The year was 1962. I was twelve, not quite thirteen, when Whatever happened to Baby Jane? hit the big screen. Yeah, just a snot-nosed kid, but already old enough to know that the real monsters weren’t the ones that ate Cleveland and other big cities. The real ones were the ones next door. Or, worse yet, the ones that lived right inside the walls of your own home.
It was a psychological thriller, and a gothic horror film, and it packed the punch of a prize fighter. There was another element involved as well; one that isn’t so often talked about. That was the fact that Baby Jane was a darned fine black-comedy as well. All of the great horror films were of course. Psycho, Homicidal, The Birds, The Hitcher, just to name a few.
The movie was based on a 1960 novel of the same name by Henry Farrell. It was a smashing success right out of the gate, almost heralded as a classic from the moment the first movie-house projector began to roll. It met with critical and box office acclaim, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for best costume design in the black and white category.
It would never have made it big however without the presence of the two starring ladies. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were giants of the silver screen. Both well past their prime in ’62, they proved that a well-worn name, plus about a ton of raw talent, could still pack movie-houses.
They were long-time rivals in real-life. That fact only added to the film’s appeal. Campy in the extreme, the crowds didn’t care. Let Crawford, Davis and Victor Buono chew the scenery all day long. It only added to the fun. The movie coined new phrases–Hag Horror, and psycho-biddy. It was originally rated an X in The United Kingdom. To this very day, Baby Jane remains a cult classic, and continues to play as a favorite Midnight Movie, right up there with The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Before there was Tim Curry, and Andy Serkis . . . there was Bette and Joan. They had a presence; and a secret weapon as well. The famous “Bette Davis Eyes,” didn’t hurt the film’s popularity one little bit either.
In 2003, the character of Baby Jane Hudson was ranked #44 on the American Film Institutes list of the fifty best villains in the history of American Cinema.
It was a plot to relish.
In 1917, Baby Jane Hudson was a vaudevillian child star. She sang and danced. She was good at it too. But youth, like beauty, soon fade, and a couple of decades later, Jane is a forgotten star, by 1962, a lot of people are asking the inevitable question that becomes the movie title.
Baby Jane Hudson is ready for a comeback. She still sees herself as what she was, and in costume performs one of her old routines in front of a mirror. It was, and is to this day, one of the most macabre movie scenes ever recorded on film.
The problem for Jane, of course, is her sister Blanche, a long crippled sister confined to her wheelchair and a single bedroom in the oldHudson Mansion. Blanche had a little car accident way back when, and she blames Jane for it. Of course, as is always the case in a Bette Davis film, nothing is as it seems. Blanche is a lady with a boat-load full of secrets, and some of them are not so nice.
She is about to pay a heavy price for her sins, with Jane serving up large portions of just desserts–and dead rats.
The film plays on our worst fears. As in–we never know what is really going on behind the closed and peaceful looking doors and windows of our neighbor’s houses. Behind the well-manicured lawns and lovely white-washed picket fences. And we never really know what is going on inside their heads either. The intervening half-century between this films release and now has proven that little fact many, many times, much to our collective sorrow.
Give it a watch. I guarantee it will be worth your time. If you are a fan of the off-beat and the bizarre, as I am, then this movie is for you.
And thank you, Bette and Joan, not only for this well-remembered celluloid gem, but for two life-times and careers of great entertainment at the old movie palaces. We won’t be seeing the like of either one of you for a long, long time, if ever–I’d venture a guess.
Next up–a new book, and a good one. The Returned, by Jason Mott.
Until then . . . Good Night.