The recent drama surrounding Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling was made up less of outright battles between the film’s key players and more of passive-aggressive tension, speculative memes and exhaustive TikTok explanations. Today, our celebrity-gossip shock and awe seems to be generated by identifying the cracks in a shiny, perfectly rehearsed press campaign. But there was a time when we went to the movies not to pinpoint those juicy peeks behind the curtain that faintly suggested a darker side of Hollywood, but because the curtain itself had already been torn away violently and we could do nothing but watch in horror as that dark side was gleefully trotted out before us.
And so with the 60th anniversary of Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a film that does for food delivery what Jaws did for going in the ocean, we remember a time when drama between stars was laid bare and confronted head-on.
Silver screen legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis represent what is perhaps Hollywood’s most iconic and infamous rivalry, so storied it has inspired everything from Ryan Murphy’s 2017 Feud anthology series to challenges on RuPaul’s Drag Race. In one corner there was Crawford, the ever-dignified and poised professional who the camera loved. In the other was Davis, the brash, risk-taking actor’s actor the camera loved to hate. While the pair’s sordid history of boyfriend- and spotlight-stealing can be traced back to their early careers, their lasting feud suggested a more innate clash of personalities. Maybe Davis felt like she could see right through Crawford’s perfectly crafted movie star persona. Maybe Crawford felt Davis’s assertiveness and lack of mincing words uncouth. Underneath it all, perhaps the similarities they saw in each other were just too frightening to tackle. Until now.
A rewatch of the picture that finally saw the two icons work side by side provides an almost eerily similar reflection to that real-life drama.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? opens with the sound of a little girl in hysterical tears and the sight of the clownish wind-up toy that caused them. Right around the corner is a marquee advertising Baby Jane Hudson, a singing and dancing child star who today evokes a cross between Shirley Temple and JonBenet Ramsey. In a 2022 remake she would probably be a reluctant participant on Dance Moms, with her ‘Daddy’ a high-strung talking head. Jane performs the film’s signature ditty that is equal parts banger and creepfest, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy,” then quickly turns into a spoiled monster backstage. Throughout this display, her sister Blanche watches quietly. Their mother, played by Anne Barton in a brief and effective performance embodying the foresight of impending disaster, uses an opportunity alone with Blanche to implore her to have mercy on Jane when the sisters are older and not treat her as Blanche has been treated.
Fast-forward to 1935, and the tables are turned: we are told by way of film studio executives that Blanche Hudson is a successful movie star and her sister Jane is a has-been hanger-on with a drinking problem. After a studio party one fateful night, through a clever flurry of shadows and quick cuts, one sister, behind the wheel, seemingly slams into the other, pinning her against their home’s spiky gate.
This leads us to the present day, set in the very same house where The Incident That Must Not Be Named occurred, where we find Blanche Hudson wheelchair-bound and Jane her scornful caretaker. It is here we first witness the ingenious villain costuming that makes Bette Davis’s Baby Jane Hudson so indelible: it’s not that Jane has evolved into a villain over the years that makes her scary, it’s that she hasn’t evolved at all. The ringlets and stark white makeup of childhood stardom simply never went away, and became frizzy and caked with time, struggling to hold onto a face shaped by bitterness and addiction.
The Hudsons’ Hollywood mansion is adorned in Baby Jane memorabilia, from old posters and newspaper clippings to Jane’s prized gen-u-ine life-size replica doll. Jane travels to and from Blanche’s room, dragging her feet as she goes with a guttural cackle. Part of the campy joy of watching Bette Davis’s performance here is to see her blaze through the house with all the grace of a mechanic while made up to look like anything but, spitting out vitriol with a tiny bow in her hair. It is only when Jane reminisces that she sheds this careless barbarism and attempts to slip back into her Baby Jane persona, donning a saccharine smile that has long lost its ability to charm and spinning around to her original choreo in an uncanny valley of delusion.
That Davis can so effectively communicate Jane’s dueling personas is a testament to her ability, but there is another performance that sneakily mirrors Jane every step of the way. Joan Crawford’s Blanche is the more successful and self-aware sister, and yet, obsession of the self marks her every move.
