Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
November 29, 2019 | by Shannon
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is really a film you just have to see! Not only is the film credited with founding the “psycho-biddy” or “hag horror” subgenre—though I would say it falls closer to thriller than horror—Whatever Happened to Baby Jane paired Bette Davis with her career-long arch nemesis, Joan Crawford!!!! For the first time ever, audiences were…treated, if you will, to seeing this infamous feud played out on the big screen!
If you missed the film when it played on TCM on Tuesday, it’s still available on tcm.com through Monday. You can also purchase or rent the film here on Amazon [aff. link].
The film starts in a flashback to 1917: Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) is a child star of the Shirley Temple fashion—blonde ringlets, singing and dancing her way into the hearts of her audience. The apple of her father’s eye, the very spoiled and bratty Baby Jane not only overshadows her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), she also treats her horribly. And their father follows suit. But Mother Hudson tells Blanche:
“You’re the lucky one Blanche, really you are. Someday it’s going to be you that’s getting all the attention. And when that happens, I want you to try to be kinder to Jane and your father than they are to you now. Do you know what I mean? I hope you’ll try to remember that.”
“Uh huh. I won’t forget. You bet I won’t forget!!!!!!!”
Young Blanche bitterly responds. And boy, she really doesn’t forget…
Blanche Becomes a Star
Flash forward to 1935, and both Jane and Blanche are Hollywood movie stars. Or rather, Jane is trying to be a star, but her childhood talent and beauty faded in adulthood, whereas Blanche really blossomed as an adult in both of these areas. In fact, Blanche is a mega star, and the only reason Jane gets any film roles whatsoever is because Blanche is her sister.
Really cool side note: at this point in the film, director Robert Aldrich actually used footage from old Bette Davis and Joan Crawford films, as if it were footage from films the fictional Hudson sisters made. Pretty neat!
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Ok, so young adult Jane is really bitter and jealous of Blanche. And she still doesn’t treat Blanche very well. One night after a party where Jane spends the whole evening imitating Blanche and making fun of her, the Hudson sisters drive home together, and Blanche ends up crippled, her limp body found sandwiched between her car and the grand iron gate in front of her mansion. Jane is found three days later in a drunken stupor in a hotel room…
Can you guess what conclusions are made? What rumors spread?!!!!!
Yep, it seems obvious that Jane, out of jealousy, rammed the car into Blanche, and is responsible for crippling her sister. As a result of the accident, Blanche must remain in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
The Hudson Sisters in Middle Age
Flash forward to the film’s present day of 1962. The Hudson sisters are living together in middle age, regarded as the eccentrics of the neighborhood. Though Blanche is pretty normal, she’s stuck in her bedroom all day long, unable to even go downstairs in her wheelchair because there is no elevator. Jane is her only contact with the outside world, besides Elvira (Maidie Norman), a maid who comes a few times a week.
Not only does Jane bring Blanche her meals, Jane also cashes all the checks the two women live on from Blanche’s investments. Jane also takes all the phone calls, steals and reads Blanche’s mail, drinks like a fish, wears crazy Victorian-little-girl outfits, and cakes on the make-up.
If this description didn’t tip you off, I’ll tell you straight out:
Jane Hudson has lost her mind.
In her head, she’s still Baby Jane Hudson, the world’s darling child entertainer. And when she finds out that Blanche plans to sell the house and put Jane in a home, Jane goes from merely treating her sister like a dog to actively trying to kill her.
Jane's Demented Plan
Jane begins by starving her sister. If you saw the non-edible dinners Jane begins serving Blanche, you’d understand why Blanche stops eating…I’ll give you a hint at one of the items Jane serves her sister:
“Oh Blanche, you know we got rats in the cellar?”
Jane says after bringing Blanche her dinner.
“You wouldn’t be able to do all these awful things to me if I weren’t still in this chair!”
Blanche says at one point during Jane’s cruelty. To which Jane responds:
“But you are Blanche, you ARE in the chair!”
Jane Goes Off the Deep End
Jane beats Blanche almost senseless when she catches Blanche trying to call a doctor to take Jane away. And Jane feels she has no other choice but to kill Elvira with a hammer she finds lying around when Elvira discovers that Jane tied and gagged Blanche in her bedroom.
