Exhibiting the greatest sibling rivalry and betrayal since Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis, silver screen divas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford give landmark performances in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a movie that not only delivers a thrilling drama, but borders on horror, both on and off screen.
Davis and Crawford, both former screen vixens that were themselves aging legends at the time of filming, perfectly fit the roles of Hollywood stars past their primes and now long forgotten. Sporting golden curly locks, “Baby” Jane Hudson (Davis) was a cherubic vaudeville child star on the scale of Shirley Temple who not only had adoring children panting for Baby Jane dolls but boasted a signature hit song “I’ve written a Letter to Daddy” that had adults tearing up as well. Conceited and vain, Jane’s later Hollywood career did not amount to much and ended on a scandalous note. Her sister Blanche (Crawford) was overshadowed on stage and bullied by Jane as a child, forever standing in the wings as Jane basked in the glow of her adoring fans, all the while simmering and vowing not to forget. In contrast to Jane, Blanche later blossomed into a headline Hollywood star, eclipsing her sister’s languishing career.
Both sister’s fortunes came crashing to halt one faithful night when a car accident leaves Blanche a paraplegic and bound to life in a wheelchair while sister Jane took the rap as the driver of the car that rammed Blanche. Now, years later and living together in a shared house, the women are all but forgotten when a retrospective of Blanche’s movies airs on TV, regenerating interest and fond memories by Blanche’s fans.
The combination of seeing Blanche’s resurrected fandom and the impending sale of the house they share becomes the tipping point for surly Jane. Her former mere annoyance now becomes outright terror as Jane first toys with her sister, now a captive, and then as she spirals down in drunken insanity, begins to plan a more permanent deadly solution. Delusional and reminiscent of her past glory, Jane also decides that Blanche isn’t the only one that can rekindle a stagnant career and hires a musician via the want ads so that she can practice her signature song again. She entices a burly session player (Victor Buono) looking only for a quick buck who plays along with her off key parlour rehearsals. But it isn’t long before Jane’s every more complicated conniving becomes deadly, leading to a final scene on a beach where Jane creepily dances on the sand after being subjected to one more shocking surprise.
The screen sibling rivalry was nothing compared to be behind the scenes maneuvers exercised between two combative divas. The studio tried to make light of that strain even going so far to try to dismiss the friction with select quotes in the DVD extra features, but over the years many other sources have documented the on-set battles. Knowing that Crawford was married to the president of Pepsi Cola, Davis had a contract stipulation that a Coca Cola vending machine be made available on the set. Not to be outdone, Crawford donned hidden lead weights prior to shooting a scene where Davis had to lift her. So celebrated was this feud that books and even a documentary capture the public jabs and taunts they inflicted one another over the years.
Despite the animosity, or more likely because of it, both women gave the performances of their careers, which for a time rekindled their own Hollywood postures, Davis even getting a Oscar nomination for her portrayal as Jane (as did Buono). Sporting a ghoulish caked makeup and shriveled braids, Davis’ menacing look is unforgettable especially in one scene where she seems to undergo a physical transformation after seeing her own horror in the mirror. Swaying from utter calm and the voice of reason to flat-out caged terror, Crawford elicits compassion and sympathy as the duel escalates.
So positive was the response to the movie that director Robert Aldrich and the writing team planned to reunite the diva duo in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte again in 1964, only to have Crawford exit the film shortly after production started. Oh, what could have been…