Day 4: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Director: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Victor Buono, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Maidie Norman

Runtime: 133 minutes

Apparently, Aldrich, Crawford, and Davis were so invested in making this movie—supposedly in response to the success of Psycho (and there are similarities to that movie)—that they did it despite opposition from the studio, a limited budget, and a feud between the two aged actresses. It worked, as the film became a box-office hit and won several awards and nominations. It even spawned the “psycho-biddy” subgenre of crazy psychopathic old ladies, though I can’t confess intimate familiarity with this form.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The story revolves around two sisters who are former actresses, struggling over power. “Baby Jane” was once beloved as a child performer, but as an adult Blanche was the more acclaimed movie actress, until an automobile accident paralyzed her. Jane, bitter, bloated, and alcoholic, now has power over Blanche, confining her to her second floor bedroom, and gradually cutting off her contact with the world more and more. The horror of this movie is mostly psychological, though no less visual: Crawford looks quite skeletal in most of the movie; Davis fills the screen with Grand Guignol grotesquerie; Jane serves Blanche two dead animals; and there is even a murder. Maidie Norman puts in an excellent performance as Elvira, who comes once a week to clean house, but more importantly acts as a sort of confidant to Blanche. She is one of the few strong African American female characters in horror—she stands up to Jane in a way that Blanche can’t.

I find the portrayal of Blanche as a disabled character to be interesting as well. Although she is largely “bound” by her wheelchair (it is shown more as an image of her limitations than of her mobility), there’s a bit more complexity to this portrayal than similar characters from this period—for example, Jeff in Rear Window, who hardly moves in his chair at all. We also see Blanche using grips above her bed to move between it and her chair. Such accessories of disability are not all that common if the film is not explicitly dealing with disability as such.

Crawford

Crawford to world: Bette Davis looks like ****!

Anyway, the power struggle between Crawford and Davis is compelling, and Davis pulls off a remarkably creepy portrayal that still retains elements of vulnerability, allowing us to sympathize with her, especially at the heartbreaking end.

There are a number of parallels between this film and Psycho­—the importance of stairs, food, confinement, constructed/mistaken identity, and twist ending. Still, they are very different. I don’t think we ever empathize with Norman Bates the way we do Baby Jane, and in a way, Baby Jane’s garish appearance is more unsettling than Norman’s gender-transgressive but ultimately stylized transformation into Mother.

Davis with doll

I don’t know which is creepier–Davis or the over-sized doll.

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2 Responses to Day 4: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

  1. duplexofthedamned says:

    This movie has layers within layers. Two aging actresses, once stars but now struggling to keep working, play two former actresses, sisters and twisted rivals, now struggling to keep their dreams alive as they torment each other, the power balance between them continually shifting before unraveling completely. (Yes, studio head Jack Warner refused to back this tightly budgeted picture–although he eventually distributed it–saying, “I wouldn’t give a plugged nickel for either of those two washed-up broads.”)

    The rivalry and hatred between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis was all too real–for a discussion of the genesis of their feud and their antics on the set of the only film they ever made together, go to: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-566502/The-bitter-sexual-jealousy-Bette-Davis-wage-war-Joan-Crawford.html

    To me, the most interesting feature of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is how the grotesque and childish Jane manages to gain audience sympathy, while the transformed Norman Bates–although “Psycho” was an inspiration for this movie–leaves audiences chilled. (This is attributable in part to the chameleon-like gifts of Bette Davis, one of my favorite actresses of all time.)

    For another entry in the “psycho-biddy” genre, try 1964’s “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte,” also starring Davis, along with Olivia deHavilland (one of Davis’s closest friends in Hollywood) and Agnes Moorehead, who would go on to fascinate TV audiences as Elvira–the ultimate revenge on all mother-in-law jokes–in “Bewitched.”

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