Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, both approaching their midfifties, were long past their glory days as royalty at their former studios, Warner Bros. and MGM, respectively. They were also hard-pressed to find suitable film roles. Davis had been seen the prior year in Pocketful of Miracles, but that film was mainly a vehicle for Glenn Ford, and it was not particularly well received. Moreover, Davis had suffered through a decade-long career drought after deftly playing a has-been Hollywood actress in the inadvertently prophetic The Star in 1952, with fewer films and increasingly irrelevant roles.
In September 1962 Davis even resorted to placing a situation wanted ad in the trade paper Variety, listing “Thirty years experience as an actress in motion pictures. . . . Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood (Has had Broadway).” Whether a stunt (as Davis claimed) or a legitimate solicitation of work, the subsequent publicity put her back in the spotlight, just in time for the release of a new movie.
Crawford had somewhat better luck in the 1950s; after squaring off against Bette Davis in the 1952 best actress contest, nominated for the noir melodrama Sudden Fear, she was cast as the female lead in From Here to Eternity (1953). However, her insistence on protecting her glamorous image bested her aesthetic judgment when she departed the film after deciding she didn’t like the way she photographed, abandoning the role that was then so memorably inhabited by Deborah Kerr. Crawford recovered partially from that misstep by starring in a number of popular women’s melodramas, Female on the Beach, Queen Bee, and Autumn Leaves among them, but none of those films reached the artistic or commercial heights of From Here to Eternity. At any rate, her successful run was over by the time she made The Best of Everything in 1959, and she had not filmed since.
The fact that Davis was 1939’s top adult female box office draw, just behind child star Shirley Temple, underlined her vexing career circumstances in 1962. Neither she nor Crawford had been tied to a studio since Crawford left Warner Bros. in 1952, where she had been in residence after departing MGM in 1943. Davis had vacated Warner Bros. in 1949 after eighteen years, so their simultaneous tenures there in the 1940s fueled rumors that they were rivals both on-and off-screen, particularly after Crawford won the 1945 best actress Oscar for Mildred Pierce, a role allegedly rejected by Davis. Their paths had crossed only once before on-screen, in cameo roles in 1944’s Hollywood Canteen, but they had not shared scenes. The widely speculated feud between them helped excite the press when they were cast for the first time together as the leads in a new film project.
That film was an adaptation of a novel about two sisters, a former vaudeville child star and a crippled ex–movie actress, locked in a bitter psychological battle while living in run-down Hollywood obscurity. Robert Aldrich, the macho filmmaker who helmed the film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, along with Clifford Odets’s downbeat view of Hollywood, The Big Knife, Crawford’s vehicle Autumn Leaves, and later The Dirty Dozen, bought the movie rights for $61,000, electing to produce and direct. Screenwriter Lukas Heller, who worked several times with Aldrich throughout his career, adapted the Henry Farrell suspense novel. Heller crafted a solid screenplay, expanding the source material into a dramatic narrative. The low-budget movie resulting from their collaboration, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, would make motion picture history.
Aldrich was forced to seek financing with the independent production company Seven Arts after being turned down by every studio in Hollywood and the withdrawal of his original financial partner, Joseph E. Levine. The pecuniary moguls had no faith in the box office appeal of either Davis or Crawford, a callous legacy for the aging stars who had made considerable coin for them in their prime. When press interest escalated during the shoot, which Aldrich had cannily opened to journalists, Jack Warner, the actresses’ old studio boss and now sole head of Warner Bros., agreed to distribute the film. Some members of the press and many of the stars’ loyal fans perceived parallels between the careers of the two movie legends and their characters in the film, and were hoping for a celluloid showdown. They would not be disappointed.Some members of the press and many of the stars’ loyal fans perceived parallels between the careers of the two movie legends and their characters in the film, and were hoping for a celluloid showdown. They would not be disappointed.
Publicly both stars downplayed the rivalry that the press seemed eager to foment. Just before shooting started, Hedda Hopper arranged a dinner at her home for the two movie queens, whom she diplomatically called “stars of equal magnitude.” Crawford assured her that there would be no discord. As she told Hopper, “Very few story properties for stars like this come along. Of course everyone expects us to clash but I’ll be a so-and-so if I’m going to fight.”
