December 6, 2018
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Robert Aldrich
Stars: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono

What it's about. A wicked comedy featuring two of Hollywood's biggest actresses from a generation before, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Davis plays Jane, a faded child star who is losing her mind and becoming increasingly malicious. She is the sister of Blanche (Crawford), who was a moviestar in her twenties but whose career ended suddenly in a car accident that left her paralyzed.

Years later, the two sisters live together in a Los Angeles mansion, with Jane not so much waiting on Blanche as gradually becoming her tormentor. Blanche's last hope to escape Jane is Elvira (Maidie Norman), the maid who drops by once or twice per week. She certainly can't count on intrusively friendly neighbor Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee), who is too clueless to put two and two together.

An unexpected subplot involves Jane attempting to revive her vaudeville-era child star career as a bathetic singer and dancer. She hires the financially desperate Victor Buono as an accompanist, to the initial delight, and eventual disgust, of his manipulative mother, Marjorie Bennett. Buono rolls his eyes at Davis' pancake makeup and affected femininity, but he has lost all his pride. He needs the money.

How others will see it. One of 1962's biggest surprises, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a Warner Bros. B-movie that outgrossed its studio stablemate prestige picture of the year, Days of Wine and Roses..

Critics loved it as well, both in the U.S. and across the Atlantic. At Cannes, it was nominated for the Palme d'Or. BAFTA nominated both Crawford and Davis as Best Foreign Actress. The Academy Awards bestowed five nominations, including Davis as Best Actress.

Today at, the notorious film has an impressive 44K user votes and a lofty user rating of 8.1 out of 10, which rises to 8.4 among women over 45.

How I felt about it. What genre is this movie? A crime drama? Horror? Black comedy? All three?

And which sister are we to identify with? The one who is terrorized? Or the psychopath? It appears that the movie takes after Psycho (1960). Our heroine is Bette Davis, and to our sadistic pleasure, nothing will stop her (at least, for any length of time) from making Joan Crawford to suffer a slow, agonizing death.

It's all about Jane, and she camps it up like Cruella de Vil, in another movie from 1962. She gets the ultimate revenge on Jane, and it costs her nothing, since Blanche was about to put her in the nuthouse anyway.

We, the audience, are expected to hoot with delight as malevolent Jane serves the aghast Blanche a bird and a rat for dinner. When Jane turns up the volume, kicking Blanche repeatedly for attempting to call the oblivious Dr. Shelby (Robert Cornthwaite), we know they are only movie kicks. No actress ribs are actually broken. Though those ropes must have been uncomfortable for poor Joan Crawford, who missed out on the Oscar nod anyway.

I know that Robert Aldrich is credited as director. But it really seems that Bette Davis is calling the shots, behind the camera as well as in front of it. And it is just as well, since Aldrich's films up to that point are nothing special, not even Kiss Me Deadly, which is a pale echo of The Maltese Falcon.

Meanwhile, Davis always loved playing the bad girl, and why not, since she is so good at it. We must admit, though, that Aldrich manages a few amusing scenes without Davis, featuring self-loathing Victor Buono and his smothering elderly mother Marjorie Bennett.