The Unenthusiastic Critic is an occasional series in which I convince my highly reluctant wife N. to finally watch movies that nearly every other person on the planet has already seen. (For a fuller explanation of this particular form of relationship suicide, read the introduction to the series here.) In this edition, we sit down for N.’s first viewing of Robert Aldrich’s macabre camp classic, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).
As always, these posts are completely spoiler-filled. So if (like my wife) you’ve never seen What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and if (unlike my wife), you want to, you should stop reading now.
It has been more than two years since The Unenthusiastic Critic—my long-suffering wife N.—has graced these pages with her singularly peculiar perspective on cinematic classics. This is, obviously, a shameless delay, for which we can but apologize. (The truth is, it’s harder than you might expect to persuade someone to watch movies they really, really don’t want to watch.)
But one of our—well, my—New Year’s Resolutions was to resurrect The Unenthusiastic Critic in 2017. And so I thought we’d ease back into it with relatively brief discussion of a film I thought my wife might actually enjoy.
What We Watched
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), directed by Robert Aldrich; written by Lukas Heller, based on the novel by Henry Harrell. Starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Anna Lee, and Maidie Norman. Viewed on Amazon Video.
Why We Watched It
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a movie that has lurked about on my tentative list for this series for several years. For one thing, it’s a film that has achieved a certain perverse status in the cultural zeitgeist, and is therefore likely to be occasionally referenced. (This, after all, was one of the original impetuses for The Unenthusiastic Critic: to make sure N. and I had a common vocabulary of movies about which we could make, and get, jokes.) And Baby Jane is one of the films I’ve considered watching during our sporadic Halloween Horror marathons over the years. However, though it has a certain unsettling grotesquerie, it’s not really a horror movie, and so it never seemed quite right.
Fortunately, our old pal/mortal enemy Ryan Murphy has now given us the perfect excuse to watch it. This weekend, Murphy is debuting his new anthology series Feud, and the first season will focus on the legendary battle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I don’t know how much of Feud N. and I will watch—his excellent O.J. series aside, we generally give up on Murphy’s sensationalistic schlock after just a few episodes—but the opportunity was too good to miss.
What My Wife Knew About It Going In
As usual, we warm up with a preliminary discussion before settling down to watch the film.
Me: So, here we are again. First of all, I want to acknowledge that it’s been two years since we’ve done this.
She: It doesn’t feel like it’s been two years.
Me: Our last one was An Affair to Remember, on Valentine’s Day, 2015.
She: Ugh. Fucking terrible movie.
Me: So, basically, you have not watched a worthwhile movie in two years. That was two years wasted.
She: I watched many worthwhile movies in the interceding two years. Good movies. Not the kind you pick.
Me: But we have now promised our readers—
She: You have promised your readers—
Me: —that we’re going to do this again on a monthly basis.
She: I never agreed to that. You didn’t clear that with me.
Me: So we’re going to have to do two or three next month to catch up.
She: Yeah, we’re probably not going to be doing that.
Me: So are you excited?
She: I am not. This is not a film I’ve ever felt any particular need to see.
Me: What do you know about this movie?
She: I don’t really know much about it. I know that it stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and is considered a “camp classic.” There was a lovely remake of it on the last season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Me: Oh, God, I’d forgotten about that. That might have been what put the idea to do it back in my head. It is, apparently, widely considered one of those movies you have to watch to get your gay card.
She: I don’t really need my gay card.
Me: I suppose, having seen the Drag Race version, you probably feel like you don’t even need to see the movie now.
She: I feel like I’ve got a firm grasp on it. Just like I didn’t need to see Star Wars, because I’d seen the Family Guy parodies, I feel pretty solid on my footing thanks to the ladies of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I could fake my way through any conversation about it.
Me: And what did you retain from that?
She: Umm..I think someone gets pushed down some stairs. I think Joan Crawford gets pushed down some stairs. And…that may be the only thing I know about it.
Me: You better hope you’re faking your way through a short conversation, then. But that’s probably a pretty good way to go into this movie. I will say, by way of introduction, that it’s a peculiar sub-genre of film that’s known as “Hag Horror” or “Psycho-Biddy.”
She: Those sound…extremely sexist and derogatory.
She: That’s not cool. Are there a lot of those films, that it requires a whole genre?
Me: You know…I’m actually not sure how many other Psycho-Biddy films I’ve seen myself. I guess Sunset Boulevard would count?
She: I’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard.
Me: You shouldn’t have told me that. It goes straight on the list. And I suspect another association you will make with this movie is Grey Gardens.
