For years, many shows and films have mentioned the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in some way. After so many years of hearing about the feature through all these references, I thought the only thing to do was actually view the film. For some reason or another this took me far longer than I care to admit, but I was finally able to view the film in my last semester at college in 2009.
Part of what I find so interesting is the extreme hate and rumors that floated around the set of this feature. First off, for those who are not familiar with the feud of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford know that these women hated each another. Crawford thought she was better than Davis and vice versa. There was no one that was willing to test this vanity between the two of them at the end of the day and no one who attempted to deal with working with both on the screen at once until this feature, which rather brilliant. To have the nerve to want to work with both knowing that a better performance would be given in the long run by the real hatred radiating on the screen was genius on Robert Aldrich’s part.
Adding to the hatred is the fact that people speculated that an injury actually occurred on set when Davis kicks Crawford in one of the scenes somehow adds to the feature as well. The jealousy of a life that Jane thought she deserved but somehow Blanche managed to achieve. With the tale of a slight revenge and torment, the film goes from a slight jealousy to a woman driven mad by her hatred for her own sister.
The basic synopsis behind the film is about two sisters. Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) and Blanche Hudson (Crawford). As Jane starts her acting career in the era of vaudeville she believes she will continue being a big star. This very well could have happened if she did not treat everyone around her like complete crap at such a young age. After all, if one acts like that when he or she is younger no one will want to work with said person when he or she is older. Her downfall was inevitable and soon she was quickly replaced by her “plain” sister Blanche.
Blanche soon finds herself as the queen of Hollywood and Jane finds that her star has completely faded. However, in a mysterious car accident, Blanche finds herself pinned against a gate and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. In a cruel twist of fate, fate forwards Blanche to live with her elder sister Jane who will supposedly look after her baby sister. Instead of looking after Blanche, Jane takes it upon herself to reestablish her career and begins to practically torture her sister.
This starts with words at first and then turns into the unthinkable. Instead of letting her sister tell anyone this is occurring, Jane fires her sister’s only form of communication other than a phone, their kind maid Elvira (Maidie Norman). As the film continues on, Blanche continues to get out of her sister’s grasp, but unable to do so. Though there are people in Blanche’s life that try to save her, slight spoiler alert, this does not bode well for them by the end of the feature. When authorities finally get involved, Jane convinces herself that everything will be okay in the end and that is all that matters.
There are two performances to discuss about in terms of this feature. Those performances obviously belong to both Davis and Crawford. Considering that Davis attained an Oscar for her role makes me feel her performance garners first recognition.
In many ways, this film could be considered the final battle and win for Davis in terms of one-upping Crawford in that regard. In truth, no one will ever be able to forget that caked on makeup of Davis within the feature. There is no possible way to forget her performance. This ranges from the moment she rids the home of the maid and how she serves her sister up a meal that no one in their right mind would want to eat. As her troubled ways go on within the feature, she truly shows a woman who is on her last rope. No one would openly admit this to Jane, but that is what we see before us on-screen. We see a woman at her wit’s end because even in a paralyzed state, Blanche manages to garner more attention than Jane. In short, we see a transformation of a girl who has the world in front of her to a bitter old woman who inevitably loses her mind from jealousy.
This is not to saw that Crawford’s performance is any less worthy of praise in comparison. Crawford finding her way down the stairs to get help somehow is nothing less than breathtaking to watch. Her sheer will to continue to fight after everything Jane puts her through is nothing less than amazing. The truth is the film produces two determined women from two extremely different angles. There is an odd beauty found among both, but ultimately Davis steals the show because there is not a single person who does not remember almost every aspect of her performance after viewing the feature.
Overall, there is something absolutely frightening about What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Maybe this is because the audience finds themselves watching two sisters battling at their wit’s end to have the last say in their relationship. Maybe this is because of the real life hatred between the two women onscreen as well as off-screen. When someone is trying to upstage another, the acting was only bound to get better as the film progressed. What makes the film all the more frightening is when one puts himself or herself in the shoes of one of the sisters. This is especially more frightening if those shoes are Blanche’s own.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a psychological thriller that cannot be touched by today’s standards. Knowing that a simple person, no matter how much anger she displayed as a child, has done this to someone else manages to get under one’s skin. We slowly begin to wonder what would happen if someone in our own life felt pushed to this so-called breaking point. Would one be able to survive these mind games? Would the person who was in control inevitably driving the victim insane? The film can provoke many questions and thoughts. I for one am left wondering how I will look at the beach this summer because I have never been able to look at one the same since my first viewing.