What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 60 Years Later:
Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane— released 60 years ago this week—effectively spawned the Hagsplotation genre, which was born out of a shift to a new era where the actresses that bedazzled the golden age as legendary heroines, romantic leads, and femme fatales were now too old to capture the hearts, minds, and bankrolls of their producers. Enter schlock and exploitation, which provided a new opportunity for these aging talents to portray women who were dangerous, damaged, and utterly deranged.
Yet, before the Grande Dame Guignol became completely enveloped by its B-movie label (as seen in films like Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Dead Ringer, and Strait-Jacket), Aldrich’s wicked satiric lens unearthed a palpable, nuanced sense of dread that poignantly commented on the nature of family trauma—and the jealously, secrecy, and pain it perpetually traps many in.
Aldrich, who by the early sixties was a grizzled veteran of the industry, perfectly understood the cold, cruel, and merciless machine that powered Hollywood. With Baby Jane, his most enduring feature of that decade, he took on the industry’s heartless disposal of its product—human or otherwise— with an eye that refused to demonize his antagonist. What results is an experience that stands the test of time for both what unfolded onscreen and behind it.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford star as two sisters, Jane and Blanche, who were once movie stars, and the casting here is undoubtedly key to the film’s success and ultimate staying power. Aldrich managed the herculean task of convincing these two clashing divas to appear together, and in many ways, it might be the crowning achievement of his esteemed career. Noted rivals since the 1930s, their hatred for each other was well documented, with their competitive, conceited, and crotchety dynamic spawning a novel, and an Emmy-winning series that chronicled their lives during and after Baby Jane.
In a sense, it was the perfect picture to feature these two titans, as the flagrant jealousy of these two siblings personified a Hollywood duel for the ages, seeping into the real world to reflect an animosity that empowered the drama and the timelessness of this masterful film.
During the production of Baby Jane, the two found devious ways to toy with each other. Crawford was married to the CEO of Pepsi at the time, so appropriately, Davis had a Coca-Cola machine installed in her dressing room. Moreover, Crawford allegedly stuffed rocks into her costume during scenes where Davis was required to drag her across the floor. Yet, despite these jabs and antics, the two never relinquished their ferocity as performers, loving the art of their craft enough to not allow their passions to derail the film.
All of this gave Aldrich a perfect storm with which to concoct his masterpiece, a gothic grotesquerie that transcends the archetypes of a “camp classic” to become a piercing psychological horror story that painfully, yet perfectly, captures the pointlessness and tragedy of sororal odium—beautifully coalescing in one of the film’s final lines: “you mean all this time we could have been friends?
Davis, garishly caked in makeup and rendered a shrill banshee, comes out on top, garnering an Oscar nomination for her virulent efforts as a washed-up child star. Davis’s performance is the walking epitome of caution thrown to the wind, abandoning any notion of subtlety to bring forward an overacted delight. Crawford is also great as the quieter, sadder, and— to be blunt— less interesting sister. While her skill is evident, she is continually dwarfed by her counterpart’s towering presence.
Besides the warring star power, Aldrich’s stellar filmmaking is also crucial to the film’s potency. His stark, noirish photography imbues the film with a haunting aura. Moreover, the production’s design is beautifully claustrophobic, trapping the two in a hothouse of regret and contempt that violently boils over in the final act. The staircase itself packs the same punch as the leading duo, dominating almost every frame as it epitomizes an allegorical and physical divide between these two characters and actors.
Robert Aldrich was a cinematic “Jack of all trades”, masterfully operating in various Hollywood genres with classics like Kiss Me Deadly, his magnum opus, and Ulzana’s Raid, a provocative, Vietnam-era revisionist western staring Burt Lancaster. While daring in his commentary Aldrich is far from an auteur, producing profitable, popular, and well-crafted experiences that are shining examples of their genres. Yet, with Baby Jane, he would go on to create his own subgenre that allowed the stars of yore to shine once again. While Crawford and Davis weren’t a pretty sight in their battle to upstage one another, they did cement themselves as figures we would never forget.
– Prabhjot Bains