She: OK, that I get. That’s a reference I understand. “Of course, Mutha darling!”
Me: I have no idea what you’re doing.
She: “Mutha darling…mutha darling…” I’m doing Little Edie! In that weird, Kennedy-esque accent they had.
Me: It’s about as good as your Yoda impression. And disturbingly similar.
How It Went
Not bad at all, actually, but tainted by the uncomfortable feeling that we might have glimpsed the future of our marriage.
Unusually, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? opens with two long, pre-credits flashbacks. (It will be nearly 20 minutes before either of the two stars appears in the film.) First, we are in 1909, in the golden days of vaudeville, attending a packed performance by the one and only Baby Jane Hudson, “The Diminutive Dancing Duse from Duluth.” A (supposedly) adorable blonde girl in ringlets, Baby Jane is dancing her little heart out.
The crowd loves her. But my wife, predictably, is not impressed.
She: So she’s like a Shirley Temple kind of thing? Does she dance with a colored fella too at some point?
Me: I don’t remember, but it’s certainly possible.
She: She’s not that good. That was sloppy. I’ve seen people catch the Holy Ghost and dance better than that.
Jane’s showman father comes out and asks for requests from the audience, and a little boy—obviously a plant—stands up to request Jane’s signature song, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.” (The boy, by the way, is played by a kid named Steve Condit, instantly recognizable as little Walter Cunningham from To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout should have beaten him up again for requesting the terrible song that follows.)
Baby Jane launches into her finale, and N. is suitably horrified.
She: Oh, god, is there singing?
It’s an unbelievably treacly song about writing a letter to her dead father. (Since her father is obviously alive, and onstage with her, it’s doubly weird.)
I’ve written a letter to Daddy.
His address is Heaven above.
I’ve written “Dear Daddy, we miss you,
And wish you were with us to love.”
She: She’s not good! And mail doesn’t go to heaven!
Instead of a stamp, I put kisses.
The postman says that’s best to do.
She: That’s not how postage works!
I’ve written a letter to Daddy,
Saying “I love you.”
She: She’s terrible! Seriously, I’m not even being bitchy about it: she’s just not good. She can’t dance. She can’t sing. Her speaking voice is a problem. How is she famous?
Me: This is the shit people had to do for entertainment before there was television.
She: Stay home and churn butter or something! She’s awful. She sounds like a goat.
Me: She was basically the Michael Jackson of her era. The Little Stevie Wonder.
She: Just stop. She was neither of those things. It’s basically like if you just took the blindness from Stevie, and the Vitiligo from Michael, and added some deafness: that would be Baby Jane.
After the show, Jane’s father is hawking life-size dolls, each one “an exact replica of your own Baby Jane Hudson.”
She: Oh, that’s not creepy at all.
Me: They don’t actually look anything like her.
She: No. That’s kind of a good thing, though.
Outside the stage door, in front of a crowd of admirers, Jane has a temper tantrum and demands ice cream.
She: She needs an ass-whuppin.
My wife isn’t the only person unimpressed with Jane’s act: silently off to the side, Jane’s brunette sister Blanche has been watching this entire act with a stern look of hatred on her face. “You’re the lucky one, Blanche,” her mother tells her, unconvincingly. “Someday, it will be you getting all the attention. And when that happens, I want you to be kinder to Jane and Daddy than they are to you now.” Blanche—looking like a vengeful puritan harpy—ominously says “You bet I’ll remember!”
From here we flash forward to 1935, as a movie producer is screening dailies of a film starring the now-adult Jane Hudson. She is not particularly good—doing a terrible southern accent—and he does not react well to it, referring to her to another producer as a “no-talent hag.”
She: So…she never got any better.
Me: Apparently not. What’s funny about this, though, is that the footage has to be from an actual early Bette Davis movie. [Note: it’s from a 1933 picture called Parachute Jumper, which Davis considered the worst movie she ever made.]
But, in the course of this conversation, we realize that Blanche has become a big Hollywood star, and she has a clause in her contract saying that the studio has to make movies with her no-talent hag of a sister. The tables have turned, and Blanche now has all the power.
But not for long: in the final pre-credits scene, we see one of the sisters standing in a driveway, opening the gates to a mansion, while the other sister deliberately puts a car in gear and guns it straight at her. We hear a crash, and a scream, and we see the car smashed into the gates as a shattered Baby Jane Hudson doll lies strewn in the wreckage.
