Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
The poster alone piqued all my interest in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? because it seemed to promise exciting heights of campy thrills and Hollywood decay, like a more cult version of Sunset Blvd. The film didn’t exactly deliver on these expectations, but I still really liked it. As a child, Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was an incredibly popular stage performer whose father milked her talent for all it was worth. As she matured, she saw her older sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) become a highly successful movie actress as her own career spiraled down into obscure film roles due to her poor acting abilities. Jane loses herself in alcoholism and is involved in a major car accident that puts Blanche in a wheelchair.
The two women grow old together in a quiet neighborhood, with Jane venomously playing servant while her sister, relegated to the upstairs floor, signs the checks. Blanche has secretly planned to sell the house and move to a smaller venue with Elvira (Maidie Norman) the kind cleaning woman who visits once a week. She’s worried about Jane, who’s been drinking again and has been acting increasingly more malevolent, but feels moving is the right decision. As Jane tries to get a comeback act off the ground, Blanche becomes more and more paranoid that her sister will try to kill her. This movie is a little all over the place, and I don’t think it’s as crazy and shocking as it would like to be because it doesn’t exactly build well. It starts off slowly and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular, then all of a sudden it picks up at the end. I think more freaky, thriller-type moments could have been sprinkled throughout to balance it out a bit. The story is still very good, exposing a complex sibling rivalry and relationship through snippets of interaction as well as telling personal moments.
The performances really make this movie. Bette Davis is terrifying in the best way. She seemingly has 30 layers of makeup caked on and persistent little girl curls, giving her an eerie, sinister babydoll look. She’s funny and strange and oddly sympathetic, and it’s kind of fun to see her just being super mean to everyone around her. Joan Crawford is great as well, if much more understated. I really felt how inhibited she was and how truly scary her situation became as Jane got crazier and crazier.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? may not be as horrific or out there as I’d expected, but it’s still a very good exploration of the effects of celebrity, jealousy, and guilt at the family level. There are some great creepy moments and big freakouts, and the uneven script is bettered by the terrific central performers.
Alex Kittle is an art, movie, and comic geek with a penchant for nonsensical jokes and exaggerated claims. Her blog Film Forager explores movies of every genre, from weird high-concept sci-fi to classic brooding romance.