her a script and a letter: “If this isn’t the best screenplay you’ve ever read, don’t see me.” A meeting took place.

“What part will I be playing?” Davis asked.

“Jane, of course,” Aldrich replied.

“Good,” she said. “I just wanted to be sure.” She paused. “Have you slept with Joan?”

“No,” replied Aldrich, grinning slyly. “Not that I haven’t had the opportunity.”
“I just wanted to be sure there was no partiality involved,” said Davis.
Before Davis and Crawford squared off in front of the camera, they had turf skirmishes with the various artists at Producers’ Studio on Melrose Avenue. Crawford wanted her costumes to be flattering. Designer Norma Koch had to talk her out of wearing sexy negligees or dresses that would show her legs since the character’s leg muscles would have atrophied. When it was time for Crawford to make wardrobe tests, Aldrich used a moving camera to track in and show the costumes in motion. Script supervisor Bob Gary took notes. “By the time the camera got to Joan’s face,” recalled Gary, “she was crying. She was wearing the dress she was supposed to die in . . . and the tears began to fall. She is the only person I have ever seen who cried at her own wardrobe tests.”


A few days later, when Crawford and Davis saw the first rushes, they both burst into tears. Crawford turned to Haller: “Why do I have to look so damn old? It’s like I have a grandmother playing my part.”

Wiping her nose, Davis perked up. “Joan, if you’re so unhappy with this film, I’ll play your part and you’ll play mine.”

“I can’t play her,” sniffed Crawford. “She’s twice as ugly.”
Davis would watch while Crawford rehearsed, then casually ask her, “Is that how you’re really going to do it?”
“Yes, Bette. Why?” Crawford would ask.
“Never mind,” Davis would yawn.
Crawford worried that she looked flat-chested in her bedridden scenes so she began wearing larger falsies. “She’s supposed to be shriveling away,” observed Davis, “but her tits keep growing. I keep running into them, like the Hollywood hills.”

On the night of the Academy Awards, Davis did not know that Crawford had made arrangements to accept the award for any nominee who was not present. It would not have mattered if Davis knew; she fully expected to win her third Oscar that night. She got her first shock when she heard the announcement of Anne Bancroft as the winner for The Miracle Worker. She got her second shock when she heard the next announcement: “Accepting for Anne Bancroft is Miss Joan Crawford.” According to Associated Press columnist Bob Thomas, “Bette felt a hand on her arm. ‘Excuse me,’ said Joan as she strode past Bette and crossed the stage amid heavy applause. It was a moment Bette Davis would never forget.

“I think it’s proper to say that they really detested each other,” recalled Aldrich, “but they behaved absolutely perfectly.”


Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian:

Robert Aldrich’s claustrophobic melodrama from 1962 mutates in the course of the action into a feverish, quasi-Hitchcockian thriller. The hideous Baby Jane Hudson, played in full Miss Havisham regalia by Bette Davis, is the superannuated child star, seething with bitterness about the superior career of her younger sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) who she put in a wheelchair long ago with one insane act of violence. Now they live together in a tatty old house – a nightmare of family dysfunction – brooding over past glories. I can’t help thinking that the most interesting things happen in the precredit sequence – the fraught childhood, Blanche’s sinister “accident” – but it’s still vivid, barnstorming stuff.


David Thomson in Have You Seen…?

Lukas Heller wrote the script under Aldrich’s guidance, and that’s where the crucial tone was laid down. Even if the two actresses were grateful for the comeback opportunity and prepared to bury old differences, the picture would show them as warring gargoyles, sisters who had always been rivals. But what was special to this venture was the grisly black comedy of the approach and the closeness to real horror. It was not going to be a picture in which either sister won much audience sympathy. They were two grotesques, the opposite arrows in a classic sado-masochistic relationship. The picture would ask us to laugh at them. And to match the harsh tone, it would be shot in a rather hostile black and white.
It worked. Coming just a couple years after Psycho, it moved black-comic horror into the mainstream and, even more than Sunset Blvd., it treated old Hollywood as a deranged waxworks show.