And now we flash forward to the present—1962—to see how the Hudson Sisters are living now. First we get some exposition from their neighbors, a mother (Anna Lee) and daughter (Barbara Merrill, Davis’s actual daughter), who are watching one of Blanche’s old films on television. (The footage is from the 1934 Joan Crawford film Sadie McKee). They discuss how Jane was supposedly responsible for the accident that crippled Blanche, and how Jane has—reportedly—become “a little peculiar.”
Next door, in the upstairs bedroom that is basically her entire world, Blanche Hudson (Crawford) is now a timid recluse in a wheelchair, watching the same old film on her television, reliving the memories of her glory years. Her sister Jane (Davis), sloppily drunk and gloriously bitter as she is throughout most of the film, wanders up to call her an idiot and turn the TV off.
Me: Supposedly, Bette Davis did her own makeup on this movie. She said no reputable makeup artist would have done what she wanted to do.
She: “I would like all the mascara, please.”
Me: She said she envisioned Jane as someone who never washed her face: she just put a new layer of makeup on over the old layer every morning.
She: Effect achieved.
Part of the fascination of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is seeing these two Hollywood legends completely shred their own glamorous images. They were once two of the biggest stars in the world, but their fortunes had been falling in recent years, and by the time they made Baby Jane Hollywood had more or less spat them out completely. Just twelve years earlier, Davis had been nominated for an Oscar for All About Eve—in which, appropriately, she played an aging actress being pushed out by a younger ingenue—but the years since had not been kind to her. (She was reduced to playing bit parts on television, doing three different episodes—as three different characters—on Wagon Train, for example.) Crawford, who had been a silent-screen star, was even further past her heyday. She had won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce in 1945—in a role that Bette Davis turned down—but that was a hard-fought comeback for a career that had already been floundering, and the revitalization of her career did not last long. When the two actresses were suggested for Baby Jane, studio mogul Jack Warner allegedly said, “I wouldn’t give a plugged nickel for either of those two old broads.” (Davis, is should be noted, was only 52, and Crawford was 56.)
The other fascination of Baby Jane, of course, is that the two actresses—long-time rivals—couldn’t stand each other. (Their mutual animosity was born from professional rivalry, but it was also personal: in the ’30s, Davis had been in love with her co-star Franchot Tone, but she said Crawford wooed him away and married him. “She took him from me,” Davis said in interviews, years later. “She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness.”)
How much of their legendary feud actually happened is a matter of speculation—reports vary widely about the behavior of the two great actresses on set, ranging from “completely professional” to “borderline homicidal”—but the fact of the mutual enmity seems well established, and definitely fueled the bitter tension of their scenes together.
The neighbor brings over some flowers, wanting to meet Blanche and tell her how much she and her daughter loved the movie they were watching. Jane rudely sends the woman away—telling her “my sister isn’t fit to receive visitors”—and throws the flowers away.
She: Something ain’t right. Call the cops!
And indeed, Jane’s troubling behavior has apparently been going on for some time. The Hudson Sisters’ canny housekeeper, Elvira (Maidie Norman), expresses her concerns about Jane to Blanche, and shows her a stack of Blanche’s fan letters that Jane had thrown straight in the garbage after covering them with profanity. Jane’s behavior has apparently grown worse recently, and Blanche and Elvira wonder if perhaps Jane had caught wind of Blanche’s plans to sell the house and put the increasingly erratic Jane in a home. Something, Elvira says, has to be done. “She’s sick, and she’s not getting any better.”
She: Listen to the black lady! Black lady always knows.
Me: Elvira ain’t havin’ none of Jane’s bullshit.
During this conversation, Jane appears to report that Blanche’s beloved parakeet has escaped while Jane was cleaning its cage. (“She did that on purpose,” Elvira says.) But Blanche—while recognizing there is a problem—sweetly defends her sister. “You didn’t know her when she was a child,” she tells Elvira.
She: She was a cunt then, too!
“She was so alive,” Blanche continues.
She: With hate! And no talent!
Meanwhile, Jane has discovered that she’s out of booze, and that Blanche has instructed the liquor store not to fill any more orders for her. Fortunately, it turns out that Jane does a spotless impersonation of her sister, and manages to phone the store and correct this injustice.
She: That’s the best acting Jane has done in her entire life.
Jane, as it turns out, has gone further round the bend than anyone realizes. Later, we find her grotesquely rehearsing her childhood act, and singing to the lifesize doll of Baby Jane.
Me: Her singing voice has improved.
She: No, it hasn’t, actually.
