WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY ROBERT ALDRICH. SCREENPLAY BY LUKAS HELLER. BASED ON THE NOVEL BY HENRY FARRELL. STARRING BETTE DAVIS, JOAN CRAWFORD, VICTOR BUONO, MAIDIE NORMAN, ANNA LEE, B.D. MERRILL AND MARJORIE BENNETT. REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
This is one of the best films you’ll ever see about the deterioration of a diseased mind. It’s also one of the best horror films ever made, though surprisingly some people consider it purely a womens’ melodrama or even a black comedy. Yes, there are moments in it when you laugh, but it’s more out of disbelief or discomfort than genuine mirth and merriment. This film is a horror film, make no mistake about that. It was released on the actual day of Halloween, for crying out loud…!
Hollywood royalty (and arch-rivals!) Bette Davis and Joan Crawford give what we term today as career-best performances in the black-and-white psychological chiller that was nominated for no less than five Academy Awards and revived the flagging careers of its two leading ladies.
Bette Davis in particular is spectacular as she transforms herself before our very eyes from an iconic actress into a woman who is not only ugly to look at and unpleasant in the extreme, but she is actually insane into the bargain. But what happened to make her this way? Let’s take a closer look, shall we, horror fans…?
The plot in a nutshell is as follows. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) is a former child star who was never able to make that difficult transition from child star to adult success. Yes, she had movie roles once she outgrew the ringlets and the pretty little party dresses, but they never amounted to much. Now, over forty years since her salad days, Jane is an embittered and mentally unbalanced alcoholic. She’s dependent on her sister Blanche for the very roof over her head.
Blanche was the plain little church mouse when Jane’s child star persona, Baby Jane Hudson, packed theatres with adoring fans all dying to see the little blonde-haired moptop singing and dancing. As they grew older, however, it was Blanche whom the studios wanted, Blanche for whom the public clamoured, Blanche who could write her own ticket, even to the point of insisting that the studios made a film with Jane for every one they made with Blanche. Blanche has always looked after Jane in that way.
When we meet the sisters, they are sharing the house they’ve lived in for years. Blanche, crippled in an accident caused by a drunken Jane years ago, is confined to a wheelchair and never leaves her room. Jane is her reluctant carer. Everything she does for Blanche is done with a terrible grace.
Jane hates her sister and she especially hates her life as a nonentity. She hates the fact that she’s grown old and ugly and that her time in the spotlight (we see her as a child star in 1917) is over. Clearly, no-one has ever prepared her for life after fame. The film is definitely a damning indictment of the way that Hollywood chews you up and spits you out when it’s done with you. It kind of reminds me of SUNSET BOULEVARD in that way.
Now it’s the early ‘Sixties and, to rub salt in a festering wound that never healed, TV bosses are running a series of Blanche’s old movies. Jane is disgusted to see that people still remember, idolise and even love her sister Blanche because of her films and the jealousy and bitterness gnaw away at her like a sickness.
We see actual real footage of Joan Crawford’s old movies, by the way, just as real photos of the two leading actresses are dotted around the fantastic old house. They were both so beautiful in their day. Mind you, even in the midst of the grotesquerie that is an elderly Jane Hudson, we still get the odd flash of those fabulous ‘Bette Davis Eyes.’ She never lost those, thank God.
Anyway, Jane’s physical and emotional abuse of Blanche grows worse as the film progresses. Blanche wants to sell the house and have Jane put away somewhere where ‘they can take care of her.’ Jane will see her sister dead before she allows that to happen.
She isolates Blanche from her last contact with the outside world, her maid Elvira, and carries on a campaign of emotional terror against her sister that leaves poor Blanche a gibbering wreck. Jane has plans to ‘revive’ her own long-dead ‘career’ as well. To this end, she enlists an unscrupulous money-grabbing musician who’s down on his luck to come and listen to her sing. This is all with a view to his joining her in her glorious ‘comeback.’ God help us all…!
The scene in which Bette Davis, festooned and furbelowed in full child-star gear (a little-girl-dress-and-ribbons ensemble, to be precise) sings her signature song to an appalled Edwin is probably the most grotesque in the film, barring of course the shocking end scenes. We feel all of Edwin’s horror and revulsion as this scary old lady in a little girl’s party dress simpers and preens at him in the mistaken idea that she’s lost none of her girlish prettiness and talent.
I recently was lucky enough to see the film on the big screen at a local cultural event and everyone in the audience, young and old alike, sang along loudly to ‘I’M SENDING A LETTER TO DADDY.’ Afterwards, of course, we all sniggered self-consciously and shot embarrassed glances at each other…!
Other scenes of note include those terrific aerial shots of Blanche rotating wildly in her wheelchair after Jane has served up another of her memorable culinary delights, and also those where Jane is imitating Blanche on the telephone to their family doctor and the liquor store. She does it so chillingly well and the way in which her personality switches so fluidly from nasty to nice is positively ghoulish.
I heard once that the young blonde girl living with her mum next door to the Hudson sisters is actually Bette Davis’s real-life daughter, but I’m not too sure about that so don’t quote me on it, okay? (Just Googled it; I’m right!)
Also, Victor Buono does a brilliant job as Edwin Flagg. It’s perfectly believable that a young man would endure the attentions and even the loathsome caresses of someone like Jane for money. After all, people have done worse!
I used to think that the end scenes jarred with the rest of the film but now I’m convinced they blend perfectly, or should I say contrast perfectly with, what comes before. Jane is a horrible person, yes, but is it entirely her own fault? You’ll be able to decide for yourself after you see the film.
There’s a stunning twist at the end and also a doll that looks like Nellie Olson from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE in it. What more could anyone ask for?
It was in its own way a groundbreaking movie in its hideously unflattering portrayal of the older woman and it led to other similar films being made, including Robert Aldrich’s own HUSH HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964), again starring the divine Ms. Davis.
Anyway, you guys go and enjoy this terrific old movie again. I’ve got to write yet another letter to Daddy, who by the way never writes back, I’m just saying. Anyone got a stamp, or will kisses do again…?
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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