When Elvira’s body turns up a few days after Jane dumps it, Jane decides the only thing left for her to do now is take Blanche down to the beach. Blanche is incredibly weak from starving to death, so she can’t really put up a fight…
While basically just waiting to die on the beach, Blanche finally comes clean with her sister about what happened the night Blanche was crippled:
“You weren’t driving that night. I made you waste your whole life, thinking you’d crippled me. You didn’t do it, Jane. I did it myself. Don’t you understand? I crippled myself…I made you open the gates. I watched you get out of the car—you’d been so cruel to me at the party…I watched you get out of the car, I wanted to run you down, crush you, but you saw the car coming. I hit the gate. I snapped my spine.”
Jane, who’s completely lost her mind, responds simply:
“Then you mean…all this time we could have been friends?”
After this revelation, a crowd gathers around Jane as she dances in the sand with two strawberry ice cream cones for her and Blanche to enjoy. The police, who have been looking for Jane since Elvira’s body was found, spot the scene, and close in on Jane as they discover Blanche’s probably dead body. And that’s THE END!
Bette and Joan: The Best Feud Forever
If you read my intro post on Bette, then you already know how the Bette/Joan feud began. In a nutshell, these two strong personalities were incredibly similar, though their gifts and talents were very different. Bette envied Joan’s beauty, and Joan envied Bette’s talent. The feud officially started when Bette began an affair with Joan’s fiancée, Franchot Tone, while Bette and Tone filmed Dangerous (1935). From that point, the feud was on!
Bette Signs on for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
By the early 1960s, both Bette and Joan were experiencing career slumps. They were also both in financial trouble. When Joan’s husband Alfred Steele, CEO of Pepsi Cola, died, Joan inherited all his debt. And Bette was broke and unpopular after proving incredibly difficult and unreliable as Maxine in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana on Broadway.
Newbie Director Robert Aldrich didn’t have much trouble signing Joan on as Blanche in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but he guessed that signing Bette would be another story, especially if she knew that Joan Crawford would be her costar. In fact, Joan had apparently already approached Bette with the idea of costarring with her in Baby Jane? some months before. Bette’s response?
“If she thinks I’m going to play that stupid b — — — — in the wheelchair, she’s got another thing coming!”
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: An Offer Better Couldn't Refuse
So Aldrich had his assistant, Walter Blake, make Bette an offer she couldn’t refuse: a check for $25,000 up front, just for signing on to make the film. Bette read the script, loved it, and asked Blake who her costar would be. Blake lied, and said they didn’t yet know:
“I couldn’t tell her it was Crawford because they were enemies. I had to get her signature on that check and then tell her, when she couldn’t back out.”
Sly!!!!!!! But it worked. Bette took the check, cashed it, and two days later found none other than Joan Crawford sitting next to director Robert Aldrich on set.
“You’ve got to be kidding. I won’t work with her!”
To which Blake answered,
“Well, Bette, you’ve got to. We just paid you $25,000.”
Bette knew he was right, and admitted defeat. She would star alongside Crawford, and as Margo Channing would say, it would be a bumpy film set!
Whatever Happened to BabyJane: Glamour vs. Grotesque
A huge point of contention between Bette and Joan on the set was their differing opinions of how the sisters Jane and Blanche Hudson should look.
Bette was never one to shy away from de-glamorizing herself for a role. In fact, it seemed at times like she enjoyed it.
For her role of Jane Hudson, Bette envisioned a woman who, in Bette’s words,
“I felt Jane never washed her face, just added another layer of make up each day.”
Bette also said that
“What I had in mind, no professional make up man would have dared put on me.”
So Bette was in charge of her own make-up for the film, and created Jane’s grotesque look all on her own. Though some doubted her instincts initially, as filming progressed it was hard to argue with the look Bette created for Jane Hudson: Jane’s garish appearance was absolutely perfect!
Joan Crawford on the other hand, wouldn’t be caught dead looking anything but glamorous. To Bette’s major annoyance, Joan insisted on making Blanche a beautiful crippled recluse. Bette was quite vocal about her annoyance, and said:
“Miss Crawford was a fool. A good actress looks the part. Why she insisted on making Blanche look glamorous, I just don’t know…Blanch was a cripple! She was a recluse. She never left the house or saw anybody, yet Miss Crawford made her appear as if she lived in Elizabeth Arden’s beauty salon.”
Joan shot back with her own criticism of Bette’s over-the-top-grotesque get up for Jane:
“My reasons [for making Blanche glamorous] were just as valid as hers, with all those layers of rice powder she wore and that ghastly lipstick. But Miss Davis was always partial to covering up her face in motion pictures. She called it ‘art.’ Others might call it camouflage—a cover up for the absence of beauty.”
