It could be argued that there was no greater Hollywood feud than the one between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It’s a hatred that’s so well known that it formed the basis for a hit television series by Ryan Murphy, “Feud: Bette and Joan“. I’m going to link to a timeline of their feud, which started in 1933 and involve marriages, divorces, stolen roles, Oscar scandal and so many of Bette Davis’ most venomous barbs that it’s genuinely stunning that the two of them were able to put their genuine hatred for each other aside long enough to complete a single take in their 1962 classic What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?. But they did, they managed to take their animosity and turn it into one of the biggest films of the year, 14th highest-grossing at the box office and it’s now considered one of the camp cult classics that live on almost as a joke… I don’t get how because the movie is intense as hell, but then again camp is a strange thing.
What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? is the tale of the Hudson sisters, a pair of former child stars who had alternating periods of relevance. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was big on the vaudeville stage, performing with her father and carrying the entire family on her shoulders for a brief period, but something shifted and soon it was Jane’s sister, Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) who became the big star in movies. Blanche would sadly soon be in a terrible mysterious car accident that would paralyse her from the waist down, making her completely dependent on her sister Jane who resents Blanche for the success that Jane felt entitled to. Jane, who has clearly regressed into childhood, spends her days alternating between drinking, forging Blanche’s signature to get her money, and torturing Blanche just because it would be amusing. What evolves is a game between a desperate Blanche who can’t get out since she’s stuck on the first floor and unable to get down, and a wicked Jane who resents the world for her loss.
It’s no surprise to me that Bette Davis got an Oscar nomination for this film because, as one would expect when hearing the phrase “A Bette Davis performance” she knocks it out of the park with a performance that is so calculated that it’s a joy to behold. Yes, she is chewing the scenery like it’s covered in strawberry ice cream but she is doing it with the very specific intent of showing how insane her character is. To pick a favourite moment in Bette’s performance would be to just point at the entire thing and go “That part, I like all of that part”, but particular praise has to go to the scene where she’s performing “I’ve Written A Letter To Daddy” and is clearly out of her mind the entire time. She is genuinely incredible in every possible way and I completely get why she got her last Oscar nomination for this role… why Joan Crawford didn’t get one, I’ll never understand.
Despite what we know about Joan now, thanks to her daughter Christina’s tell-all book, “Mommie Dearest“, can we all just admit that Joan was criminally underrated when it came to the Oscars? She’s an icon now because of… well, “NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!” but seeing this movie makes you realise just how much she put into a performance. While Bette’s performance is great, without Joan making Blanche one of the most sympathetic characters ever what Bette was doing wouldn’t work. Joan is a perfect victim, you genuinely can see how hopeless her situation is and when she has moments where she almost escapes, you cheer for her. I believe that she should’ve gotten the same kind of praise Bette got, Bette’s role was just so over the top that it was hard to see anything else… Joan certainly deserved an Oscar nomination more than Victor Buono for his forgettable performance as Edwin Flagg. What I’m saying is that I’m entirely Team Joan on this movie and I absolutely agree with her deciding to go around to the other Oscar Nominees and offering to accept on their behalf when they couldn’t turn up just so she could get on that stage to accept an award (which she actually did, it was petty but damnit I love it)
The film itself is genuinely intense and still works surprisingly well. Seeing one of our leads just slowly losing her mind while the other lead is basically tortured into an early grave is harrowing to witness as it slowly gets worse and worse throughout the movie. Sure, small moments like “You didn’t eat your din din” or “But ya are Blanche, ya are in that chair” have become camp through repetition but in context, they’re genuinely horrifying. It’s a power play, two titans of the screen battling for dominance in their own way. This is the kind of film that can only work if the leads genuinely hate each other because it comes through in every single frame, it makes their relationship absolutely fascinating in so many ways.
What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? is one of those films that you go in expecting a camp classic (true story, the copy I have comes with a DVD audio commentary by two drag queens, that’s how much it banks on camp) and you come out seeing the intense thriller that it was. Sure, you can mock it and make jokes and laugh at Bette’s performance that starts at a 12 and goes up from there, but if you give the film a serious second look you’ll see a genuinely powerful film with something fascinating to say about how a touch of fame can ruin you forever… and a performance by Joan that was slept on and deserves a second look.