There are some films that I find myself disappointed in never watching – it is important to look at where many of today’s films originate from, and watch films that have a legacy as being classics of their genres and of cinema in general. One such film I am shocked I only watched very recently is What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, not only because it is a seminal classic of Hollywood filmmaking, but also because it is an utterly delightful and thoroughly entertaining thriller that I adored every minute of, and I truly believe that it is one of the greatest horror films ever made, far better than the majority of horror films made today.
For anyone who doesn’t know what this film is about, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is about two sisters approaching middle age, and way past their prime. The titular character of Baby Jane (Bette Davis) is a faded former vaudeville child star, and Blanche (Joan Crawford) is a former Hollywood starlet who had her career brought to an abrupt end after a car accident rendered her crippled. The Hudson sisters now live in a decaying mansion, where Blanche depends on her alcoholic and psychopathic sister to care for her – and Baby Jane adores terrorizing her sister, especially when it comes out that Blanche wants to sell their home and send Baby Jane off to a mental hospital, where they can treat her and take care of her. Baby Jane does not like this idea, and her true mental instability comes out in her brutal attacks against her sister, and the terror reigns as Blanche is unable to do anything as her psychopath of a sister goes to any extreme to ensure that she and Blanche are not going anywhere.
Here is what makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? so iconic – it is beyond entertaining. It is filled with delicious black comedy, incredibly artificial camp and a sense of satire that doesn’t usually exist in horror films. It is a simple film – it is about two old women despising each other, with one of them an utter psycho – there is very little other than the fact that what made What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? such a memorable film was the fact that it was so simple in its execution, and managed to craft a truly terrifying horror film out of nearly nothing – small moments (a rat being served for lunch, people being thrown down staircases etc.), and without the cliches that make modern horror films so terrifying, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? relies on its stars’ brilliant performances to keep it terrifying.
Honestly, it may not be a scary film by today’s standards, but it has an undeniable atmosphere of creepiness not seen very often. The scene of Bette Davis singing “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” will forever be burned into my brain as a truly disturbing moment, and who could think that this film’s shocking and thrilling and utterly terrifying climax would take place in broad daylight, on a beach, as Baby Jane joyfully dances around? It may not give you a fright, but it will disturb you, and that is why What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a triumph, as it succeeded in achieving the atmosphere it was aiming for.
The only thing more delightful than the rivalry between the two main characters was the knowledge of the real-life rivalry between the stars. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had a well-established feud, and I truly believe part of what made What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? so brilliant was that these two weren’t playing characters – they genuinely despised the other. There is no doubt in my mind that Bette Davis gained immense pleasure from torturing Joan Crawford. Knowing the bitter hatred between the two only amplifies the enjoyment of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and even though they were both extraordinarily talented actresses, I wouldn’t be surprised if the bulk of their inspiration for their performances was simply them living out the sadistic and cruel fantasies that they wished upon the other. Hopefully, we will be able to see this feud played out even more in the biographical television series based on Crawford and Davis and their legendary feud, and how the filming of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was troubled (I just know I’m going to watch the hell out of that show, no doubt about it).
Davis and Crawford were both so iconic – yet they gave perhaps their most iconic performances here. Perhaps it wasn’t them at their most nuanced and graceful (considering this is the same dignified Bette Davis that was in Now, Voyager and Jezebel), but it was them at their most interesting. Davis in particular goes all-out in her performance as the titular character, creating one of the most despicable and evil villains in cinema history. Cruel, malicious and utterly terrifying, it will be a while before I forget Davis’ performance here. Her face smeared in that white makeup, her hair in those schoolgirl curls – it is something beyond terrifying, and I just can’t get her performance out of my head. It stands as one of cinema’s greatest creations, and if Davis is an icon, it is just as much for this performance as it is for her entire career. All About Eve may have given Davis a great showcase of nuance, but What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? gives her the opportunity to really go all the way, and if I didn’t love Davis enough before, I truly do now.
When you have a performance like Davis that literally takes up the whole screen with its artificiality, it is easy to forget that Joan Crawford also gives a tremendous performance here. While it isn’t loud and showy, it a lot more subtle but no less effective. Her performance as Blanche is a lot more nuanced and dignified, and even though it may have been easy to go over the top, she plays the role with quiet restraint and a lot of complex internalization. She is the opposite of Davis in this film, but not any less effective, and the two of them make a spectacular acting team – and the fact that their brilliant chemistry came out of outright hatred for each other just makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? that little bit more brilliant. One can’t forget Victor Buono, who is a tremendous scene-stealer in this film.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is an iconic film. I am disappointed that I waited this long to watch it, but now that I have, I think I’ve found one of the more delightful classic horror films – terrifying beyond belief, creepy and often hilarious, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a truly wonderful cinematic experience and I am not surprised that this has become a cult classic. It is already becoming a solid favourite of mine, and I can’t wait to experience it again. It is probably the most fun I’ve ever had while watching a film (other than the greatest film of all time, The Room). If you haven’t seen What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? you really are missing out on one of the most brilliant films ever made.