What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? succeeds because it knows what kind of movie it is and leans into it. It begins as its main characters are still children, channeling the beginning of the musical Gypsy. Baby Jane is the talk of the town, earning enough money to keep her family afloat, but she’s also a terrible brat of a child, constantly demanding candy and ice cream. How good of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to remind us that parents have been catty about each other’s parenting for much longer than you might think. Their mother makes Blanche promise to be better to Baby Jane than she’s being to Blanche right now someday when the tables have turned.
The next title card flashes us fifteen years in the future, when both sisters are now in their twenties. Jane flops as soon as she starts making movies while her older sister Blanche (now played by Joan Crawford) is a sought-after star who makes her film appearances on the condition that her sister keeps getting work as well. A studio exec screens one of Bette Davis’ real early films, standing in for Jane’s. (Apparently, Robert Aldrich asked Davis what film she thought he should pull to show one of her worst performances and Davis replied that he could take any of her early ones!) It’s a really smart move to take advantage of the two stars’ long careers by showing their early movies. I haven’t seen Ryan Murphy’s show, Feud, about the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? but I assume this was to make their rivalry even more potent behind-the-scenes.
Finally the title card informs the audience that we have arrived at “Yesterday,” meaning 1962 in a gag that makes the film feel timeless and dated at the same time. I admit to preferring Bette Davis to Joan Crawford by quite a wide margin and being much more familiar with Davis’ body of work, so it was odd that the narrative is from the perspective of Crawford’s character, while Davis plays the villain.
Joan Crawford’s presence brings a strength of will and character to every role she plays, which kept this audience member from being too worried about her even though she’s at a clear disadvantage: Blanche is in a wheelchair, (and stuck upstairs with no way to get to the bottom floor for most of the movie, until she invents one) and Baby Jane can walk. Crawford’s strength makes them pretty evenly matched even though she’s paralyzed: you know she can take care of herself. There’s some ambiguity around how Blanche became paralyzed, but the neighbors suspect that it was her fat older sister (Baby) Jane who did it out of jealousy while Blanche was at the peak of her career. I do love how the question What Ever Happened to Blanche’s Legs? dangles over Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, constantly filling its atmosphere with tension.
One of my favorite aspects of this classic is that it’s not just Baby Jane who’s insane. Blanche is pretty intense, the neighbors are a little too eager to get involved, and Edwin, the man Baby Jane ends up hiring to produce her comeback tour, is appropriately delusional and as much of an alcoholic as Baby Jane is herself. When Edwin’s mother pretends to be his son’s secretary to increase his chances at the job, it’s delightful because the audience knows one crazy character is pretending to be someone they’re not, without knowing they’re actually calling another character who’s close to psychotic. It’s like a conman trying to scam a serial killer. It also feels like the only way this aspect of the plot could happen because you’d have to be crazy to want to help Baby Jane with her comeback tour.
SPOILERS from here on out:
There’s some Rear Window influence in a lot of the scenes where Blanche is trapped in bed and waiting for Baby Jane to get back from the bank. I loved watching Baby Jane doing a perfect impersonation of Blanche on the phone to the banker. I love how that character’s addiction to chocolate turned into an alcohol problem in adulthood. Truly the problem is impulse control, not the specific substance being consumed.
I also like that even though Baby Jane was cartoonishly villainous, sometimes you saw what was motivating her, like when she pointed out that Blanche couldn’t sell the house because her parents bought it with the money Baby Jane earned. You don’t agree with her exactly, but you’re reminded that this crazy lady was made crazy by a crazy bad childhood where she had to be the breadwinner for her family. She’s simply the product of her environment.
I loved the ending for just leaning into its own weirdness. It goes out with a bang, instead of trickling out gradually like I feared it would. It’s ambiguous if Blanche is telling the truth when she admits that she injured her spine in a car accident when Baby Jane was passed out and Blanche let Baby Jane think she was the culprit for twenty years. If that’s true, Blanche is also a monster for waiting so long to clear that up and assuage her alcoholic sister of all that guilt.
But it seems more likely Blanche was just desperate to say anything to stay alive that day on the beach. It reminded me of this psychological tactic where someone accepts responsibility for all their actions as a method to get over past trauma. But what Blanche does on the beach is like the opposite of that. Baby Jane wanted to rid herself of responsibility in any way she could. She blamed her alcoholism on Blanche too, as addicts frequently do. I got the impression Blanche is pretending to accept responsibility for Baby Jane’s actions to get Baby Jane to some sort of inner realization or turning point.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? closes with Baby Jane wandering down along the beach with a crowd of people surrounding her. Baby Jane spins, again and again, while moving forward. We saw Blanche do something similar in her wheelchair earlier, in a moment of anger. It’s an awkward moment in the film and when you first see it, you wonder why it’s there. Why do these sisters do this? Perhaps, much like Baby Jane’s alcoholism, it’s simply a side effect to growing up in that toxic household.