63 – What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
Y’know, age is something that doesn’t have as much weight as it used to. There are endless problems with society these days, but a big plus is that there is considerably less ageism than there used to be. At least in Hollywood. I’m being serious. Think about it; Robert De Niro is still headlining films in his 70s and there are still plenty of good roles out there for him to play – without being reduced to cameoing as ‘the hero’s grandfather’. Dame Helen Mirren likewise recently headlined one of the best films of 2016 in a killer role. To a lesser extent, many of Hollywood’s top stars are in their 40s and 50s. And they’re not stuck playing the same roles they did twenty years ago. As they have aged, Hollywood offers them different roles to accommodate it rather than hide it. Obviously it’s not the case for everyone, and there are plenty for whom roles dried up as soon as they hit middle age. But growing older isn’t as much of a death knell for an actor as it used to be. Back in the Golden Age, Hollywood would often try to do what it could to fight the very nature of time. They lied about Shirley Temple’s age to keep her playing child roles just a little longer. Mary Pickford didn’t stop playing Ingénues until her mid-30s. But once it was clear they couldn’t hide their changing age, they were either chucked out onto the reject pile – or else had to find a way to reinvent themselves. And here is one rather extreme way that two of Hollywood’s fading leading ladies went about it.
Before we get into this film, I feel as if we need to talk about both of its stars.
Bette Davis was one of the finest actresses to ever grace the silver screen. She was really the Meryl Streep of her time – and Ms Streep even got a stamp of approval from Bette at the start of her career. Bette Davis was known for really getting into the spirit of her roles, and going the extra mile for the sake of a good performance. Take this very film – about a drunken mess of a former child star. Without a thought to her own vanity, Bette threw herself right into the project. Jane’s ghastly make-up was her idea, and Bette said in her autobiography that she loved going to work every day while on this film. She was essentially an actress who knew what needed to be done to make a film memorable. Then we go to her co-star…
Joan Crawford meanwhile was the kind of star who embraced type casting. The public never kidded themselves when they saw a Joan Crawford movie. Mildred Pierce wasn’t about a single mother working her way up the ladder – it was Joan Crawford wearing a form-fitting waitress outfit and pretending to be a businesswoman. The Women is Joan Crawford being bitchy. Grand Hotel is Joan Crawford as a sexy typist. The public went to see Joan, and not the characters she played. She was all about looking glamorous and being a star. She even wanted Blanche Hudson to have styled hair and painted nails, despite being confined to a wheelchair. She was quite determined to keep her image intact.
These two actresses had been bitter rivals for many years. The public knew all about it, and the studio even marketed the film around the rivalry. Despite both women’s love for the project, things weren’t exactly harmonious between them on set. Joan put weights in her pockets for a scene where Bette had to carry her, and Bette responded by installing a Coke machine on set (Joan being a sponsor for Pepsi). Joan cancelled a publicity tour to promote the film, apparently just because she didn’t want to share the stage with Bette. And come the Oscars, Joan rang up the other Best Actress nominees to see if she could accept any awards on their behalf – essentially looking for a chance to one-up Bette, who had been nominated for this film. And Bette apparently only had this to say when Joan asked her about what she thought of the film:
“You were right, Joan. The picture is so good. And I was terrific.”
The film opens in 1917 – in the days of vaudeville. One particular vaudeville star is Baby Jane Hudson. She’s an angelic, golden-haired Shirley Temple-esque cutie pie – who dances in frilly dresses and wears ribbons in her curls. And judging by her saccharine number “I’ve Written A Letter To Daddy”, she’s got plenty of songs too. She’s even got her own doll line.
She also has a sister Blanche, who watches from backstage. Blanche gets to see what the audience does not: that sweet Baby Jane is, to quote the witty Mara Wilson, “an entitled little shit”. It mostly appears to be the fault of the father, which ties in well with that military phrase ‘shit rolls downhill’. The father spoils Jane and can’t quite discipline her when she throws a tantrum. But he’s more than happy to take out his frustrations on poor Blanche.
We now jump ahead to 1935 and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Baby Jane Hudson has grown up to become a film star. Or she’s trying to anyway. A pair of producers watch her latest film in horror. In case you’re wondering, that’s actually one of Bette Davis’s early films. And she suggested the ones the director should use to show just how bad an actress Jane is. She’s also apparently a drunken mess who can barely show up for work on time – which ironically is what would become of Joan Crawford late in her career. Things are looking up for someone else though.
Blanche Hudson is now a hot commodity. She’s one of the biggest stars the studio has. And the only reason Jane is allowed past the gates is because there’s a clause in Blanche’s contract that says they have to make a film with Jane for every one they make with her. It’s never said whether Blanche insisted on that or her family pressured her into it – but I lean more towards the former. Blanche possibly wanted to make sure her sister got a chance too. Thus making it all the more horrifying when you see what looks like Jane attempting to run Blanche over!
