Few films blur the line between "cult classic" and "canonical masterpiece" as thoroughly as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Now the subject of FX's Feud, the upcoming series from TV's reigning master of camp, Ryan Murphy, it is the rare genuinely great film that has also become a textbook example of Hollywood schlock.
Set largely in a dim, crumbling Los Angeles mansion, Baby Jane cast aging 1930s icons—and rumored enemies—Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as a pair of formerly famous sisters who are now consigned to obscurity. Davis's Baby Jane Hudson was a World War I–era child vaudeville star hiding a monstrous temper behind a mop of golden curls and a repertoire of soppy musical odes to her "daddy." But it was Blanche Hudson, played by Crawford, who turned out to be the truly talented sibling. Once Hollywood's most in-demand leading lady, she was hit by a car at the height of her mid 30s fame, presumably with a jealous Jane at the wheel. Twenty-five years later, Blanche is paraplegic, and her caretaker sister has become sadistic and delusional, wearing lacy little-girl frocks and plotting an absurd comeback.
Thanks in large part to a marketing campaign that played up the hostility between its stars, the film was a box-office hit. But critics were split. The New York Times's Bosley Crowther wrote that "Joan Crawford and Bette Davis make a couple of formidable freaks in the new Robert Aldrich melodrama" before lamenting that Baby Jane "does not afford either opportunity to do more than wear grotesque costumes, make up to look like witches and chew the scenery to shreds." Others realized they were watching a horror movie, not a melodrama, despite the largely female cast, and praised Baby Jane and its performers accordingly. Of Davis, who would earn a Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing the demented Jane, a TIME reviewer wrote, "In what may well be the year's scariest, funniest, and most sophisticated chiller, she gives a performance that cannot be called great acting but is certainly grand guignol." Variety praised her co-star's more naturalistic work: "Crawford gives a quiet, remarkably fine interpretation of the crippled Blanche, held in emotionally by the nature and temperament of the role. Physically confined to a wheelchair and bed through the picture, she has to act from the inside and has her best scenes (because she wisely underplays with Davis) with a maid and those she plays alone."
Since then, Baby Jane has become a pop-culture inside joke, its title shorthand for "deranged showbiz crone." And now that generations of cinephilic comedians and camp enthusiasts have honed in on the film's most ridiculous moments (please enjoy this standout parody from French & Saunders), it has become too easy to write off its effectiveness as a psychological thriller.
Although it was billed as a face-off between feuding grand dames, Baby Jane is most mesmerizing in the many scenes where either of its stars appears alone. Variety's critic was right to single out Crawford's solo scenes. At one point, struggling to pull her body along the bannister in a desperate effort to reach the phone at the bottom of the stairs, her face strains so hard you can feel it. Served a dead rat, she delivers one of the greatest freakouts in horror history, spinning her wheelchair around and around in a state of pure panic. Crawford is even riveting when reduced to a pair of terrified eyes, as in a scene where Jane has bound Blanche in her bed and taped her mouth.
When Blanche and Jane are together, Davis makes a world-class monster, taunting her sister with creepy baby talk and the occasional slap. That on-screen violence has become legendary, even if a rumor that Davis kicked Crawford so hard while filming one scene that she needed stitches is probably apocryphal. (In an episode of her essential Hollywood history podcast, You Must Remember This, on Baby Jane, Karina Longworth notes that she found no evidence the co-stars started locking horns until after the film wrapped.)
But Davis, too, is most impressive in the solitary moments when Jane allows herself to regress back into her Baby Jane persona, reliving a heyday that passed before she even hit puberty. The word "daddy," central to her schmaltzy hit "I've Written a Letter to Daddy," becomes curdled cream in her mouth. Gazing at an ancient Baby Jane doll, which retains the youthful perfection the real Jane has long since lost, her expression registers tenderness and nostalgia and envy at once. And Jane's impersonation of Blanche, over the phone, is eerie.
These performances are not subtle, but they are captivating and convincing—not to mention far easier to mock than they would be to replicate. At 133 minutes, Baby Jane is a relatively long movie composed mostly of solo and two-hander scenes set in a family home. The plot is slight, and the script, adapted from Henry Farrell's novel of the same name, is unremarkable. Outside of the first 15 minutes and the last 15 minutes, very little actually happens. It's almost entirely up to Crawford and Davis to hold viewers' attention and build suspense, as we bite our nails over Blanche's fate and dread Jane's every move. We know they succeed because the time passes so quickly; we can't take our eyes off either actress.
That Baby Jane is so often treated as pure camp while films with just as many goofy elements—like Hitchcock's Psycho—end up on lists of the all-time greatest horror flicks probably comes down to sexism. The same public thirst for catfights that fueled initial enthusiasm for the movie has sealed its legacy as the cinematic record of a feud between two washed-up bitches with oversize egos. Even in a four-star appreciation of Baby Jane, from 2008, Roger Ebert couldn't help but revel in the spectacle of Crawford and Davis supposedly debasing themselves—rather than just, you know, playing strange and challenging roles. "The film functions among other things as a demonstration of the need both women had to appear before the camera," he writes (happy to discount both their fascinating characters and the fact that they badly needed the money because no one was writing substantial roles for women over 50), then twists the knife by hooting about Crawford's awful final film, Trog.
It's true that Baby Jane is not the kind of movie either star would have made in her all-too-short prime—but neither is it a record of how low Davis or Crawford could sink. In using their considerable talents to elevate a mediocre script, they shamed Hollywood, for so quickly discarding its greatest actresses, not themselves.
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