Due to an infamous flash of casting genius, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Bette Davis and Joan Crawford get to live out their legendary rivalry on screen. It’s a grotesque jealousy picture about feuding sisters who want all the family’s fame to themselves. We should only be so lucky.
It started out that Jane (Bette Davis) was a child wunderkind, an early stage performer with a fast taste for the spotlight. Jane and her mother, accordingly, didn’t have much love for her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford). Blanche was a late bloomer but also didn’t peak before puberty, going on to a rousing film career that would instill great wariness in her fame-hungry sister. The thing is they could not share. Only one could be the best Hudson sister. After an automobile accident levels Blanche, the playing field evens out, as she is taken as her sister’s captive in the big family mansion.
It is a claustrophobic mansion, filled to the brim with the tension of the outsized personalities inside it. The thing is Jane is kind of done with Blanche being a big deal in Hollywood. She’s going to cut her off from all of it and leverage herself—as what: a baby girl on stage? When she croons “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” as a young girl it borders on charming but as an adult, it is a devastating piece of arrested development.
What Happened to Baby Jane is that she got too much too soon. There is a doll manufactured after her image that she carries into adulthood. Jane and the Baby Jane doll are the same: porcelain figures of stagnancy perpetually trapped in youth. She is still presenting as a child—effectively a late-life Shirley Temple—with high-collared, ruffled dresses with big bows in back, ringlets through her hair and a childlike application of makeup.
This gives Davis full range to desperately chew the scenery. Her performance is unquestionably ugly and terrifying. It’s something like a forerunner of the modern captive horror story. It’s allowed to explore and set these themes for the future good of cinema. Its two actors are the most brilliant part. We regret every moment that is not about them, as it dwindles down a long running time as neighbors, housekeepers and others become suspicious of Jane’s motives and what’s going on in the house.
The alternative storyline about Baby Jane is that Davis leveraged her celebrity to get an Oscar nomination at the expense of an indisposed Crawford. Every bit as petty as their characters, that’s not how the legend reads. Davis wouldn’t be the first to capture three awards that year. Instead, Crawford would accept an award at the behest of another actress. The level of animosity was so high that she accepted an award and petitioned against a movie she was in. One version of winning is simply not to lose.
The truth is that the audience won. This is a brilliant psychological horror film that would be marketed as such today. There are many lessons for the modern film to take away from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Perhaps the most significant is that the greatest grotesques are psychological.