The caption then reads ‘Yesterday’, which has prompted more discussions on the IMDB message boards than you’d think. A woman called Mrs Bates comes home to find her daughter watching an old Blanche Hudson movie. And apparently the two of them live next door to Blanche and Jane now. Blanche is now in a wheelchair, and Jane is thought to be responsible for it. Mrs Bates pops around next door with flowers for Blanche, but the door is answered by Jane.
Oh, so that’s what happened to Baby Jane. As said earlier, you can thank Bette Davis for the make-up. She decided that Jane would never wash her face, and instead just put a new layer of make-up on every day. Her own daughter (who cameos as the Bates daughter) told her she’d gone too far when she first saw it. The relationship between the sisters is far from cordial. Jane waits on Blanche and clearly resents every minute of it. She even mimics Blanche’s voice just to mess with her. Remember that. Blanche at least gets some civilised human company in the form of their cleaning lady Elvira.
Alas, she was too busy with her haunted hills. The Elvira in this movie comes with a double dose of bad news. Jane has apparently been drinking again, and she threw out some fan mail that had been coming to the house – not to mention writing some “dirty words” on the envelope. Elvira wonders if Jane knows about Blanche planning to sell their house. They both guess that Jane won’t take it well. They can’t talk much more, because Jane walks into the room claiming that Blanche’s pet bird flew off while she was cleaning the cage.
Downstairs, Jane imitates Blanche’s voice to order some liquor that she’s not supposed to be allowed. When Elvira pops into town for something, Jane takes the phone of the hook so that Blanche can’t make any calls. But then Jane has a moment to herself. She still has the old Baby Jane dolls on display, and wistfully looks at them. She even gets the idea to sing her old hit “I’ve Written A Letter To Daddy”. If you thought it was saccharine nonsense when sung by a child…well it becomes ungodly creepy when sung by an old woman dressed like a child. One of the movie’s defining moments comes as Jane catches sight of herself in the mirror.
She was meant to scream, but Bette Davis was suffering from laryngitis at the time. All that she could manage was something that sounded more like a cry. Thus making this scene less creepy and more tragic. Blanche picks the absolute worst time to ring the buzzer over and over, sending Jane into a bit of a temper tantrum. Jane gets her revenge by taking away Blanche’s phone – and revealing she knows all about the plan to sell the house. And she serves Blanche the following for lunch.
Jane heads out, and Blanche contemplates climbing down the stairs to get to the phone. She also tries to alert Mrs Bates who’s out in the garden. Both ideas amount to nothing. Jane meanwhile has gone out to place an ad in the paper for a pianist. It seems she now has ideas of making a comeback. Hmm, who wouldn’t want to see a woman in her fifties performing a vaudeville routine that was written for a child? Anyway, Jane arriving home is horrifically timed with Blanche throwing a note into the garden for Mrs Bates to read. And of course Jane reads it.
The way Jane reveals this in the following scene is masterfully done. And poor Blanche is now terrified to touch her food, clearly afraid of what else Jane might have put in it. We then shift to a budding pianist called Edwin – who still lives with his mother. They spot Jane’s ad in the paper and his mother calls her up pretending to be his secretary (complete with cute reaction from Bette Davis), getting him an interview/audition. Jane’s treatment of Blanche worsens and she even gives Elvira the day off purely to stop Blanche from spilling the beans. And then there’s what she serves for lunch.
Edwin goes over to Jane’s house for his audition, for some reason putting on an English accent. It’s clear that when he rehearses with Jane, he thinks she’s terrible. But she’s willing to pay an awful lot, so his lips are sealed. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Jane. She’s genuinely excited at the idea that she might make a comeback, and you can tell she’s thrilled to finally be working on something. You almost don’t want to tell her that she’s terrible and she’ll be laughed off every stage she performs on.
Once Jane leaves to drive Edwin home, Blanche comes out of her room and goes rooting around Jane’s. She discovers that her sister has been practising forging her signature on cheques – and that means Jane has no reason to keep her alive. So Blanche gets out of her chair and crawls down the stairs to use the phone. Unfortunately, while she’s speaking to the doctor, Jane comes home.
Jane now gets properly violent and for good measure calls the doctor back up, imitating Blanche’s voice, and stops him from coming over. She also turns Elvira away, telling her they won’t be needing her anymore. Elvira doesn’t buy that for a second and waits until Jane leaves before sneaking into the house. Once she finds Blanche’s room locked, she tries to break the door open. Mrs Bates unfortunately gives the game away by telling Jane she’s in the house!
