To understand clearly the chemistry of Baby Jane, it is necessary first to delve into the deep and rather enduring riff between its two stars: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. One cannot be certain exactly what is was that made the two detest each other so voraciously. Some would argue that it was Crawford’s excessive gift-giving that drove Davis up the wall (it is said that upon arriving at Warner, Crawford literally showered her new colleague with flowers and chocolates); others are truly certain that Joan made a pass at a horrified Bette; still others believe that they simply didn’t hit it off.
Whatever the origins of this ongoing tension however, by 1962, every average Jolene of the moviegoing public knew about it. And so when Aldrich was faced with a pitiful budget and no real studio backing to speak of, he did something totally inspired: he cast Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as his two demented bitches.
Actually, calling this decision merely inspired is almost an understatement. Just imagine the scene —you sitting in a darkened theatre in ’62, facing the thrilling prospect of seeing not only two icons (who famously loathed each other), but two personas which you have seen grow over a period of 30 years, and grown also to love yourself. When we watch the old movies of “Blanche” and “Jane”, (whose dreadful films, incidentally, were never released in the US) it simply works. Just as one needed a Gloria Swanson to play the supreme silent queen, so too does one require the pair of Crawford and Davis to pull off such a tale of classic Hollywoodian proportions.
In fact, the two movies of Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane are often mentioned in sympathy. One terrific fellow even went so far as to dub Baby Jane as the tacky daughter of Sunset Boulevard, which I think is just bizarrely spot-on. On a purely superficial level, they are indeed very similar: both feature a big ol’ mansion of the most Hollywood persuasion, and both revolve around an aged and forgotten star, slowly losing her touch with reality. Clear distinctions however, can be made between the two. Whilst the Wilder masterpiece has about it self-aware, sardonic wit, Baby Jane throws itself into its garish implausibility with an utterly endearing abandon. It takes its delicious hamminess completely in its stride, and arguably emerges all the stronger.
Take, for example, the scene in which Jane orders (and I quote) “some” liquor over the telephone. After being refused —apparently according to the wishes of her sister— Jane does a dead-on impression of Joan Crawford (even the wide eyes and the saccharine smile à la Joan are employed) and subsequently orders “six bottles of scotch and three bottles of gin”. Throughout the rest of the film, we constantly see Jane glugging away from a glass the size of a tankard. Such a brazen mix of deception and alcoholism surely is not of the everyday.
Yet, one cannot dismiss Baby Jane as simply over-the-top (over the years, I have heard “camp horror” tossed around a lot with regard to this film). While I can concede that it does have moments of thrilling tension and, to a certain extent, an outer core of theatricality, I am almost tempted to say that it is fundamentally neither of these things. As we watch the story of these two sisters unfold, the humorously frightful tone derived from the supposed “campiness” (e.g. Jane Hudson prancing around in her wig of audacious blonde ringlets) seems almost to dissolve right before our eyes, to be replaced ultimately with one of emotive tragedy.
At its heart, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a tragedy of two women. The more obvious one is that of the titular Jane Hudson, utterly fixated with her long-gone days of fame and absolute adoration. Davis also subtly conveys the enormous guilt the character carries with her, and the wretched remorse Jane feels for what she did so many years ago. Then there is Crawford’s Blanche, the woman who simply cannot rid herself of the overwhelming feelings of hate she harbours for her sister. Blanche, we come to realise, also feels a defeating regret for her actions; when she finally confesses her secret to Jane, the response of her sister is pathetically innocent, like that of a child’s.
You mean all this time we could have been friends?
By this time, the Jane’s character has indeed regressed to that of a child. She dances on the beach as she once danced on the stage as a young girl. The camera pans rapidly across the people that watch her, mirroring Jane’s physical twirls on the shore, but also her mental instability —her mind as it spins ever-quickly out of control. Eventually, a crowd forms a circle around the distrait “Baby Jane”. The image is a powerful one: we see Jane pictorially receiving the attention she has been coveting for all these years, but we feel an unsettling entrapment of ridicule, which Jane blindly misconstrues as admiration. All the while, a chirpy little tune plays, heightening the sense of irony.