Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a creepy, macabre, fitfully funny and deeply disturbing tale that has been described as a horror movie, a black comedy, and has gained the reputation of a cult classic; all be apt descriptors. Here is a film about a house where childhood resentments fester, where fears come true, and where vindictiveness reigns supreme.
1917: Baby Jane Hudson is a child performer of huge stature in Vaudeville, with an ego as monstrous as that of any adult star, as her sister Blanche waits in the wings, afraid to let herself shine too brightly. Flash-forward to 1935: Blanche has become a hugely successful movie actress and Jane has attempted to follow in her footsteps, but has gained a negative reputation for being a no-talent alcoholic. Then, a tragic car “accident” paralyzes Blanche on the Hudson property.
Years later, “Baby” Jane (Bette Davis) is at the beckon call of her sister (Joan Crawford), who is wheelchair-bound and relies on her kindly black maid Elvira (Maidie Norman). Meanwhile, the house seeths with the sick and twisted energy of “Baby” Jane, who dreams of delusions of a comeback, aided and abetted by a British pianist named Edwin (Victor Buono) whom she hires through the Personals to revive her act; to see and hear Davis perform Baby Jane’s childhood hit “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” sends chills down the spine (it’s a toss-up as to whether it’s creepier as an old woman than as a little girl).
The film, adapted by Lukas Heller from the novel by Henry Farrell, was directed by Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Yard, Kiss Me Deadly). It all has an eerie quality, recalling such work as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950). This is essentially about two old women who have all but completely severed connection with the outside world or, for that matter, reality.
Crucial to the film’s success are the performances by Davis and Crawford, who allegedly despised each other going back to the 30s, making this method acting to the hilt. Davis in particular, who garnered her 10th Oscar nomination here, has an absolute ball as a violent sociopath with delusions of grandeur and reminiscences of times forgot.
Photographed in stark black-and-white, always in a garish, pale “clown” makeup, and still wearing the same little girl hairdo and creepy doll’s clothes from her childhood act, Davis positively embodies Baby Jane Hudson, a monster who thinks she’s in a prison of her own creation, but may in fact be more of a victim than even she realizes. Crawford almost matches her with, essentially, the “straight” role as Blanche, a seemingly helpless cripple of astonishing ingenuity and would-be strength.
Together, they make this material eerily effective and unnerving, and ultimately some sort of weird masterpiece.