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Trailers were very different in the 1960s, which is how we come to the marketing strategy for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane before release in 1962. An ominous voice explains that this is a horror picture and it features Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as we’ve never seen them before. Strangely, the narration cautions that viewers need to know that before they decide to see it, and then demands further: “We beg you, as the tension builds to the screaming point, as shock after shock assaults your senses, try to remember that this is only a motion picture. Try and remember!”
This is a big claim to live up to, especially the insistence that we might forget this isn’t a real event. Once you take in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, though, you begin to understand why this was the angle. The stars really hated each other, famously, and the professional conflict was so rich that it spawned an entire season of television more than four decades later.
Feud was supposed to be a series of individual seasons of feuds between famous figures. It was cancelled after one season, so it exists as a standalone eight episodes called Bette and Joan about the production of and response to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I watched it before I saw the film, and I do think that’s the order you should do it in if you haven’t seen either one and are going to watch both. Susan Sarandon is particularly good as Bette Davis, despite the big shoes to fill. Jessica Lange gives a quieter, maybe more convincing, portrayal of Joan Crawford. It’s all kinda true and probably real and maybe this is something, is the vibe you get, and as long as that lens stays it holds together.
It’s hard to divorce the film from that context. These are two of the biggest stars in film history at the end of their careers, playing characters well past the end of their careers, and it is deliberately metatextual. I don’t know how much intent you can assign, but Davis and Crawford knew that their performances as washed-up characters would be read as commentary on their respective places in Hollywood. Davis went much bigger with a much crazier role and ended up nominated for an Oscar, but even with that, this is the end for both of them. They had to know that was a possibility.
Roger Ebert spends an entire paragraph of his review of the film debunking a story about one actress kicking the other hard enough to require stiches during production. It’s time swell spent, because there is a lot more discourse about how this got made than there is about what actually got made. I realize this a long runway at this point, but it’s necessary because what is on the screen isn’t as important as what happened around it. By marketing the movie this way, the studio co-opted decades of film history and fan appreciation for two legendary performers. It must be reckoned with before you even talk about the plot.
Bette Davis plays “Baby Jane” Hudson, who was a child star that couldn’t translate success into adulthood. Joan Crawford is her older sister Blanche, who was jealous as a child but grew into a star with a higher ceiling. Blanche’s career is cut short by a car accident that leaves her paralyzed and we open with her under the care of the very drunk, very sad “Baby Jane.”
There are a lot of places to take that opening and most of them aren’t good. The go-to from more modern film is probably Misery, another bedridden piece of tension driven by a maniac’s unwillingness to release their “captive.” Both films look at different causes for mania, but it’s hard to not see one in the other, depending on which you’ve seen first. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane really hammers home the fact that “Baby Jane” is jealous and furious with her sister and that she is never going to let this go.
The word you will find in reviews of this movie is “camp.” Nearly everyone calls it campy because of Bette Davis’ makeup and her choice to play “Baby Jane” at 11/10 the entire time. She screeches half of her lines and somehow escalates her already way-too-big performance into even more during the climax. By the end of the movie, she’s barely human. It’s a really risky set of decisions and it really is fairly exhausting to watch.
Crawford’s fear, however, feels very real. When you get lost in the conflict, it’s in the moments that Blanche is alone, scheming, trying to find a way out of a room she knows she can’t leave. The conflict between the sisters (on and off screen) is the hook, but I think the struggle is more fascinating when “Baby Jane” is an off-screen threat.
The secondary characters force Crawford and Davis to advance their rivalry, but mostly it’s the two stars. The climax is anything but predictable, but it’s also not really the point. The ending is ambiguous, as much because that’s a more compelling choice as it is a choice that doesn’t really change the experience. The journey is generally more important than the destination, but it’s especially true for a movie that depends on rising tension as much as this one.
I was genuinely surprised by what What Ever Happened to Baby Jane turned out to be, given the world around it. It’s much more suspenseful than the “camp” legacy would suggest and Crawford especially turns in a performance that I think is worth seeing. Bette Davis risked more, to be sure, and she is rightfully the one who got the credit, but just like in the dramatic representation of Feud, the quieter choice seems harder to pull off. You need both or you don’t have a monster movie, though, and that’s certainly what this is. The best bits are in the middle, which is bittersweet as a commentary on Crawford and Davis as well as the film itself, but that’s how most things go. It’s also fascinating to see what comes after, for people who are willing to envision an “after.”
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I do think this is a better movie than Aguirre, Wrath of God. Both feature a mad, boiled-over main character who rages at everyone else. Aguirre is even bigger than Baby Jane, mostly because of circumstance and the sword and armor he’s got, but both of them would probably handle each other’s circumstances the same way. These are two similar character studies, but the focus in Herzog’s film on only the character study, with nothing else, limits what that movie can say.
Is it the best movie of all time? Yep, on this short list of three so far, I think so far What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is the current best movie of all time. I don’t really care for the twist ending, which isn’t giving anything away to say, and I really like Roger Ebert’s point in his review that the premise here is a little thin. Why do these people live together and why is “Baby Jane” in charge, given how she barely is able to move around in the world? It doesn’t matter for the panic to feel real, but it would for the thing to hold together completely.
You can watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane for $1.99 on Amazon. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.