What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962): Aldrich’s Gothic Horror Cult Picture, Starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

Robert Aldrich’s B-horror movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a Gothic Hollywood saga at its most grotesque, yet vastly entertaining due to its setting and stars.

A baroque horror tale of two aging actresses, the movie centers on the Hudson sisters, played by vet movie queens Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who live in a shabby Los Angeles house and are involved in an S & M relationship.

The original choice to star with Bette Davis was Tallulah Bankhead, but Joan Crawford, Davis’ eternal rival, had acquired rights to the book, and offered it to Davis while she was appearing on Broadway in the Tennessee Williams play, “The Night of the Iguana.”

The screenplay, by Lukas Heller, was based on the novel by Henry Farrell, with major (uncredited) contributions from Aldrich.

Farrell also written the books “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” made into a movie by Aldrich in 1964, starring Bette Davis (this time around with Olivia De Havilland) and “What’s the Matter With Helen?'” with Debbie Reynolds.

Through flashbacks, it’s revealed that Jane (Davis) had been a spoiled brat vaudeville star known as “Baby Jane,” but as she grew older her career faded.  In contrast, Blanche (Crawford) who lived in her shadow as a girl, had a successful adult career as a screen glamour girl, but she was unable to help Jane stage a comeback, causing the latter’s descent into drinking, eccentric, and violent behavior.

At the peak of her stardom, Blanche had suffered a career-ending accident for which Jane was seemingly responsible. Ever since then the two have lived together in mutual animosity. When Jane learns that her wheelchair-bound sister is planning to sell the mansion and put her in an asylum, she begins to terrorize her sister, serving her a rat for dinner and locking her up in her room.  Meanwhile, Jane enlists the service of Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), a young obese pianist, to help her make a comeback.

The film contains a number of grotesque, hysterical, and horrific sequences, leading to a tragic ending on the Malibu beach.  Along the way, the mystery of the accident and other secrets are revealed.

Turning in a showy performance, Davis shrewdly overacts in a flashy role, while Crawford wisely underacts as the crippled sister.  The Oscar-nominated movie, which was popular at the box-office, revitalized the careers of both actresses, turning them into campy horror genre (and horror) queens.

 

End Note:

Stay away from the 1991 TV remake starring Lynn Redgrave.

 

Oscar Nominations: 5

Actress: Bette Davis

Supporting Actor: Victor Buono

Cinematography (b/w): Ernest Haller

Costume design (b/w): Norma Koch

Sound: Joseph Kelly

 

Oscar Awards: 1

Costume design

Oscar Context:

This was Bette Davis’ tenth and last Best Actress nomination, but the winner in 1962 was a relatively newcomer, Anne Bancroft for “The Miracle Worker.”

Victor Buono, a heavy (obese) actor of 300 pounds made his feature debut in this picture and also appeared in “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” Robin and the Seven Hoods,” and other films before dying in 1982.  Buono lost out the Supporting Actor Oscar to Ed Begley, who won for Tennessee Williams’ film version, “Sweet Bird of Youth,” starring Paul Newman.

The Cinematography Oscar went to Jean Bourgoin and Walter Wottitz for the epic WWII drama, “The Longest Day,” and the Sound award deservedly went to John Cox for David Lean’s epic, “Lawrence of Arabia.”

 

Cast

Jane Hudson (Bette Davis)

Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford)

Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono)

Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee)

Lisa Bates (B.D. Merrill)

Doctor Shelby (Robert Cornthwaite)

Elvira Stitt (Maidie Norman)

Mrs. Della Flagg (Marjorie Bennett)

Ray Hudson (Dave Willock)

Cora Hudson (Anne Barton)

Liza Bates (Barbara D. Merrill)

Jane, age 9 (Julie Allred); Debbie Burton sings her song

Blanche, age 13 (Gina Gillsepie)

 

Crew

Produced and directed by Robert Aldrich

Screenwriter: Lukas Heller, based on the novel by Henry Farrell

Camera: Ernest Haller

Editor: Michael Luciano

Music: Frank DeVol

Art Direction: William Glasgow

Costume Design: Norma Koch

F/X: Don Steward