With epic screen presence and notorious off-camera attitude, Bette Davis is a Hollywood legend. Made later in her career, ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’ casts her as Baby Jane Hudson, a retired performer who lives with her crippled sister, Blanche, herself an ex-film star and clearly the more adored of the two sisters. We watch as Blanche, played by Joan Crawford, undergoes a two-hour descent into a panic reminiscent of Stephen King’s ‘Misery’, while the calculating Jane attempts to salvage any fame left over from a childhood in the spotlight.
The film opens in 1917. A young girl cries, frightened by the ghastly appearance of a Jack in the Box clown. Moments later the same girl, Baby Jane Hudson, sings to a raptured audience, deflating the adoration shortly after by demanding ‘I want ice cream’ in front of disappointed fans. These moments set the tone for Jane’s tumultuous relationship with a fickle limelight.
It’s then 1935 and two movie executives are panning Baby Jane’s latest picture, lamenting the contract that requires Jane be granted a film each time her more talented sister, Blanche, accepts a starring role. The problem is Jane’s alcohol dependence and lack of artistic talent. The Shirley Temple get-up and doll faced act apparently doesn’t translate into adult motion pictures and we get a sense that Blanche has well and truly rained on Baby Jane’s parade.
Finally, it’s 1967. Rumours circulate that Jane was responsible for the accident that left Blanche in a wheelchair, entirely dependent on Jane and confined to an upstairs bedroom. Upon learning of her sister’s intention to sell the house, Jane begins to turn on her sibling, spitting a level of vitriol and sarcasm that is delightful to watch. Attitude turns to action and Blanche is served her pet bird and then a drowned rat alongside her bread and milk.
Blanche becomes so fraught with tension that she slowly begins to starve.
When not participating in psychological torture, Jane spends time with a creepy ‘Baby Jane Doll’.
Drunk and delusional, she decides to revive the child star routines and hires a musical schmuck who has no idea who she is and who plays piano in time with her atrocious singing. A lack of fame and stardom deeply wound the aging starlet. Jane’s coping mechanisms are those of a petulant child and, although not a classic sociopath, she lashes out violently before a long-buried secret is finally brought to light.
‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’ is a testament to Davis’ ability and the role of Jane Hudson is practically tailor-made. As in ‘All About Eve’, Bette Davis obstinately campaigned to have her age highlighted and refused any attempts to have her looks softened. The result is a whitewashed, gaudy old hag who transforms into the very thing she was frightened of as a child.
Jane is a one-hit wonder who never matured, a vicious brat in a woman’s body desperately seeking admiration. Her platinum blonde curls and pastel clothes contrast with Joan Crawford’s dark locks and sombre costume, perhaps as an attempt to contrast between the flashy or superficial, and a deeper, more mature type of notoriety. The only personal criticism was the incompatible score. My twenty-first century ears felt it was too upbeat and off-balance with the film’s suspense. If I closed my eyes I could have been watching a Disney film, at least for seventy per cent of the running time.
Historical music trends aside, ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’ is a classic thriller worthy of its reputation. Watching two Hollywood icons slowly morph into the bleakest versions of themselves is captivating. Bette Davis might have been the prima donna of tinsel town, but the woman knew what she was doing. Pure magic.