Less than a week into the new year we can finally sit back and rest after December’s blur of Christmas shopping and family visits. Everything is beginning to go back to normal now, and we have almost forgotten the embarrassing situations we have created for ourselves at the office Christmas party. We have survived the holidays, most of us are well equipped with warm socks, and our bodies are slowly beginning to recover from the perpetual state of dehydration that is Christmas.
Our next paycheck is only four weeks away – absurdly, one of the most expensive times of the year coincides with the longest period of not getting paid. Coincidence? Possibly. It could also be the universe’s subtle way of telling us to stay in, drink tea, and hibernate with some good films. In a way, Robert Aldrych’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) could be seen as a Christmas movie of sorts. After all, it is about spending some quality time with our loved ones, singing songs and serving a bird. The bird may be a dead budgie, but as The Rolling Stones once wisely observed, you can’t always get what you want.
With regard to his film’s cast, Robert Aldrych defied all odds and did, in fact, get what he wanted. Despite their notorious feud that spanned several decades, the director persuaded Hollywood divas Joan Crawford and Bette Davis to star in his cult classic. Claustrophobic and deeply disturbing, the story of mutual loathing between two sisters benefits from the tension between the two actresses.
It all began as early as 1935, when Crawford married Franchot Tone, Davis’ alleged lover and co-star in Dangerous (1935). The hatred between the two actresses outlived the four-year marriage by decades, and ultimately lasted until, or even beyond, Crawford’s death in 1977. When asked about the passing of her life-long rival, Bette allegedly commented: “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” (Slightly less eloquent remarks included “I wouldn’t piss on that woman if she was on fire”). Arguably, the antagonism between Crawford and Davis can be felt in every frame of this movie. The source of such mutual hatred appears to be the same in real life and on screen, for the story of their characters is similarly driven by the same force: fierce competition.
Jane Hudson (Davis) is a former vaudeville child star whose audience lost interest in her as she grew older. While her sister Blanche used to watch her from the side of the stage when they were children, their roles reversed later in life. Blanche (Crawford) becomes a movie star who occasionally helps out her unsuccessful sister. Following a car accident fuelled by booze, jealousy and hatred, Blanche is left paralysed from the waist down for the rest of her life.
The actual story begins decades later, after years of isolation and illness have taken their physical and psychological toll on both Jane and Blanche. Neither has recovered from the loss of their show-business careers. Confined to her wheelchair and the restrictive space of her bedroom, Blanche wallows in nostalgia and melancholy as she watches re-runs of her own films on television, whilst her sister’s bitterness is only exceeded by her alcoholism. With every blank face she encounters when she assures that she is ‘THE Baby Jane Hudson,’ her hatred toward her sister grows until things get out of control.
The climactic ending on the beach reverses the roles between the sisters once more, blurring the previously established dichotomy between victim and perpetrator. In the last ten minutes of the film Aldrych turns everything the audience has seen up to that point upside down. “You mean all this time we could have been friends?” a mentally unstable Jane asks her sister towards the end of the film. The implication is that all their rivalry and anguish were ultimately unnecessary as they have more in common than they think.
Ending the film on this note poses an interesting question: if both sisters are victims and perpetrators at the same time, who or what is the driving force behind their mutual contempt? The answer appears to lie in the relentless and misguided values and ideals Hollywood places on the individual – particularly on women. The pursuit of fame, success and beauty as life goals is instilled into Blanche and Jane from a young age. Their determined father eagerly pushes Jane’s career and ruthlessly neglects his other daughter, teaching both daughters that self-value lies in show-business success. The competitiveness that is instilled in those years lasts for the rest of their lives.
It is no coincidence that Jane chooses to perform the song ‘I’ve Written A Letter to Daddy’ in a chilling adult rendition of her biggest Baby Jane Hudson hit. She does indeed appear to communicate with her supposedly deceased father, or at least the values he represented. Singing at the top of her lungs, she attempts to retrieve the conditional love that was once hers. Davis replaces Hollywood glamour with lighting from below and a thick layer of make-up, allowing the viewer a glimpse of all of Jane’s sadness, desperation, and childlike vulnerability. If you thought Billy Wilder’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard was delusional in her comeback aspirations, Baby Jane takes it to the next level.
And perhaps here lies the big difference between the two feuding divas: vanity. Whereas Joan Crawford is said to have insisted on wearing false breasts whilst playing a dying woman, Bette Davis abandoned all vanity to play an ageing woman in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Ultimately, the Academy rewarded the latter performance with a nomination for Best Actress. Crawford subsequently led a campaign among voters against her co-star, and succeeded. Anne Bancroft won the prize for The Miracle Worker – accepted on her behalf by Joan Crawford.