Elvira forces Jane to open the room, and finds Blanche tied to her bed. She doesn’t see Jane coming at her from behind with a hammer! Hours later, she’s clearly rattled by what she’s done. But it doesn’t stop her from driving out in the dead of night to dispose of the body. Edwin repeatedly phones the house to check up on Jane, but she won’t answer. When she does, it’s to the police telling her about Elvira’s disappearance.
If you’re expecting Jane to snap again, you’re not wrong. But what’s especially strange is that she doesn’t go mad in the traditional sense. She runs to Blanche, asking her about what to do. Jane suddenly seems to have regressed and become more like a frightened child. You see this earlier when Elvira is demanding that she open the door. Jane behaves more like a bratty little girl than a bitter old woman. Edwin calls at the house clearly having had a drop taken. But he’s not too drunk to not notice Blanche knocking something over upstairs. Once he discovers her tied up, he flees. Jane guesses that “he’s going to tell”.
Jane unties Blanche and drags her into the car. She takes them to a nearby beach, where she claims she used to rehearse with daddy. By the time morning comes, there’s a report on the radio for their arrest. Jane’s too busy having fun on the beach though. Blanche is dying and so she wants to confess to something. Remember that accident that crippled her? And remember how we didn’t see who was driving the car? It was Blanche who was driving! She wanted to run over Jane, furious at her sister making fun of her at a party earlier. Jane ran out of the way, and Blanche crawled out of the car to where she was found by the police later. She just let everyone believe that Jane had done it. Except…
I think any doctor in 1935 would be able to differentiate between someone who had been crippled while driving and someone who’d had a car crashed into them. I used to have an elaborate theory when I was a teenager – that the studio knew that Blanche had been driving but covered it up to save her public image. That sort of thing did go on quite a bit during the Golden Age, and Edwin’s mother says something about the studio having “it all hushed up” when she talks about the accident. Others have a different theory that Blanche was just lying to spare Jane’s feelings. But you can actually hear the sounds of someone running away if you re-watch the accident scene – confirming that Jane was indeed the intended victim.
Jane’s response to this revelation? Fury? Resentment? Axe-craziness?
And she then decides to go get ice cream for them. It’s here that the police find her, crowds gathering around. Jane is now convinced that they’re all there to see her – and starts dancing for them.
This low-budget, hurriedly shot and hastily edited horror film ended up as a huge success. It recouped its budget within ten days and went on to gross the equivalent of $69 million today. The story was so frightening in places that it got an X rating in the UK – so of course it became a cult classic and was played as a Rocky Horror type midnight movie. Bette Davis’s star power had been fading in the late 1950s, but the success of this ensured that she would continue to work right up until her death in the 1980s. She was usually typecast in similar roles to this but hey, work is work. Joan Crawford on the other hand? This was her last project of any note at all. She spent the rest of her career starring in B-horror movies that did middling business. The lowest point was Trog, where she played an anthropologist running after a man in a ratty ape suit. The film overall marked one of the first times that Hollywood’s leading ladies turned to horror – now that they were too old to be romantic leads. It naturally kick-started a bunch of imitators – Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte; Strait Jacket; What’s The Matter With Helen?; Who Slew Auntie Roo? – that became known as the ‘Psycho Biddy’ subgenre, or else ‘hagsploitation’. Of course Baby Jane is far from an exploitation film. It’s a deeply disturbing character study of what happens to a child star who’s never allowed to grow up, as well as an almost Shakespearian descent into madness. You can probably thank this film for telling the public that ‘hey, old broads can still do stuff too’ – even if it is going batshit crazy over the course of ninety minutes.
What ever happened to the grades, you say?
*Story? A brilliant piece of gothic horror, managing to be creepy, disgusting, harrowing, occasionally funny and actually pretty tragic all in one. A+
*Characters? Jane is a tremendous villain. Viewers are still divided on just how much sympathy she deserves. She is what she is as a result of what other people have done to her, but she still spends a lot of time terrorising her sister out of jealousy. A
*Performances? Bette Davis clearly had a lot of affection and enthusiasm for the film, and she effectively becomes Baby Jane Hudson. Her descent into madness is done brilliantly, and she keeps reminding us what a tragic monster she really is. As for the other star, this is a film where Joan Crawford actually does some really good acting. It’s probably her second-best performance after Mildred Pierce. A
*Visuals? According to Bette Davis’s autobiography, the film was going to be shot in colour. She however really pushed for it to be in black and white. They absolutely made the right choice. The black and white film lends itself to some brilliantly framed shots, helped by the elegant set that is the Hudson house. Jane’s make-up is another sight to behold. A+
*Special Effects? Rather than showing too much like Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, Aldrich kept it what you didn’t see to terrify you. Also notice subtle things like Jane’s make-up changing depending on how much we’re meant to sympathise with her in each scene. B
*Anything Else? N/A
I hope y’all brought your books and pencil cases, because we’re attending the School of Rock next.