When she catches a glimpse of her ruined Miss Havisham visage in the mirror, she lets out an anguished cry and buries her face in her hands. At that moment, Blanche—who has overheard a little of this act—begins buzzing frantically from upstairs.
She: You’re buzzing for someone who is having a fucking nervous breakdown right now. That’s probably not a good idea.
And indeed, Jane loses her shit completely. “All right, Blanche,” she shrieks. “Miss Big Fat Movie Star! Miss Rotten, Stinking Actress! Press a button, ring a bell, and you think the whole, damn world comes running, don’t you? Lunch, Miss Hudson? Why, certainly, Miss Hudson. I’m sure we can find something appropriate for you, Miss Hudson.”
Jane brings her sister her lunch, ominously concealed under a silver platter. They have a brief discussion about money, in which Blanche gently breaks the news that they have to sell the house. But Jane reveals that—however crazy she may be—she understands exactly what’s happening, including the plans to put her in a doctor’s care. “Don’t you think I know everything that goes on in this house?” She removes the phone from Blanche’s bedroom, the first step in what will become an ongoing war to completely turn her sister into a prisoner.
She: She’s an observant drunk.
Me: “Crazy” don’t mean “stupid.”
After she leaves, Blanche goes to eat her lunch.
She: That ain’t right.
Me: No reason to waste good poultry.
She: But there isn’t even any meat on that bird!
Jane, meanwhile, it planning an outing.
She: Yes, more lipstick. That’s definitely what we need.
Jane has gone to the newspaper, to place a personal ad for an accompanist. While she’s gone, Blanche begins testing the security of her prison: from the upstairs landing she longingly eyes the downstairs telephone. (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has influenced a lot of films, but one of them, certainly, is Rob Reiner’s Misery, which I guess could be considered another entry in the “Psycho-Biddy” genre. I suspect Paul Sheldon’s tense struggles to navigate Annie Wilkes’ Victorian home, while crazy Annie is out running errands, owe a lot to Baby Jane.) Blanche thinks about it, but she doesn’t quite dare make her way down the stairs.
She: She didn’t try very hard.
Me: Well, those stairs are kind of steep.
She: I’m thinking that, at this point, it’s worth the risk. But it’s true that that house is not ADA accessible.
Me: They probably should have thought to put in an elevator at some point in the last thirty years.
She: Or a ramp. Something.
As Plan B, Blanche looks out the window, and sees the neighbor lady gardening. She tries to call out to her, in a feeble little voice that doesn’t carry.
Me: For fuck’s sake, Blanche, you’re supposed to be an actress: PROJECT.
Instead, she decides to type up a note. We see her frantically composing it, intercut with shots of Blanche returning from her errand.
She: I feel like this is taking her way longer than it should.
Me: Well, she probably went through several drafts.
She: How many drafts do you need for, “MY SISTER IS FUCKING CRAZY”?
Blanche finally hurls her crumpled S.O.S. out the window into the driveway, just in time for it to be spotted and picked up…by Jane. Jane goes upstairs to confront her sister—bringing her another ominous tray of food—and in the ensuing conversation more or less lets her mask of sanity slip completely. “Blanche, you’re not going to sell this house,” she says. “You never paid for this house. Baby Jane Hudson made the money that paid for this house. You aren’t ever gonna sell it, and you aren’t ever gonna leave it, either.”
“You wouldn’t be able to do these awful things to me if I weren’t in this chair,” Blanche simpers. “BUT YOU ARE, BLANCHE!” Jane bellows. “YOU ARE IN THAT CHAIR!”
After she leaves, Blanche—who by now is very hungry—tries to summon the courage to look at her next meal. She fails, too scared to lift the lid.
She: She’s a little bit of a wimp.
What this twisted gothic tale has been missing is a Gentleman Caller, and now the film introduces one in the form of Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), an unemployed pianist who lives with his unemployed mother. He’s spotted Jane’s ad in the paper, and has his old mother pretend to be his secretary so she can call and make an appointment for him.
Back at Chez Cray Cray, Jane has given Elvira the day off—she has no desire to have Elvira’s interfering, disapproving presence in the house—and Blanche is buzzing again, complaining that Jane neglected to bring her breakfast. “I didn’t forget,” Jane says, amused. “I didn’t bring your breakfast, because you didn’t eat your din-din.” She lifts the lid, and shows Blanche that the untouched tray from the night before had actual food this time. She cruelly takes it away, without letting Blanche eat any. “There’s nothing wrong with it. You’re just a neurotic, Blanche,” she says. “You didn’t eat your din-din, so now you have to wait for lunch.”
