Retro Re-Watch: ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’

This month’s retro re-watch is one of my all-time personal favourites, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Before we get into the movie, a little back story…

This movie is one of the very first horror movies that I ever saw. You know how we all have that one kooky aunt that let us do things that our parents would never let us do? That aunt, for me, is responsible for letting me watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane at the age of eight or so. Thinking about it, that means that my little brother was probably about six, which actually explains a lot.

I’m sure a lot of it went over my head, but the scene in which a parakeet is served up as a lunch item has been burned into my brain. For many years, I’d actually forgotten what movie it had come from, and then finally caught it on a classic movie channel one evening and it all came rushing back. I remembered my aunt dancing around singing “I’ve written a letter to daddy…” and cackling along with Bette Davis while we looked on, a little more than slightly horrified.

From the outside, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? might seem like an innocuous movie about jealousy from a more innocent time, but it is far from it. It is one of the best psychological horror movies that I have ever seen, and was definitely a film that was formative to myself as a horror fan.

So what is all the fuss about?

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? tells the story of “Baby Jane” Hudson and her sister, Blanche. Baby Jane is America’s Sweetheart, very much the Shirley Temple of her time. She is so popular, in fact, that at the start of the film they bring out limited edition, exact replica, dolls that are so beyond creepy that Chucky wouldn’t even hold a candle to it.

Anyway, it turns out that Baby Jane is not so sweet, and is spoiled rotten by her father. Blanche, on the other hand, is sweet and quiet, letting Jane have the spotlight while being somehow simultaneously ignored and berated by her father. Their mother stands in passive silence through the bulk of all of this.

Flash forward several years and Baby Jane has turned into a severe diva and with a massive alcohol problem to boot. Blanche, on the other hand, has become a rising star, earning accolades and respect in the industry. The catch? She has it in her contracts that for every picture the studios do with her, they also must complete one with her sister. The studios gripe about how terrible she is, but are stuck until the next contract comes around. One night, after a party, Blanche and Jane are in a car accident, and Blanche is left paralyzed, ending her career. Jane is found in a hotel room, drunk and with no memory of the accident.

Fast forward to present day and Jane has become Blanche’s caregiver. As a local television studio has recently opted to run a marathon of Blanche’s old movies, the fan mail is pouring in and Jane has taken to drinking again, becoming more unhinged as the days wear on. Blanche is confined to her room as Jane plays an epic game of cat and mouse with her, clinging to the idea that one day she can be famous again, too.

I won’t get into too much of the backstory on the production of this one (I’ll save that for a post all on its own), but it’s rumoured that Robert Aldrich, the directory, insisted on finding two women who fit the part. He wanted “washed up,” not wanting to pretty up the aesthetic of two “old hags” sitting around reminiscing about their glory days. The sad thing is, not a whole lot has changed when it comes to those industry standards. His gamble paid off, and the tension between the two leads is perfection. Well, that might also be in part due to the fact that the fights between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis are said to be the stuff of legend. Aside from that, the fact remains that there just weren’t meaty parts like this for older women in Hollywood, especially then, and these two make a meal AND leftovers with what they were given.

Joan Crawford does an excellent job of selling legitimate fear, and I was genuinely surprised by the secret that she reveals at the end of the movie. The movie is a wonderfully layered exploration about how we let the past form our present; after all, “monsters” like Baby Jane are not formed overnight.

In my mind, though, the stand out performance is Bette Davis. She plays Jane unbelievably convincingly, going from hardened woman to spoiled brat and back in the blink of an eye. In an older movie, the acting is sometimes deliberately over the top to convey the message; they hit you over the head with it. Jane’s character could easily have swung to comical if not done well, but it is so expertly handled here that it holds up today. She is subtle in some of her tortures and not so subtle in others. In one particularly ominous scene, she casually mentions to her sister that there are rats in the cellar….as she is handing her the lunch tray. There is a lot behind the scenes that is done cleverly as well; as Blanche is confined to the upstairs bedroom (no elevator to be found here), Jane roams downstairs, impersonating her sister on the phone, lying to delivery people, and going slowly insane as she becomes more and more caught up in her glory days.

I talk to so many people about older movies and am astonished by the number of people who are skeptical of black and whites. I find that the black and white of old movies add so much atmosphere to a story. The setting is perfect as well, uncomplicated by modern technology and the necessity to find a way for the character to lose or break their cell phone in the first ten minutes in order to make it believable.

Bottom line, if you can get your hands on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and you’re a horror fan, your life will be richer for it.

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