Alex Cox introduces the film for BBC2’s Moviedrome series:


Nathan Rabin wonders where the movie’s been his whole life, for The Onion AV Club:

Essentially a macabre, show-biz version of Grey Gardens—think the Beales gone PsychoBaby Jane belongs to pretty much all my favorite subgenres. It’s a black-and-white shocker, a crazed psycho-melodrama, a pitch-black show-biz satire, a warped meditation on the traumatizing effects of child stardom, and a gothic tale of familial dysfunction as its dysfunctioniest. Furthermore, it’s a film that derives a subversive, kinky kick from the way the onscreen action mirrors and distorts the backstage melodrama.
Director Robert Aldrich had a curiously bifurcated career. He directed the manliest of men’s movies, Neanderthal classics of über-machismo like Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen, and The Longest Yard. But he was also an accomplished director of movies about women like Baby Jane, its unofficial follow-up Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and The Killing Of Sister George. That’s actually not as much of a contradiction as it might seem. Aldrich made the opposite of chick flicks. The women, or rather tough dames, in his movies were more likely to exchange fisticuffs or barbed insults than recipes or gossip. The films he made for men and women (or, in the case of Baby Jane, men who dress up like women for fun and profit) were tough, darkly comic, uncompromising, and bracingly unsentimental. Baby Jane is no exception. It excels as both a warped psychodrama and pitch-black comedy. It’s exhilarating seeing just how dark Aldrich and Davis are willing to go.

I think it’s much more than a widely mocked and frequently parodied camp curio. Like Psycho, it’s paradoxically classy, artful trash, or a trashy art movie. There’s something weirdly subversive about watching artists as towering and brilliant as Alfred Hitchcock or Bette Davis sink their fangs into such lurid, pulpy material. To me, Baby Jane isn’t a camp classic or a cult classic so much as it’s a straight-up classic.


Some clips from the fascinating 1990s remake, starring the Redgrave sisters:


On a more serious note, Tony Williams wants to rescue the film from its camp connotations (we say, isn’t there room for both?):

What Every Happened to Baby Jane? is far from being a camp classic aiming to humiliate two former distinguished Hollywood stars now coping with the ageing process. It thus has serious claims for re-evaluation. Utilising the excessive nature of Hollywood genres such as gothic horror and melodrama, it transcends formula to reveal themes involving ageing and the damaging nature of dysfunctional family situations, the latter element also explored by Aldrich in Attack! and Autumn Leaves (both 1956). He would continue his interrogations of that area in later films. If Alfred Hitchcock has claims to be regarded as the father of the family horror films of the 1970s, Aldrich should be equally acclaimed as a key architect of this later Hollywood movement.



Williams continues:

Charles Derry described Aldrich (along with Hitchcock) as an innovative deployer of the “horror of personality” motif found in post-war American horror films. Aldrich certainly made significant contributions to what would become the family horror film by reworking themes found within the films of Hitchcock. For example, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? he turned the “MacGuffin” aspect of Jane’s involvement in the crippling of her sister Blanche into a deceptive signifier that becomes redundant at the film’s climax, choosing instead to explore serious features within the human condition involving waste and the tragic thwarting of personal growth. Jane’s poignant words to her sister, “You mean we could have been friends”, result in her visual rejuvenation once the dark guilty burden of the past evaporates. Aldrich may be forgiven such cinematic trickery since his heroine needs this temporary release from a condition she has not really deserved. In many ways, it evokes a reverse version of Frederic March’s transformation in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932). It is appropriate that Jane acquires two ice-cream cones from a vendor (played by Aldrich’s own son William), a pathetic attempt to heal the breach that has existed between her and Blanche since childhood (illustrated by her attempt to persuade her sister to enjoy an ice-cream in the 1917 segment of the film’s prologue). Jane now returns to childhood innocence after realising that her former monstrous persona resulted from a dysfunctional family situation as well as unconscious symbiotic complicity in her personal dilemma. Although Aldrich employs visual devices belonging to Gothic melodrama and the absurd aspect of the grotesque, he does not do so to effect a gratuitous indulgence in degradation and sensationalism. Instead, he probes another aspect of the dehumanised post-war American society previously analysed in such films as Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is actually a family trauma film whose dark implications are often disavowed by its misleading camp status, promoted by those who do not wish to recognise its disturbing themes of ageing and psychic oppression. It also employs the type of dark humour often seen in the work of Hitchcock. For example, Anna Lee is cast as the significantly named Mrs. Bates (a normal version of Hitchcock’s mother in Psycho?) whose daughter is played by Davis’ own daughter Barbara Merrill who would write her own version of Mommie Dearest over two decades later. The ground floor of the Hudson home contains a staircase and kitchen door shot in Aldrich’s favourite Wellesian deep-focus style, its set design also resembling the first floor of the Bates house in Psycho. As Blanche rotates on her wheelchair after “smelling a rat”, delivered to her by Jane in a perverse reworking of Hitchcock’s gourmet interests, an overhead camera dominates her image as if in homage to the master of suspense.