Me: I think this is how we’re going to end up.
She: Which one are you, and which one am I?
Me: I’m Jane, obviously.
She: But see, if I were Blanche, we wouldn’t be in this position, because I would have had your ass thrown in jail for running me over with the fucking car.
And then comes lunch, and the most famous moment in the film, as Jane drops off another covered tray for her sister. “Oh, Blanche, do you know we got rats in the cellar?” she asks, nonchalantly.
Blanche looks at the tray, terrified. Then she shakes her head—No, it couldn’t possibly be—and summons her courage, and lifts the silver lid.
Waiting outside the room, Jane is cackling hysterically at her joke. I look over at my wife for her reaction, but she is disappointingly nonplussed.
Me: Really? Nothing?
She: Well, she already served her the bird, so I wasn’t surprised there were more animals on the menu. Especially after she said, “There are rats downstairs.”
Me: You’re unshockable.
She: Besides, it looks like there was some bread and vegetables on the tray, too. Just ignore the rat and fill up on sides, Blanche. You gotta keep your strength up.
Blanche, meanwhile, is beginning to lose her mind. She starts spinning around in her wheelchair frantically.
She: Why are you spinning in circles, Blanche? Stop spinning your wheels and get your shit together!
Me: You don’t seem to have a lot of respect for Blanche.
She: Blanche needs to fucking nut up. She’s been a pussy her whole life. She wouldn’t be in this position if she’d pressed charges against her sister in the first place. At least Jane has the courage of her convictions.
Downstairs, Jane is pursuing her convictions, and preparing to receive her Gentleman Caller. She has made herself up with ringlets in her hair, and put on one of her Baby Jane costumes. Edwin is understandably confused to see this girlish, ghoulish apparition at the door, but he plays along: he desperately needs the money, after all.
“I wonder if you can guess who I am?” she says coquettishly.
When he hesitates, she says, “I’m Baby Jane Hudson.” Edwin hasn’t the foggiest fucking clue who Baby Jane Hudson is, but he recovers quickly and bluffs his way through. “Oh, you mean you’re really the Baby Jane Hudson?” Jane announces her intention to revive her old act, exactly as it was: she’s even had her old costumes remade. “Daddy always said, you can lose everything else, but you can’t lose your talent.”
She: Except you never HAD any talent, you crazy bitch.
Jane and Edwin’s negotiations are interrupted by Blanche’s buzzer: she’s desperate to know who is in the house. Jane excuses herself to go upstairs, where she accuses Blanche of stealing or driving away every friend she ever had. Blanche denies this, saying she always wanted Jane to have friends. “Then how come I never had any?”
She: Maybe because you’re a fucking PSYCHO?
Jane slaps her sister, rips out her buzzer, and goes back down to her new musical partner. There, she flirtily performs for him her signature song, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy,” exactly as she did it fifty years before.
If Bette Davis hadn’t already earned an Oscar nomination for her work in this film, she absolutely guaranteed it here: grotesque, macabre, and heartbreakingly awful, it’s a spectacularly creepy performance without a single ounce of vanity.
Gamely playing along on the piano, Edwin stares at her in disbelief, obviously disgusted and wondering what he’s gotten himself into.
She: Judge yourself, buddy! You’re the one selling out here.
But, having now fully grasped just how crazy Jane is, Edwin compliments the performance and goes straight into the negotiation over money. Jane has no idea what to pay him, but desperately throws out the figure of $100/week—which is obviously more money than he’d hoped for. He accepts it, greedily.
She: Ugh! Why is he so creepy?
Me: Umm…because this whole situation is creepy?
She: But he was standing there looking at her so creepily.
Me: Because he is a creepy opportunist, creepily taking advantage of a batshit crazy old lady?
Jane—after trying unsuccessfully to rope Edwin into a date—offers to drive him home, leaving Blanche alone in the house again. After several days of parakeet and rat entrees, she is starving, and goes searching, first, for food. In Jane’s bedroom, she finds a box of chocolate bon-bons, and begins stuffing them in her mouth.
She: That’s how you get the diabeetus. You don’t need chocolates, Blanche. You can eat when you get out. You just need to GET THE FUCK OUT.
She also discovers something more ominous: Jane has been practicing her signature, and been using it to write many unaccounted-for checks. The one thing Blanche has controlled was the purse-strings, but now it dawns on her that Jane has no need for her at all anymore.
