They don’t make ‘em like they used to.
An oft-used cliche, especially when it comes to classic film, but one that applies in so many ways to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Robert Aldrich’s much-loved, cult classic. So much of Baby Jane is a product of its time, from the well-developed roles for older actress to the female-dominated cast and the well publicised spat between the two leading ladies, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It’s impossible to imagine a film like this being made today: two ‘older’ actress, one who clearly isn’t looking her best, embroiled in a battle of psychological wills that doesn’t stem from a love triangle or a broken relationship.
The movie is centered around these two divas, playing sisters who were once movie stars. Davis is Baby Jane Hudson, a successful child vaudeville star who failed to make the transition to adult roles; Crawford is Blanche Hudson, the fading screen goddess whose career was cut short in an automobile accident caused by none other than the not-so-innocent Baby Jane. Wheelchair-bound Blanche is confined to the top floor of the mansion the two sisters share, and is forced to rely on Jane for everything. Jane is an alcoholic, who mentally abuses her sister with canary-in-the-dinner and telephone-off-the-hook pranks.
Shot in black and white, the film is oddly claustrophobic, and most of the scenes are contained in the mansion. As Roger Ebert observes, the staircase deserves billing too: it dominates many shots, separating the Blanche’s upstairs world from the downstairs lair of Jane. Although Baby Jane was released in 1962, it feels like a faded washed-up rendering of 1930s Hollywood, surely not a coincidence when considering the stars involved. Cinematographer Ernest Haller had worked with both Davis and Crawford before (Jezebel and Mildred Pierce respectively), but for Baby Jane he was forced to employ some new tactics. To emphasise Blanche’s ‘goodness’, she’s mostly shot in the kind of soft, flattering light that was popular during the Hollywood era. In contrast, Baby Jane is presented in harsher, almost Expressionist lighting, shot through with chiaroscuro compositions. By distorting her features and highlighting her less-than-ideal figure, Davis becomes almost unrecognisable.
Despite Aldrich and Haller’s best attempts (or perhaps, because of them) it’s the lead actress who steal the role. In fact, they are the integral component and it’s their presence that stops the film from becoming too camp, their performances that bring it back to drama. The casting was no coincidence. Aldrich, who also directed The Dirty Dozen and Flight of the Phoenix, knew what he was doing when he put the two divas head to head; in fact it’s a wonder they agreed to appear together at all. The two actress shared a life-long feud and the production of Baby Jane is surrounded by tales of infighting that have become Hollywood urban legend.
According to interview with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, it was Joan Crawford who presented the idea to Davis: “when I came across ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,’ I sent it to Bob Aldrich and told him it was for Bette and me.” Financing the project was problematic, as both stars were considered to be past their prime, but Seven Arts (an independent production company owned by Englishman Elliot Hyman) came to the rescue. The budget was small, and so filming went ahead in black and white. Davis wasn’t bother though, apparently claiming that “color would have made it too pretty. Tragedy should never look pretty.”
The project might have been Crawford’s idea, but it was Davis who embraced the role, forgoing ‘beauty’ in favour of garish, pancake make-up, pantomime lipstick and dishevelled hair. Appearance was one of the sticking point between the two actress; Crawford didn’t seem to share Davis’ unkempt ideas, preferring to retain some of her glamour. Whilst this suits her character, and underlines the differences between the sisters, its somewhat unrealistic. A housebound invalid would surely never be that groomed after twenty years confined to one floor. It’s difficult to imagine how much Davis’ appearance shocked moviegoers, who were – even in the 1960s – used to nothing short of perfection. One particular scene, where the adult Baby Jane practises one of her childhood songs, is shot with a harsh overhead light, made Davis look particularly haggard, but the actress seemed to delight in the flaws: “I covered my face with my hands. [Aldrich] had wanted a loud scream, but what came out was a hoarse cry – I’d been having laryngitis. It was right and we both knew it. [Aldrich] had tears in his eyes. ‘You just won yourself an Oscar’.”
What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? is, undoubtedly, a great film, but that’s not because of the story it tells or the morals it conveys, although they’re not bad. It’s great because it says so much – then, and now – about beauty and vanity, how we perceive and what we expect from movie stars. Crawford and Davis are both silver screen legends, but the latter’s ability to throw herself into the role, to be consumed by a character that looked (and acted) out of the ‘Hollywood’ norm and to disregard, and not be bothered by, conventional beauty codes speaks volumes. Her appearance might have shocked the audience, but after the credits roll it’s her character, and her face, that define Baby Jane. Maybe there isn’t scope for contemporary actresses to play roles like this anymore, but if there were, I have to wonder if they’d be able to.