David Del Valle agrees, for Films in Review:

As the 21st century is well upon us it is time to place WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? back in the realm of serious filmmaking and reassess it as we have done time and again with Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. In re-examining the film we must refrain from the diva-like behavior of its stars long enough to focus on just how well this film addresses the aging process, along with the trauma of family dysfunction, in the lives of two women living out their days in the worst place on earth to cope with the inevitability of losing one’s looks – Hollywood, and the motion picture business itself. All of the scenes where Jane goes forth on her own are cruel and spiteful; it is only because she is so wrapped up in her own reality that she can ignore the outside world for so long. The moment she can no longer do this is the “piece de la resistance” of the film. When Baby Jane sings “I’ve written a letter to daddy” into her own reflection, fantasy and reality come crashing together, allowing for the greatest primal scream in the history of movies as Jane Hudson finally gets her comeuppance many fold, to quote a similar moment in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.
If one can move past the rats and parakeets for din-din, and see beyond the clown-at-midnight facade of Davis, we move into the stuff operas are made of in the intense longing of acceptance both the sisters craved as Hollywood players, allowing only Blanche a spotlight from which to move up into the stars above Hollywood Boulevard. In a series of brilliant set pieces we see the Hollywood backlots of the early talkies where studio execs sit in screening rooms yelling, “Kill it!” to screen tests that might as well put another place-card up at Forest Lawn for the actors left hanging on the screening room wall. Jane Hudson made her share of early talkies and they use two of Davis’s early films, PARACHUTE JUMPER (1932) and EX-LADY (1933); it’s a shame they didn’t include THE CABIN IN THE COTTON where she utters one of her early howlers, “I’d love to kiss you but I just washed maw hair.” We are never allowed to see the women at this stage except in films clips. Crawford shines in her private moments sitting in front of the television staring at her own image in a scene with Edward Arnold. During it she mutters to herself, “I told Lloyd to hold that shot a bit longer. Oh, why didn’t he listen?” It is during these moments that the audience is allowed into the private world of these two sisters, both lonely and desperately in need of the outside world. Blanche remains indoors as her vanity prevents her from letting too many fans see her in a wheelchair. It is with the accident that put her there that the dysfunction began to erode the minds of both Jane and her sister, and it is not until the final reel that we fully learn the degree of guilt between them.
It is time to begin to give credit to these two stars for creating, together with Robert Aldrich, a masterpiece of suspense in the Hitchcock tradition, with such detail to the breakdown, as presented by Hollywood, of what are supposed to be “normal” family values within the American dream after World War Two. David Lynch has made a career out of mining the same territory while openly admiring this film for its artistry.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The staircase should be billed along with the stars in Robert Aldrich’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962). On a claustrophobic set, it dominates many shots, separating the upstairs captivity of the paraplegic Blanche from the downstairs lair of her deranged sister Jane. Although the two sisters live in a “mansion” that allegedly once belonged to Valentino, it is jammed between nosy neighbors and seems to consist only of a living room, a kitchen, a hallway and a bedroom for each sister. In this hothouse a lifelong rivalry turns vicious, in one of Hollywood’s best gothic grotesqueries.

Robert Aldrich (1918-1983) was a master of Hollywood genres. None of them were art pictures, but most of them were popular, profitable, well-crafted and splendid examples of their genres. He was one of the first mainstream directors to insist on autonomy in selecting stories, actors and editors.

Making “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” he possibly thought of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), which starred Gloria Swanson as an aging movie queen, living on in her mansion. He began with a novel by Henry Farrell, which moved its aging queens further down on the artistic and financial scale, and emphasized the violence over the pathos. He knew he was asking for trouble by pairing Davis and Crawford, but he guessed, correctly, that trouble would translate into a better film. And at the end of the day it was Davis who won the ancient battle, by upstaging Crawford, winning the nomination and making the pseudo-sequel “Charlotte.” She may not have been a pretty sight mincing her way through an old-age version of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy,” but she was a trouper, and no one who has seen the film will ever forget her.

But Bette Davis’s subsequent live television rendition of the film’s theme song might be even more discomfiting than the film itself:

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