This discovery gives her the push she needs to tackle the stairs again. Drenched in sweat, she painstakingly inches her way down, clinging desperately to the bannister.
She: You’re taking too long again. Just roll your pale white ass down the stairs, Blanche.
Me: She should have been working on her upper-body strength all these years.
She: That would have been more useful than all that spinning around in circles.
She makes it to the bottom—collapsing in an exhausted, boneless heap—and yanks down the phone so she can finally call…the family doctor.
She: What the shit? CALL 911, BLANCHE!
She stammers out some vague nonsense about Jane’s “emotional problems,” and pleads with the doctor to come over.
She: This is maybe not the time to beat around the bush. Maybe be super-straightforward. “BITCH IS CRAZY, AND SHE’S GOING TO KILL ME.”
Alas, all of this has taken too long: Jane has come back, overheard the conversation, and—deciding to be super straightforward, unlike her sister—kicks Blanche in the face. She stands there, kicking her sister into near unconsciousness, and then calls the doctor back to tell him—in Blanche’s voice—that his presence will not be required after all.
Me: This is really an indictment of the social services. There really should be some kind of agency checking up on these people.
She: You’d think the doctor might at least think, “Hmm, that’s a bit odd. Perhaps I should follow up and make sure everything is okay.”
But no, no one is coming to the rescue—except Elvira. She has returned to the house to check up on Blanche, but Jane summarily fires her. Undaunted, Elvira waits for Jane to leave again, and then sneaks into the house.
She: Black lady to the rescue! Black women are always saving white women.
Upstairs, Elvira discovers that Blanche’s door is locked, and Blanche is not answering. She also notes the torn-out buzzer lying in the hallway, and realizes something is very wrong. So she…goes to look for the key.
Me: JUST CALL THE POLICE.
She: She’s black. It’s not our first instinct to call the cops. That’s kind of a last resort.
Having failed to locate a key, she returns with a hammer and screwdriver, planning to take the hinges off the door. First, she shouts through the door about how crazy Jane is, and how she doesn’t even know what she’ll do if Jane has harmed Blanche.
She: This is not the time for speechifying! People take too damn long to do everything in movies!
Meanwhile, Jane has returned from her errand, and the nosy neighbor lady casually mentions that she saw Elvira go into the house a few minutes earlier.
She: White lady talks too much.
Me: Snitches get stitches, man.
When Jane arrives outside Blanche’s door, Elvira tears into her, and Jane quickly crumples into the scared eight-year-old girl she has always been inside. Elvira is formidable and gloriuous in her fury, demanding the key to Blanche’s prison. But, when she opens the door, she makes the frustrating mistake of setting down the hammer.
She: What are you doing? Keep the hammer in your hand!
Inside the bedroom, Elvira is so shocked to see Blanche tied up and gagged in bed that she kind of forgets about Jane for a moment.
She: I’m disappointed, black lady. Never turn your back on crazy.
Jane, predictably, picks up the hammer and smashes Elvira in the head, killing her instantly.
She: SEE? Why would you leave a hammer with crazy?
Me: Some savior. It’s Scatman Crothers in The Shining all over again.
If Jane hadn’t snapped completely before, this act of murder has pushed her right over the edge. That night, she sits crying amongst the scrapbooks of her lost career, drinking heavily and talking to her Baby Jane doll. “You could have been better than all of them, but Daddy didn’t want that. They just didn’t love you enough, you know that? They just didn’t love you enough.”
The doorbell rings: Edwin has come for their next appointment. But Jane—who still has Elvira’s body lying upstairs–doesn’t dare let him in. He keeps ringing the doorbell for a few moments, then storms off. “Oh, to hell with it.”
She: He’s kind of a weird-ass, random character.
Jane is seeing her glorious comeback go up in smoke, and she breaks down crying on the stairs. “What am I going to do?” she sobs.
Me: Don’t we feel bad for Jane?
She: We do not feel bad for Jane. Jane murdered a black woman. We hate Jane.
Me: But Jane is dealing with a lot of shit.
She: But it’s all her own shit!
Jane smuggles Elvira’s body out to the car in Blanche’s wheelchair, and drives it off. Meanwhile, Edwin has gone home, where his mother screams at him about what a psycho Jane Hudson is: she tells him the story of Jane running over her sister, and being found three days later holed up in a hotel with some man she’d never met before. “Well, why should that concern you?” he shouts at her. “Isn’t that how I was conceived?”
She: Burn! There are a lot of unhappy, unhealthy relationships in this movie.
Me: It’s not exactly the glamorous side of Hollywood.