Warner’s seeming munificence in distributing the movie after rejecting the project initially was not entirely for old times’ sake. Rather, he saw it as a calculated gamble, since he would still collect a hefty distribution fee without assuming the greater capitalization risk. Davis recalled the studio heads’ reluctance: “Nobody could see the ‘electricity’ of putting ‘those two old broads’ in the same picture.” The “old broads” appellation displeased Crawford, and she asked Davis to refrain from using it. If the apprehensive studio chiefs no longer had confidence in older actresses’ ability to sell tickets, then Aldrich, Davis, and Crawford would have to rely on the film’s tantalizing subject matter and the stars’ aging fan base.
Although the film was budgeted at bargain-basement rates under $1 million, Aldrich did not shortchange production values entirely, cutting costs where he could but preserving overall quality. For director of photography he astutely hired studio veteran Ernest Haller. While at Warner Bros., Haller had worked with Crawford and Davis several times, notably on Jezebel, Dark Victory, and Mildred Pierce, among others. His familiarity with the actresses proved propitious during the efficient, six-week shoot that commenced on July 23. Haller’s use of sharp, deep focus heightens the suspense in several key scenes, especially within the gloomy interiors of the sisters’ once grand Hollywood house. The close-ups of Crawford as the crippled Blanche Hudson, enduring mental and physical torment at the hands of her increasingly deranged sister, Jane, are particularly harrowing.
Those scenes contain some of the movie’s most memorable moments, with Jane serving her hapless sister her own twisted version of “surprise” pet and rodent cuisine. After one incident, Haller films from overhead, with the camera peering down on the now hysterical Blanche circling furiously in her wheelchair, trapped in the imaginary cage erected by the demented Jane. Haller’s black-and-white photography and adroit lighting also accent the grotesque cosmetic look Davis achieved by applying her own makeup, a chalky mask she recalled from Mr. Skeffington, her 1944 success that was also shot by him. Frank DeVol’s music also makes a major contribution, expertly shifting the mood from light to menacing throughout the movie.
Aldrich and his craftsmen, led by Haller, achieve a mise-en-scène of lavish decay partially by deglamorizing Crawford’s heretofore carefully protected image. Crawford’s reluctant surrender to this approach demonstrates her eagerness to maintain her star status. On the other hand, Davis never had qualms about the way she looked on-screen. Her top priority was creating character, and she pushed that propensity right to the edge as the adult Baby Jane Hudson. Since she had nothing to lose career-wise, her instincts were on target.
Aldrich elicited strong, vivid performances from both actresses and from Victor Buono, a twenty-five-year-old rotund actor making his screen debut, cast as Jane’s musical director when she is delusional about returning to show business. After enduring desultory parts in the previous decade, Davis fully inhabits the showy role of Jane, holding the advantage over the wheelchair-and bed-bound Crawford. But this is not a one-note, undisciplined performance. Whether wallowing in alcoholic self-pity, disdainfully dismissing their nosy neighbor (Anna Lee), or gazing contemptuously on both Blanche and their anxious housekeeper, Elvira (deftly played by Maidie Norman), Davis achieves many striking effects. Her delineation of Jane’s mental regression into childhood by film’s end is particularly affecting, as she dances on the beach for puzzled onlookers, reliving (in her mind) her child star glory. There is genuine pathos underneath the grotesquerie. Richard Schickel, longtime film critic of Time, later cited Davis’s “cracked grandeur, and there’s not an actor in the picture who can stand up to her ferocious attack.”
For her part, Crawford shrewdly underplays, a perfect complement to Davis’s tour de force. Never considered a great actress, or for that matter a subtle one, Crawford had risen to stardom in Hollywood’s Golden Age principally through sheer determination. In the 1930s, the period of her greatest popularity, F. Scott Fitzgerald, while working on a script for her, wrote, “She can’t change her emotions in the middle of a scene without going through a sort of Jekyll and Hyde contortion of the face, so . . . one must cut away and then back.” Now confronted with Davis, a superlative actress in full steam, Crawford summoned her survival skills reaching back to the silent era and gave one of the outstanding performances of her career.
