SISTER, SISTER, OH SO FAIR, WHY IS THERE BLOOD ALL OVER YOUR HAIR?
Bette Davis once said that the best time she ever had with Joan Crawford was when she pushed her down the stairs in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. I don’t really recall such a scene in the film, but who knows what the two of them were up to between takes. That quote gives an idea of the aging stars fighting behind the scenes. A clichéd notion, but if it’s true I guess Bette won – because she steals every scene she’s in.
Treating her sister with contempt
The movie begins in 1917 when “Baby” Jane Hudson is a sensation in a vaudeville act where the child sings and dances. She is spoiled rotten and treats her sister Blanche with contempt. Fast-forward twenty years and Blanche has become one of Hollywood’s most popular stars, while Jane is struggling. A car accident ends Blanche’s career; she ends up in a wheelchair. Thirty years later, the sisters live together in Rudolph Valentino’s old house (incidentally, the movie really was shot in his house) where Jane takes care of Blanche, but there is no love between the sisters. Jane drove the car that incapacitated Blanche so she feels compelled to care for her, but her uncontrollable jealousy and mental illness prevent her from being anything but cruel to Blanche. People still remember the great Blanche Hudson, they even send her fan mail, but have forgotten all about Baby Jane. The former child star can’t stand it.
The housekeeper, Elvira (Maidie Norman), warns Blanche of Jane’s progressing illness, but Blanche still puts up with Jane’s sadistic behavior and too late does she realize that her life is in danger. As Jane plans to completely take over her sister’s life and money, she is also foolishly working on reviving Baby Jane’s career with the help of musician Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) who is prepared to encourage her folly as long as he gets paid.
A black comedy and a horror movie
Blanche is surprisingly tolerant, even when Jane kills her pet bird and serves it for dinner, but the final sequence of the film reveals Blanche’s reason. The sisters’ relationship, we learn, has always been quite twisted. The story should not be taken too seriously though as a psychological study; it is absurd and credibility is not what matters. Director Robert Aldrich’s first hit has been labeled both a black comedy and a horror movie; it enjoyed comparisons with Sunset Blvd. (1950) and spawned other films with old movie stars in campy comebacks.
What it is essentially is an opportunity for Davis and Crawford to show their strength as actors and box-office stars; they may be in their 50s, but they are not dead yet. Crawford is very sympathetic as the victimized Hollywood queen and Davis is wonderfully wicked (in a blonde wig) as the insane sister who eventually regresses to the point where she believes it is 1917 all over again. Buono provides (additional?) comic relief as Flagg, the rotund, patient son of an overbearing mother.
The long running time is not a problem. Aldrich keeps the movie amusing and exciting and doesn’t go overboard with the crazier ingredients; the human aspect of Jane’s illness is still clear.
Watching this film, one can’t help but feel that the two stars were lucky. This could have easily failed and there is a tragic dimension to the whole project. Davis’s final film would be the abysmal Wicked Stepmother (1989), a comedy that desperately wanted to be this film, but only succeeded in making Davis look old and foolish. Baby Jane is very entertaining… but it would be sad not to give older actors more opportunities other than playing demented harpies.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962-U.S. 132 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Robert Aldrich. Screenplay: Lukas Heller. Novel: Henry Farrell. Costume Design: Norma Koch. Cast: Bette Davis (“Baby” Jane Hudson), Joan Crawford (Blanche Hudson), Victor Buono (Edwin Flagg), Marjorie Bennett, Anna Lee.
Trivia: Davis’s daughter, Barbara Merrill, plays the neighbor’s daughter. Remade for TV in 1991. The making of the film was depicted in the limited series Feud (2017).
Oscar: Best Costume Design.
Last word: “Not in ten years had there been a successful woman’s film. Actresses had owned the industry for the previous twenty years and the men were entitled to their turn in the fifties and sixties. By then the world’s problems were wars, drugs, crime, political corruption – all the ills that involve men much more than women. And writers write about what is going on in the world. Given that trend, ‘Baby Jane’ was truly a break for both Joan and me.” (Davis, TCM)