Baby Jane giving one of her last desperate performancesSeven Arts Productions

Cult films revolve around genius. Either genius unrecognised by the general public, genius dismissed by critics, or a film containing a complete lack of genius (fulfilling that category of so-bad-it’s-good). As a result of our prejudices, cult films are overwhelmingly male. The one exception to this is the 1962 thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Hollywood legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis deliver performances of true genius as sisters Blanche and “Baby Jane” Hudson. While the directing of this film is undeniably great, what makes the film is their performance. Davis and Crawford are both stars in their own right, but the film really solidified their legacy and helped mythologise them into the icons they are today.

Baby Jane (Davis) was a spoilt but loved child-star, while older sister Blanche (Crawford) had to wait patiently in the sidelines. As they got older, Blanche ended up being a successful actress, while Jane’s career never took off. In a fit of jealousy, Jane uses a car to run over Blanche and cripple her, as revenge for Blanche stealing her spotlight. Thirty years later, a wheelchair-bound Blanche now lives together with her sister, her primary carer. The film centres on Jane’s psychological deterioration and her increasing malice towards her sister as a TV network broadcasts a rerun of Blanche’s greatest films, reviving interest in the star. 

Trailer for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?YouTube - Park Circus

It is rare even today to see a film where the two lead roles are played by women, let alone ageing women. Bette Davis actively tries to appear as ugly as possible, using grotesque caked-on stage makeup to emphasise her ageing features. There is a campy pleasure in seeing Baby Jane terrorising her helpless sister Blanche – who looks impossibly glamorous considering she has been locked up for years. But the film quickly gets more serious and genuinely thrilling. It truly makes for a refreshing change, although it is regrettable that we still do not have such roles for older actresses today.

One cannot help but sense the irony at how prophetic the film was

The cult is not only for the film itself, but also the actresses’ antics off-screen, now immortalised in Ryan Murphy’s Feud. Davis and Crawford were notorious rivals; their interactions on set are inseparable from the film itself. Their petty acts included Crawford concealing weights on her body on scenes where Davis had to lift her, as well as deliberately flubbing the scene to force repeats. Bette Davis was not much better, by having a Coca-Cola machine installed onset to provoke Crawford, whose husband was the chairman of Pepsi. Davis is known for saying “the best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs”. These are the antics that make a great celebrity feud.


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Watching the film today, one cannot help but sense the irony at how prophetic the film was. Davis and Crawford both became increasingly vain towards the end of their lives, and both had daughters who wrote about the abuse they received from their mothers (although the allegations against Davis are more disputed). One of these books would be later made into a camp classic, Mommie Dearest. 

Films grow cults when they take on meanings greater than the film itself, and this is what happened to Baby Jane. It is not just about terrorising scenes on set; it is the drama offstage, the plot’s prophecy being fulfilled, and bitchiness in every form. Not only is the thrill a great means of catharsis – the film also lets you appreciate the darkness of the world. It is this very darkness that can make something legendary.

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