Just as Jane once upon a time would turn on the charm to her masses of screaming fans then quickly devolve into the blueprint for Veruca Salt offstage, child Blanche is the same in a different way. Blanche’s floor-gazing mousiness when relegated to the background turns into a bitter declaration against her sister when Blanche finds herself alone with just their mother. When we first meet Blanche Hudson as she is today, she is watching one of her old films, hanging on every word her past self says as her movie studio glamor shot hangs on the wall above her. But when Jane barges in with Blanche’s din-din and an acidic interjection, Blanche plays up the part of the long-suffering victim. As interpreted by Joan Crawford, Blanche leads with her head held high and graceful, reiterating logic in a measured voice to her sister who just refuses to come to her senses. The nerve! Blanche telegraphs a pearl-clutching “I never!” with every shake of the head and quiver of the brow, relishing just a little too much the chance to employ the acting ability that made her a star. Even when Blanche uncovers the cloche of her dinner tray to reveal Jane has served her a dead bird, there is a brief delay in Blanche’s reaction, as if needing a moment to muster up her best damsel shriek. At a certain point, we are not sure if we are watching Joan Crawford play a character who is aware of her various acting tricks or if those are simply the instincts of Joan Crawford herself– in the end, it’s perhaps a bit of both, great casting as much as it is great acting.
It seems the main difference between Jane and Blanche is that one is a hacky former child star and the other a respected actress– they relish the glory of attention all the same, fighting for their own father’s adoration since childhood, but it’s Blanche, as we learn in full detail later, who is able to more cleverly mask this craving and use it to her advantage.
Bette Davis’s Baby Jane was always going to be the standout performance here. Davis takes the particular strength she found in playing washed-up has-beens and turns the camp and delicious garishness up to 11. The scariest moment in the movie comes from a place of deeply felt character, when Jane reprises “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” in the living room to no one, fully invested in her illusion, until she steps into the light and catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and everything comes to a halt. In that brief instant, drenched in Frank de Vol’s in-your-face score, we are terrified of how Jane might react as Davis embodies the impending outburst of a baby whose lollipop has been unfairly snatched away. In a way, that one moment encapsulates the question the film’s horror-camp mix is predicated on: what if a baby’s lollipop was snatched away, but that baby was a middle-aged violent alcoholic?
Infamously, Bette Davis received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Jane while her counterpart was snubbed, only fanning the flames of their feud. And as life imitated art, the vicious and delicious cycle of upstaging one another in the name of stardom and recognition continued.
The drama, of course, dwarfed the film’s other nominations, including a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Victor Buono– who, let’s just say, it’s telling one can describe the crux of the entire film without mentioning his character. If there’s a supporting MVP however, that honor belongs to unsung actress Maidie Norman as housekeeper Elvira Stitt, who sees through Jane at every turn. The fact that this role comes off not quite as stereotypical as the standard maid role of the time is thanks entirely to Norman, who allegedly rewrote her role to reflect a woman who was respectable and well-spoken as opposed to a trope. Her contribution does wonders for the film itself, adding the necessary tension to Blanche’s escalating torment and the increasingly desperate attempts to hide it by Jane. Baby Jane may not be remembered for its supporting players, but they play a crucial role in setting the stakes for Davis and Crawford’s performances.
What we remember most of all when we think of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is still the image of Bette Davis in full sad clown regalia, oft-imitated, half scary, half silly. But what makes that image memorable is an effective movie, and the key here that makes Baby Jane such a resonant and enduring document of Old Hollywood is our two titans of industry bouncing off each other, playing into and commenting on their own real life insecurities as well as their characters’. Our appetite for drama has not lessened in the 60 years since, but it was perhaps never as well-fed as by Baby Jane, a supremely entertaining creepshow that shamelessly capitalizes off a time when actresses wouldn’t dream of uttering the words “it’s an honor just to be nominated.”
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was released by Warner Bros. on October 31, 1962. It is available to stream for free with ads on HBO Max and to rent for $2.99 on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and YouTube.