Back at the Hudson Home for the Criminally Weird, the noose is tightening. The police are calling looking for Elvira, who has been reported missing. Jane is freaking out, and turns—pathetically—to her bound-and-gagged sister for advice. Jane just can’t believe that Elvira made her do a thing like that. “I just don’t understand,” she says. “It was like that time in the hotel room, when they came and told me that you were hurt, and that I’d done it…And I tried to tell him I couldn’t do a thing like that, not to my own sister.”
Blanche—nearly dead from starvation, dehydration, and being kicked repeatedly in the head—tries to tell her sister something about the “accident,” but Jane doesn’t want to hear it. “Every time I try to think about something nice, you remind me about bad things!” They will run away, she decides, and go back to a place that was nice: they’ll go to the shore, like they did when they were young, when she and Daddy would rehearse on the beach and people would gather around to watch.
But before she can execute this plan, the doorbell rings. Jane runs downstairs to answer it, while Blanche tries to free herself from her restraints.
At the door is Edwin, thoroughly drunk: he has come for his money. Jane promises that she has it, but first she has another present for him.
She puts the horrible thing on Edwin’s lap, but, at this point, he is too disgusted and drunk to play along nicely. In the final debasement of the Baby Jane fantasy, he crudely throws the Baby Jane doll in the wheelchair, and begins wheeling around the house with it. Jane, when she sees this, shrieks in horror.
But by now Blanche has gotten free enough to make some noise. She smashes the side table over, and Edwin, hearing it, runs upstairs to discover her. “She’s dying,” he says sadly. Horrified, he flees the house, and runs straight to…a liquor store.
She: What the fuck is he doing?
Me: He’s drunk. And feels the need to be drunker.
She: And seeing someone damn-near dead didn’t sober him up? I don’t understand. I don’t understand why Jane is the smartest person in this movie.
Jane, at least, is smart enough to know that the jig is up: it’s only a matter of time before Edwin squeals. So she gathers the dying Blanche up and takes her—naturally—to the beach.
It’s kind of a brilliant setting for the final scenes of the movie. Practically the entire film has taken place in this dark, ancient, timeless Victorian house, with Jane and Blanche both trussed up in their throwback Miss Havisham outfits from decades earlier. It was a place where time, deliberately, had stopped. Now, we’re on a bright sunny beach, surrounded by young people in bikinis, listening to rock music. We’ve suddenly been transported to—or, more accurately, reminded that we’ve always been in—1962.
While Blanche lays dying in the sand, Jane happily sits making sandcastles. Elsewhere on the beach, we see people reading newspapers about the discovery of Elvira’s body, and listening to radio reports about how the police are looking for the Hudson sisters.
Blanche, with what sound like her last breaths, pleads with her sister to help her. “If I die, you’ll be alone,” she says, and then she makes her big confession: “I made you waste your whole life, thinking you’d crippled me…You didn’t do it, Jane. I did it myself. Don’t you understand? I crippled myself. You weren’t driving that night.” She explains how she wanted to kill Jane—who had been mean to her at the party they’d attended—and tried to run her down. Instead, she drove herself into the gate, snapping her spine in the process. Jane had run off drunk into the night, and Blanche—somehow—had managed to crawl in front of the car, so it looked like Jane had run her down.
Me: I feel like the CSI people should have been able to figure that out at the time.
She: Yeah, it sounds like there was some shoddy police work in working that crime scene.
Me: But, see? You blamed Blanche for forgiving her sister, when really she was the bad guy all along.
She: But she’s still a pussy! Again, follow through! If you want to fuck up your sister’s life, put her in jail! “That bitch tried to hit me, I swear before God! She ran me over with that car! Put her in jail.” Follow through! You pussed out, and this is what happens!
For Jane, however, this confession seems to make everything better. She instantly forgives her sister for gaslighting her all these years. “Then, you mean, all this time, we could have been friends?” That being the case, Baby Jane decides to go get them both some ice cream.
Me: See, Jane just wanted to be friends. It’s Blanche who made her crazy.
She: That doesn’t excuse Jane’s behavior this entire film.
Jane gets them both ice cream cones, which she wanders off dreamily with, without paying for them.
She: And, the bitch just stole ice cream!
Now a couple of cops have finally spotted the Hudsons’ car at the beach, and they confront Jane on her way back to her sister. Jane, stark, raving mad at this point, is just gleefully happy when a crowd gathers around to watch this bizarre tableau unfold: she begins twirling in the sand, thrilled to have an audience once more.
