American director Robert Aldrich’s 1962 psychological drama What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? celebrates its 50th anniversary in style this week with an impressive digital restoration, courtesy of Park Circus, and follows the melodramatic tale of two rival sisters clinging on to the remnants of the fame of their youth, played by Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Opening on a Vaudeville stage, we see the golden-curled starlet Baby Jane (Julie Allred), who draws in fans with her cutesy – later utterly terrifying – rendition of I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy. Watching on from the wings is the begrudging Blanche (Julie Allred), ever in the shadow of her sister’s stardom.
Eighteen years on and the tables have turned with Blanche (Joan Crawford) hogging the limelight whilst Jane’s popularity has waned. After a tragic car accident that cripples Blanche the (now much more haggard) sisters go into retirement in their Hollywood mansion. This allows Jane to regain dominance over her sister, with her controlling behaviour cascading into a psychological nightmare of abuse as Jane loses her grip on reality. Peppered with shots of spooky dolls that constantly remind us of Baby Jane’s former childhood fame, we see a total transformation from the sugar-wouldn’t-melt Baby to the terrifying hag of a make-up-caked Davis. Dripping with foundation and thick coatings of mascara, she is a monstrous sight and now the iconic image of the drama.
As impressive as Davis’ portrayal of mental decay is, the true quality of this enjoyable and terrifying melodrama hinges on the on and off screen relationship of the two leads. It has been frequently reported that Crawford and Davis couldn’t stand each other in real life, as they both vied for centre stage. With this in mind, Aldrich’s bold move in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to force the pair into production together was bound to generate a lot of good material. We see Davis literally kicking Crawford about the floor, trapped in her paralysed state, after endless scenes of scathing remarks delivered all too authentically.
Whilst Davis hams it up by screeching songs of her youth and knocking back gin at breakfast, Crawford plays down her role, in part restrained by her wheelchair. Despite the fact that Davis received an Oscar nod for her psychotically wild performance, it is Crawford who is the real talent here. Gobbling down chocolates after being starved or crawling across hallways in a desperate attempt to reach the phone, Crawford brings out the Hitchcockian elements of the film in all their glory, but does it with greater grace than the maniacal Davis, who is clearly fearful of losing the audience’s attention.
At times this conflict, which is almost too meta for words, becomes overblown. Fortunately, Victor Buono’s bumbling conman Edwin Flagg (employed by Jane in an effort to restart her career) entertains in the duller moments with scenes of comic relief. There may well be a lot of celebrity history here, but the drama more than holds in its own in an overblown fashion. Once seen, Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is hard to forget, as it charts the sad path of many a former child star to the backwaters of the Hollywood hills.