Aldrich also culled a memorable moment from ten-year-old child actress Gina Gillespie, who fifty-five years later recalled, in an exclusive author interview, “Bette Davis had requested me to play her as a child [in the film’s vaudeville prologue set in 1917]. But when Robert Aldrich saw me, he said I looked like Joan Crawford—he was correct.” Aldrich switched roles on her so she now had the secondary part of the younger Blanche Hudson. She was consigned to watching from the wings of the theater as Baby Jane ( Julie Allred) and their doting father (Dave Willock) performed the film’s mawkish theme song, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.” Aldrich cuts to Gillespie intermittently during Baby Jane’s act, as Blanche silently registers her resentment at being pushed to the sidelines. Their mother (Ann Barton) tries to comfort Blanche, predicting that she will be successful someday. Their mother pleads, “Try to be kinder to your sister and your father than they are to you now.” A glowering Blanche responds, “I won’t forget. You bet I won’t forget!”
Gillespie made the most of her brief role. She related her disappointment at losing the part of Baby Jane. “I was upset,” she said. “I channeled all of that anger into that scene.” After working in television from the age of four, Gillespie chose a different career path and left show business when she was a teenager. However, her fleeting few minutes on-screen in Baby Jane make an impression; some viewers have even suggested that Blanche’s parting remark in the prologue foreshadows the film’s surprise ending.
Marketing the film as a suspense shocker in hopes of a repeat of Psycho box office—with ads, trailer, and poster art using the lurid tagline “Sister, sister, oh so fair, why is there blood all over your hair?” and the image of a doll’s broken head—the advertising campaign cautioned the fans of the two stars that “this is quite unlike anything they’ve ever done.” And there was an advisory note in the advertising: “When the tension begins to build, try to remember it’s just a movie.” Yes, it’s just a movie, but what to make of its enduring impact?
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has since gained a reputation as a “camp classic.” Camp as a sensibility was defined by philosopher and writer Susan Sontag in her essay “Notes on Camp” (1964), in which she distilled camp to its essence, the “love of the unnatural; of artifice and exaggeration . . . of the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Sontag went on to define camp as “only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.” She contended that camp was not necessarily bad art, but art worth admiring and studying. And those who appreciated camp (mostly sophisticated urban cliques) and who shared the sensibility “are not laughing at the thing they label as ‘camp.’ They’re enjoying it.”
Interestingly, Sontag did not cite Baby Jane among her cinematic examples of pure camp, which included Busby Berkeley movies and The Maltese Falcon, though she cited Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Tallulah Bankhead as camp movie stars, “great stylists of temperament and mannerisms.” Curiously, she did not mention Crawford, who escaped Sontag’s purview despite her embellished turns in the 1950s in such films as Torch Song, Johnny Guitar, and Queen Bee, performances that attracted camp enthusiasts in later years.
Undoubtedly, subsequent parodies and countless drag impersonators through the years helped garner Baby Jane its populist camp designation. The emotive acting styles of Davis and Crawford and their screen-filling, expressive eyes contribute to this judgment. The great movie stars of the Golden Age acted persuasively with their eyes, and it is their faces, enhanced by skillful close-ups, that linger in the collective movie memory. Newsweek commented that in the role Crawford’s eyes “blaze out soulfulness.” And those “Bette Davis eyes,” celebrated and further immortalized in song two decades later, are on full, florid display here.
Even with its exaggerated moments, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Is an expert mix of black comedy and suspense. Roger Ebert splits the difference in the camp debate, asserting that at some point during Jane’s descent into madness the film “stops becoming a ‘camp classic’ . . .and starts becoming the real thing, a psychological horror story.” It also represents a distinctive film version of Grand Guignol, the French theatrical showplace of naturalistic horror that highlighted madness and murder in the Gothic tradition. Coincidentally, that Parisian theater closed in 1962, leaving Baby Jane and the films it spawned—in a subgenre dubbed Grande Dame Guignol (or, to the most acerbic commentators, “hagsploitation”)—to carry on the tradition. Prime examples, which had varying degrees of success, include Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte with Davis and Olivia de Havilland, Strait-Jacket with Crawford, Lady in a Cage with de Havilland, Die! Die! My Darling with Tallulah Bankhead, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? with Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon, and What’s the Matter with Helen? with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters. Even Barbara Stanwyck tried her hand in the genre with The Night Walker from horrormeister William Castle, but the film disappointed and finished her movie career. Grande Dame Guignol ran its course by the early 1970s.
