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.
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.
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.