Oh no she didn’t!!!! What a sass-mouth, that Joan!
Physical Punishment on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
Not only did Bette and Joan play these mental games with each other, they also found ways to physically abuse each other while filming!
The scene in the film where Jane kicks the crippled Blanche almost senseless on the floor was Bette’s golden opportunity to take her aggression towards Joan out on Joan. The scene was rehearsed and shot with Bette kicking a dummy, but for the close-ups of Joan, they obviously needed to have Joan there on the floor taking the beating. Bette was supposed to just pretend to kick Joan, but OOPS!!!! She ended up actually kicking her a few times. Bette always insisted that
“I barely touched her!”
But somehow gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was led to believe, and write in her column, that Bette’s…accidental…kick to Joan
“Raised a fair lump on Joan’s head.”
But it wasn’t just Bette who dished the physical punishment. Joan had her opportunity to make Bette suffer during the scene where Jane pulls the crippled Blanche from her bed and down the hall. Joan decided this would be a good day to wear a lead-lined weight lifting belt to the set. And she did! Apparently when the scene finished filming, Bette screamed bloody murder because her back was in so much pain.
The Hollywood Hills in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
I don’t know if you could exactly call this one physical punishment, but there was one more thing Joan did that physically got in Bette’s way. It was rumored that Joan had three different sizes of falsies she liked to wear. A different bust size for all occasions, how nice! This proved problematic for Bette in the final scenes of Baby Jane?, where Blanche is laying on her back in the sand, and Jane is hovering above her. Bette complained that
“You never know what size boobs that broad has strapped on! She must have a different set for each day of the week!…She’s supposed to be shriveling away while Baby Jane starves her to death, but her chest keeps growing! I keep running into them like the Hollywood Hills!”
Haha! Doesn’t Bette Davis seem like she would have been a riot to hang out with??? To me, she must have been that somewhat mean friend who is constantly saying hilarious things, so you basically excuse how rude she can be at times.
Well, in many ways Joan Crawford did get the last word on the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? drama. Though Bette was paid more up front for the picture—Joan was paid $30,000 up front, while Bette received $60,000—Joan negotiated for 15 percent of the film’s profits, while Bette was in for only 10 percent of the Baby Jane? worldwide gross profits. When the film premiered, and made back its production cost in a mere 11 days, Bette could tell she’d made a mistake by not negotiating for a deal like Crawford’s. In the end, Joan made over $1 million off of Baby Jane?, compared to Bette’s $600,000, a fact that annoyed Bette for the rest of her life.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane Oscar Drama!
If you read my intro post on Bette, then you also know that Joan further teased Bette at the 1963 Academy Awards. Bette was nominated for her work in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, while Crawford was overlooked. A disgruntled Joan called the other Best Actress nominees, and offered to accept the award on their behalf should any of them win and not be able to attend the awards. When Anne Bancroft, not Bette, won the Oscar that year, Joan happily glided by Bette to accept the award for Bancroft, and took advantage of every photo opportunity to pose with the other winners that year, while Bette lamented the loss of an Oscar she felt she rightly deserved.
Oh well. At least Bette had the chance to call Joan an “old broad” in public while promoting Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, explaining that
“Everybody in Hollywood told him [director Robert Aldrich] not to make a picture with two old broads!”
She received a telegram from Joan the next day stating
“Please do not refer to me in that manner in the future.”
Bette sure knew how to get Joan’s goat, and Joan sure knew how to get Bette’s!
Despite the resounding success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the attempt of a follow up pairing in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) (Davis and Crawford actually both started filming Charlotte, but it was just too much, and Crawford was replaced with Olivia de Havilland, a female costar Bette actually got along with!), there would never be another onscreen pairing of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
And despite the infamous feud and nearly life-long cat fight, Bette did have some really nice words to say about Joan Crawford:
“Whatever I say about Miss Crawford, she’s a star…and she’s one of the few left. No question about it.”
Bette Davis: A True Star
There’s no denying that Bette Davis is also a star, and her legend, unique persona, and fascinating film portrayals continue to impress today: if a Bette Davis film is dated, Bette Davis is not, her performances are timeless.
And with that, we wrap up our month celebrating Bette! I must say, with Bette’s fascinating life and work, I’m not quite ready to move on.
Luckily our star for December is one to get excited about as well! Stay tuned for next week when we begin a month celebrating the sweet, hilarious, multi-talented, adorable, terribly underrated, and incredibly loveable Joan Blondell!