Of course, that specific trend would never have exploded if Baby Jane had not been a massive box office hit. The film received mixed positive reviews, with perceptive critics lauding the powerful acting of the two stars. Among the film’s admirers were auteurist critics both here and abroad, touting the work of director Aldrich. Andrew Sarris later indicated that Aldrich became a financially viable producer-director “largely on the lucky gamble involving the chemical combustibility of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.” Sam Lesner in the Chicago Daily News saw more than luck, noting, “The film is a field day for Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and director Robert Aldrich, who saw in Henry Farrell’s novel . . . the outlines of a modern Greek tragedy. Yet it is great fun, too, because this is pure cinema drama set in a real house of horrors.” Arthur Knight in Saturday Review praised all the talent, stating, “Scenes that, in lesser hands, would verge on the ludicrous simply crackle with tension—or they are filled with unbearable pathos.”
On the other hand, critic and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was so dismayed by the film (he openly admitted he left a press screening halfway through) that he wrote in his review for Show, “Bette Davis has been a distinguished actress, and it is hard to understand why either she or Miss Crawford should demean themselves by appearing in trash.” Bosley Crowther was also among the detractors, calling the two stars “formidable freaks” who “wear grotesque costumes, make up to look like witches and chew the scenery to shreds.” Ironically, Crowther’s employer, the New York Times, would later include Baby Jane in its “Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made,” replete with his negative review.
Schlesinger and Crowther may have overstated the case for the prosecution, while they also failed to appreciate the career problems confronting the aging female stars. But they made a valid point in observing the gulf between Aldrich’s “freak show” and the memorable, high-class projects these actresses had once graced. In her heyday, Davis had been accustomed to great roles in such literate films as Jezebel, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and The Letter, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, and All About Eve, written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Crawford had once claimed strong parts in important movies like Grand Hotel, The Women, and the career-revitalizing Mildred Pierce, her finest hour on the screen.By 1962 Crawford was reduced to playing a victimized cripple and Davis a demented hag in a low-budget shocker—an unmistakable comedown from their past glory days. However, the veteran stars were allowed one more unexpected commercial success.
By 1962 Crawford was reduced to playing a victimized cripple and Davis a demented hag in a low-budget shocker—an unmistakable comedown from their past glory days. However, the veteran stars were allowed one more unexpected commercial success. Following rousing sneak previews in mid-October, the Hollywood Reporter’s Mike Connelly predicted, “Davis . . . can brush her teeth with champagne after Baby Jane makes the world her domain.” The movie opened in 400 theaters nationwide on November 6 (an unusually high number in those days of limited release and gradual rollouts) and touched a responsive nerve in the audience.
The nine-day Cuban missile crisis had just played out in late October, with nuclear war against the Soviet Union averted, and the nation could release pent-up anxiety by watching a movie fright fest that had the imprimatur of Hollywood Golden Age class in Davis and Crawford. The stars’ fans came out in droves, and the audience expanded exponentially, as the film became an overnight show business sensation. The $48,000 it made in the initial week at the 3,900-seat Chicago Theatre, where the average ticket price was a mere $1.40, indicates its blockbuster appeal. It made back its cost in just eleven days, then energized the November box office, winding up as one of the year’s top-grossing pictures after only two months in release.
The film’s impact on popular culture was immediate. Warner Bros. had commissioned New Yorker magazine cartoonist Charles Addams to create an illustration for the film’s pressbook in his comically macabre style, depicting his Addams family characters horrified at Baby Jane’s treatment of her sister, Blanche. This imagery seeped into the popular consciousness and helped sell the film worldwide. In May 1963 the prestigious Cannes Film Festival officially invited Baby Jane to screen with only two other American entries, joining To Kill a Mockingbird and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds among the international fare in the south of France.
At awards time, everyone loved a comeback success, especially an unforeseen one. Baby Jane’s surprising total of five Academy Award nominations testifies to its impact, with well-deserved acknowledgment for Ernest Haller among the nominations. An Oscar win for sixty-three- year- old costume designer Norma Koch (Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Lady Sings the Blues) reinforced the regard of the Hollywood community; that category afforded Academy voters a perfect opportunity to honor the film in that fiercely competitive year. At the ceremony Koch appropriately thanked “all the Baby Janes wherever you are.”
