Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) –A Classic
This legendary thriller marked its sixtieth anniversary last year. Yet so many young viewers have yet to witness this masterpiece of film-making: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. This Robert Aldrich-produced film stands the test of time.
An unforgettable descent into chaotic madness is exquisitely dramatized in true Alfred Hitchcock fashion. (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was released only two years after “Psycho”, another masterpiece of psychic horror.) Child star ‘Baby Jane’ Hansen (Bette Davis), supports her family by playing a sweet innocent singer on a Vaudevillian stage, while behind the scenes she is a spoiled, mean-spirited child. Her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) resents the attention Baby Jane receives and years later as Hansen’s career is on the decline, Blanche becomes a movie star. The rivalry between the two–primarily on the part of Baby Jane– intensifies. After a mysterious car accident renders Blanche a paraplegic with only Baby Jane to care for her, the terror of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane ratchets into horror.
Set primarily in a dilapidated, once-grand mansion shared by the sisters, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane descends into a maelstrom of madness as Baby Jane (Davis) torments her paraplegic sister Blanche (Crawford), who is wheelchair-bound, confined to a room upstairs. Complicating the sibling relationship is Baby Jane’s alcoholism and unhinged state of mind, no longer able to grasp reality.
Baby Jane is sadistic, pathetically comic, and tragic all at once. Blanche, on the other hand, enables her sister’s cruelty and codependence but why? While the sisters hate each other, they also understand each other in a way that is fundamentally unacceptable, a rabbit hole of evil and destruction. No one should know all of another’s secrets. In Baby Jane’s’ final blood-curdling lament, “You mean, we could have been friends all this time?” the failure to see what could have been says it all. How close to the bone the truth is.
Lovers of classic cinema will be instantly drawn to this film but it has a theme that deals more with human relationships than with violence or gore. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane maintains the chilling cruelty and psychological horrors of madness and refusal to acknowledge aging and frailty, but it is also a lesson about what opportunities are lost, what friendship could have occurred.
Neither of the performances would work without the other as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford complement each other in a riveting, excruciating and manic pas-de-deux. Each acting legend displays her formidable skills with precision and muscular energy that promise to raise the viewer’s metabolism.
This Grand Guignol of 1960’s cinema stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Alfred Hitchcock classics “Psycho”, “Gaslight”, and “Rear Window”, and is not to be missed. Highly recommend.
Availability: Netflix DVD
Note: While the deep animosity between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is well-known (with a Ryan Murphy 2017 television drama, “Feud’, based on their mutual hatred for each other), less well-known is the fact that the highly physical nature of many scenes was due to the two actors’ own stunts. In one exceptionally violent scene, Bette Davis actually kicks Joan Crawford in the head, resulting in stitches for Crawford.