When Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) and her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) were little girls back in the nineteen-tens, the former was known as child star Baby Jane and the latter was relegated to the sidelines. Every day, Jane would perform for adoring crowds at theatres, singing her signature song "I've Written a Letter to Daddy", and her father and agent would rake in the profits, for it was really she who was keeping their family afloat - and didn't she know it. Her entitled behaviour only grew worse as time went on, yet once the sisters were adults and trying to make it as movie stars in the thirties, they found Jane's past loomed over them. Then the accident happened that changed everything...
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was not a film many expected great things from, a cheap horror movie starring two faded celebrities was not going to set the box office alight, went the common view, yet when it was finally released after a rushed production that cut as many corners as it could, audiences rejected the sniffy reviews and flocked to it, making it one of the biggest hits of the careers of all of the talents involved. Director Robert Aldrich really only topped this blockbusting success with his World War II men on a mission behemoth The Dirty Dozen a few years later, but there was no shame in that: this was not simply a financial achievement, it was an artistic one as well.
Those 1962 moviegoers recognised something in the film, a quality that went beyond the grotesque to reach for an unexpected profundity, not merely about Hollywood's screw 'em up and throw 'em away treatment of talent that has fallen out of fashion, but in society's regard for women, and the way they dare to grow old. Davis's Jane struck a bizarre, parodical figure in her grasping for her past glories that we are aware she will never return to, but she was not acting for laughs exclusively, though they assuredly arrive when the black comedy element threatens to surface, there was genuine pathos in her performance. See the scene where she sings that damn song in front of the mirror, for example.
Before she steps into the light, she can kid herself the she can still cut it as a (child?!) star, but when lit by the bare bulb she realises that she has gotten old, far too old, and her denial will only take her so far in life. She squawks with horror and breaks down in tears - then she hears the buzzer her sister Blanche is pressing, trapped in the upstairs bedroom thanks to her paralysis from the waist down and if it was not for their maid Elvira (Maidie Norman) she would be at Jane's mercy. The rumour is that Jane, thirty years ago, tried to run down Blanche at the mansion their father bought for them, where they still remain, and that's why she is disabled, but Blanche tries to wrest some power from her sibling by selling the old house so she can move into better accommodation.
Preferably without the bullying Jane. As neither have ever married, they are dependent on each other - Jane for Blanche's money, Blanche for someone to attend to her, though that is proving problematic when, say, an increasingly deranged Jane serves her up her pet budgie for dinner. The stories of Bette and Joan's rivalry sustained a long-lasting focus on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (and was even the subject of a television series, Feud, in 2017), there was a savage humour here, something that has kept the film alive as a cult favourite for decades, and the very sincerity of the two leads' performances may surprise you, offering far more grit and substance than many of the creepy old hag chillers that became a minor craze in the horror genre until about ten years afterwards.
Every so often, the movie disturbs you, whether it's Jane kicking the helpless Blanche around on the floor where she has crawled to get to the telephone for help (a futile gesture in the face of her sister's mania), or the deluded former celebrity trying to make the most pathetic of comebacks accompanied by an equally pathetic pianist (Victor Buono, whose character would have made a great film in himself) by reviving her favourite tune. But really what gets under the skin is that acknowledgement that youth is fleeting, and your mortality will be knocking at the door long before you actually expire. Hollywood may lose interest when their beautiful people ain't so beautiful anymore, but it's only reflecting societies across the globe. Aldrich was smart enough to recognise that the oldies could command a little respect nonetheless, and here, a whole lot of success - it ain't over till it's over, basically. The same team would reunite on writer Henry Farrell's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but that was another story. Music by Frank De Vol.