Bette Davis’s nod for best actress, her tenth, turned out to be the last on-screen peak of her movie career. It was her final nomination. The other Oscar nods were for sound (a ravenous Blanche devouring chocolates after being starved by Jane is one noteworthy example) and newcomer Victor Buono as best supporting actor. Some incredulous members of the press speculated that Davis’s nomination was some sort of inside Tinseltown joke. For example, the Los Angeles Times sneered, calling the recognition for Davis’s Baby Jane “a macabre gag.”
In spite of the few scoffers, the movie industry and her legion of fans hailed Davis’s comeback, and she was widely considered the sentimental favorite to win a third Oscar. But her eventual loss and Crawford’s alleged campaigning for that result are now part of Hollywood lore. Despite being overlooked for a nomination, Crawford found another way to steal the spotlight. After volunteering to accept for any absentee best actress winner, she did just that at the ceremony when Anne Bancroft’s victory roiled Davis, who watched from the wings as a seemingly exultant Crawford accepted the award for best actress of 1962. Backstage afterward, Crawford was copiously photographed with an Oscar that did not belong to her, and smilingly told the press, “I don’t want to give it up.” (She finally gave it up a week later, personally delivering the statuette to Bancroft, who was appearing on Broadway.)
In its own way, Baby Jane serves as an indictment of Hollywood, not unlike Billy Wilder’s mordant film noir classic, Sunset Boulevard (1950), which it resembles in tone and content as a dark view of the movie capital. Both films share a similar setting of dilapidated houses from a bygone Hollywood era. Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, the forgotten movie queen of the silent era (played by silent star Gloria Swanson), is desperate for a “return” to the silver screen in midcentury Hollywood, and descends into madness and murder. The delusional Desmond has a stygian soul sister in Baby Jane Hudson. And Blanche Hudson, who harbors a corrosive secret (embodying a key noir theme of a haunted past), finds there is no happy ending for her either. While Baby Jane does not reach the artistic heights of Wilder’s masterpiece, and the keepers of the noir vault have not identified it as a full-fledged film noir, it has a permanent address adjacent to the same dark neighborhood.
Sunset Boulevard afforded the aging Swanson a prime leading role and opportunity for a movie comeback of her own, which she was unable to fulfill after her singular triumph as Norma Desmond. In 1962, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? offered further damning commentary on studio hiring practices of the time. However, the film’s box office and Academy recognition were vindication for Davis and Crawford taking such unorthodox and risky roles in the first place. More important, Baby Jane resuscitated their moribund movie careers.
A grateful Davis told Hedda Hopper that her phone kept ringing with new offers and ruminated, “You remain the same person as always, but, as we might abhor it, money talks.”20 To television talk-show host Jack Paar on the Tonight Show Davis expressed relief that after the prior ten years of box office duds, “at least I’ll be on the books as a potential moneymaker, and believe me, that’s a new career for me.” For posterity, Davis’s characterization of Baby Jane Hudson ranks among the American Film Institute’s fifty best movie villains in history. And the film continues to fascinate more than half a century after it opened, with Ryan Murphy’s popular, somewhat fictionalized 2017 television series Feud, about the rivalry between Davis and Crawford (starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange), reviving interest in the 1962 movie.
Unfortunately, Crawford, who had previously demonstrated a peculiar talent for career self-sabotage, inopportunely quit the next Aldrich-Davis collaboration, the 1964 hit Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Virtually all her subsequent films were unworthy B pictures (Strait-Jacket, I Saw What You Did, Berserk) as she failed to take advantage of her recharged career momentum. Crawford ended her long film career in the sci-fi horror cheapie Trog (1970) and died a virtual recluse in 1977.
For the indefatigable Bette Davis, however, Baby Jane provided her with renewed popularity and esteem that she capitalized on to remain in the limelight for almost three decades, garnering accolades and remaining a vivid presence on screen, stage, and television up until her death in 1989. While on a publicity tour for the film’s opening in 1962, appearing at New York City movie theaters before appreciative and enthusiastic crowds, an energized Davis was interviewed by film journalist and critic Vincent Canby. Davis took the opportunity to acknowledge the dearth of women’s roles in the 1960s, in contrast to the situation during her heyday, when the star system flourished. Canby reported that in the end, however, Davis was a reminder that “the star system may be dead, but stars aren’t.”