Imagine a woman in her 50s dressed as a baby doll, singing a children’s song to her daddy inside a dark cellar. Forget on-screen love chemistry and imagine the bad blood, resentment, and bitter hatred. The daring casting of longtime enemies who often tried to steal each other’s thunder – Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – was vital to the success of this film. It pictures not only the rivalry between two sisters but also reeks of contempt, competitiveness, and despair.
Directed by Robert Aldrich, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) tells the immortal story of two sisters. Baby Jane Hudson was a spoiled child actress performing in different vaudevilles with her father, while her older sister Blanche lived in her shadow. Of course, there’s an expected reversal: Jane’s career declines and Blanche becomes a famous Hollywood actress. One evening, Blanche’s career was cut short because of a car accident, later blamed on Jane found in a drunken stupor, who has been taking care of Blanche ever since. The film might seem like a benign depiction of holding a grudge, but Jane’s mental state deteriorates with each minute. Blanche wants to sell the mansion they live in, and Jane suspects she’ll commit her to a psychiatric hospital afterwards, so she cuts her off from the outside world completely.
Jane: Blanche, you aren’t ever gonna sell this house… and you aren’t ever gonna leave it… either.
The film was directed in an Gothic-like fashion. The mansion is the whole Blanche’s world, and sometimes even Xanadu seems too small. Blanche lived in Jane’s shadow when she was a child, and now she lives a shadowed life as well, illuminated by artificial lighting with no way to visit the outside world. Aldrich emphasizes the lighting, focusing on the darkness surrounding both imprisoned Blanche and Jane’s collapsing mind.
Makeup contributes to the overall grotesque feeling. Jane looks like a silent-film star with emphasized makeup as a remnant from the olden days. Bette Davis created her own makeup for the role since she imagined Jane as someone who would never wash her face, only to put another layer of makeup over the previous one. You can almost see Norma Desmond‘s face in Baby Jane’s, reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard stars, where long-forgotten has-been silent-film stars still lived. Blanche is being lit as a silent-film star as well since, after all, she is unable to communicate with the outside world.
Jane acts like a child throughout the film, and sometimes one even feels sorry for the sad, demented creature. She turns to Blanche and proclaims: “Every time I think about something nice, you remind me of bad things. I only want to talk about the nice things!” And yet, while being a child, she’s a menacing captor at the same time. The film soon builds with an ever-growing force of misery and ghoulishness, culminating in disaster. The only thing you see is a human being refusing to take responsibility for past actions. And every one of us could at one point ask what ever happened to our past selves. But let’s talk about nice things.
- Arnold, Edward T. & Miller, Eugene, L. (1986). The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich. University of Tennessee Press.
- Considine, Shaun (1989). Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud. Sphere.
- Silver, Alain & Ursini, James (1995). What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films. Limelight Editions.
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