In 1962 the world was treated to a heavyweight acting showdown, Bette Davis versus Joan Crawford in a psychological thriller about two sisters. Overall Davis as the maniacal Baby Jane Hudson is the clear winner although Crawford, as her sister Blanche, does an admirable job against the acting onslaught. Despite the amazing performances the film did fall short in a few respects. Some of the torment to which Blanche is subjected by Baby Jane is less shocking now than it would once have been, due to the general desensitisation of audiences over the last 50 years, however I’ll let it pass since there’s not really any way they could have known that by 2017 we’d be a bunch of bloodthirsty degenerates. The suspense surrounding certain events in the film would also have benefited from more of a build-up. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is definitely still worth the time, if only to witness the artful insanity of Bette Davis.
Baby Jane Hudson is a vaudevillian child star who entertains sold-out theatres alongside her father, while her sister Blanche watches from the wings. Fast-forward a few years and Blanche Hudson is the biggest star in Hollywood while Baby Jane is a sub-par, booze-hound actress who only gets hired because, in an effort to wield her stardom with benevolence like her sister never did, Blanche insists upon it. One night an attempt at vehicular homicide leaves Blanche in wheelchair. She is subsequently stuck inside, with Baby Jane in charge of her care. After several years Blanche (Joan Crawford) is making a comeback on television but Baby Jane (Bette Davis) has plans to revive her own career and they don’t include Blanche.
Bette Davis is astonishing in the role of Baby Jane from the moment we see her. She is the personification of frumpiness, a put-upon sister who drinks too much and yearns for a return to her youth and stardom. When she interacts with Blanche their siblinghood is undeniable; when it suits her Jane is firmly rooted in reality brushing aside her sister’s lies but when it comes to her own tall tales they are the unshakeable truth and Blanche must be going crazy. This is a tactic most people with a sibling will recognise immediately, although most of us were just winding the others up as opposed to trying to gaslight them. As the film progresses Baby Jane evolves from frumpy to frightening as she puts Blanche through ever-escalating abuse and torture and every twist and turn along that journey is made absolutely mesmerising by Bette Davis. All the more impressive is that Davis brings a touch of humanity to this lunatic; throughout the film I found myself sympathising with Jane, albeit only for brief moments. For example Blanche’s use of a buzzer which sounds throughout the house was getting on my nerves and I only had to live with it a handful of times over the course of two hours.
Joan Crawford on the other hand gives a far more subdued performance, which opposite any other actress would be admirable but in the face of the inimitable Bette Davis seems washed out and becomes forgettable. Crawford plays Blanche Hudson, a selfless and successful actress who is completely at the mercy of her crazed sister. Crawford’s performance is good, the problem lies in the character of Blanche. Blanche was successfully conveyed as sweet and full of concern for her sister however I wanted her to have more of an adversarial role with Baby Jane; Batman versus the Joker in the comics rather than Batman versus the Joker from The Dark Knight. This imbalance is the biggest weakness of the film, we get to revel in the lunacy of Baby Jane but Blanche’s terror and struggle aren’t conveyed strongly enough to pull us in. There is plenty of crazy flying around to be swept up in but in order to truly thrill it needs to impact and result in a negative consequence. We get a lot of cause but no real effect.
There are a few problem areas for this classic. It runs on a little too long; when the situation, and Jane’s mental state, starts to deteriorate I think the pace should have picked up but it remained on a plateau with the rest of the film. There wasn’t enough conflict, for my taste, between Blanche and Baby Jane. I found myself feeling that, much like the actor’s performances, Bette Davis/Baby Jane steamrollered Joan Crawford/Blanche. This is partly explained by Blanche’s protective stance towards her sister but it feels like she could have done more. However I cannot emphasise enough that these issues pale in comparison to the joy of watching Ms. Davis as one of the greatest movie villains of all time. Everything about Baby Jane is something to behold; the look, the makeup, combined with Davis’ trademark eyes lending an edge of surreal psychosis to the character; the sudden switches from exhausted and over it to delusion-fuelled rage; the brief moments of clarity and humanity; it all amounts to an acting tour de force. The story is pretty great too but the answer to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is that she stole the show and doesn’t share a spotlight.