In the final shot of the film, the cops leave Jane to her batshit crazy performance, and run past her to the prone figure of Blanche, who lies—probably, but not definitely, dead—in the sand beyond her.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, starring two unbankable “old broads,” was a smash success, and garnered five Academy Award nominations, including one for Bette Davis as Best Actress, one for Buono as Best Supporting Actor, and nominations for Cinematography, Sound, and Costumes. (Crawford was not nominated, which no doubt further fueled the rancor between the two stars.) It won one Oscar, for Costumes.
I haven’t spent a lot of time discussing the legendary feud between Davis and Crawford: a whole book was written about it—Shaun Considine’s Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud—and now Ryan Murphy has based a TV show on it, which will no doubt explore it in all its gossipy, sensationalistic glory. But the Oscar drama proved to be just a continuation of their bitter rivalry. Davis always contended that Crawford lobbied hard against her winning the Oscar—she resented the way Davis spoke as if Baby Jane was a one-woman show—and went so far as to offer to accept on behalf of the other nominees if any of them couldn’t attend the ceremony. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened: though Davis had been considered a lock for the award, the winner turned out to be Anne Bancroft, for The Miracle Worker. Bancroft was not in attendance, so Joan Crawford accepted the Oscar on her behalf, in what must have been a bittersweet moment of pathetic triumph.
(“I almost dropped dead when I didn’t win,” Davis said. “That year, each nominee sat in a separate dressing room backstage, equipped with a TV monitor…When Anne Bancroft’s name was announced, I am sure I turned white. Moments later, Crawford floated down the hall, past my door. I will never forget the look she gave me. It was triumphant. The look clearly said, you didn’t win and I am elated!“)
The unexpected success of Baby Jane led the studio to bankroll a pseudo-sequel, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, with the same director and cast, exploring similar themes. However, the bitterness between Davis and Crawford overwhelmed the film. Crawford had it put in her contract that she didn’t have to do publicity with Davis, and in fact her contract specified that her trailer had to be a certain distance away from her co-star’s. Davis reportedly didn’t want to be in the same shot with Crawford, and pressured the director to cut Crawford’s lines and reduce her part. Finally, Crawford feigned illness to get out of the picture—the director supposedly hired a private investigator to prove it—and was eventually replaced by Olivia de Havilland.
I’m not sure there’s a good guy or a bad guy in these stories—it sounds like they were both kind of awful people. (Perhaps not coincidentally, they would both have unflattering books written about them by their daughters. Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest is the more famous indictment, of course, but Bette Davis disinherited her daughter Barbara—the same daughter who co-starred in Baby Jane—for portraying her as an emotionally-manipulative, alcoholic shrew in her memoir My Mother’s Keeper.) Whatever the truth is, the legend makes for good celebrity gossip, and the mutual loathing between the two actresses definitely contributed to the delightfully grotesque weirdness of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
But what did my wife think?
She: I definitely did not need to see that movie. Why did I need to see that movie?
Me: Well, references. References to it come up all the time.
She: Outside of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a reference to that movie.
Me: You probably have, but you just didn’t realize it, since you weren’t familiar with the references.
Me: But what did you think?
She: I thought…it was a very campy film. But fun. And she was great: Bette Davis, I mean. She totally chewed up that role. And Joan was good: she played the victim well, but it wasn’t the showier role. Did they get Oscars?
[I recount an abbreviated version of the story.]
She: That’s fucked up.
Me: A little bit. But you liked the movie?
She: It was fine. It wasn’t bad.
Me: And you recognize that Jane was the real victim all along.
She: She wasn’t the victim! I mean, she was originally the victim, but then she went crazy with drink, tortured her sister, murdered a black woman, and stole ice cream. None of that is okay.
Me: Well, child stars always have a tough row to hoe. It’s a miracle any of them don’t turn out fucked up. Just being made to sing that song over and over would cause some damage.
She: And now I’m going to have that horrible song stuck in my head. That’s my take-away, for which you will pay.
Me: [Singing like a castrated goat.] “I’ve written…a letter…to Daddy…”
She: Seriously, stop it.
Me: So do you think this is a sneak-preview of our golden years?
She: I’ll tell you right now, I’m not going to be Blanche. If you come at me with a car, you had better fucking run me over and finish the job, because I’m not putting up with that shit.
Next for the Unenthusiastic Critic
I think it’s either time to introduce my wife to another classic movie musical, or it’s way past time to close the most egregious gap in her movie-viewing and finally watch The Godfather together. Stay tuned.