The acclaimed psychological thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? pits Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the ultimate game of sibling rivalry. The 1962 film, now available on Blu-ray, is sometimes considered a horror film, but that category doesn’t quite fit. The film is full of horrors, but not the kind that typically make up the genre. It’s a horror of the mind and spirit that dominates this film. This is the horror of a life gone wrong, of misunderstandings, and of an unresolved past. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is scary because it feels so real, like it could happen to almost anyone. It could even be happening in the house right next door.
Davis and Crawford play the Hudson sisters, Jane and Blanche. When Jane was a child she was known as “Baby Jane.” She tap danced and sang cutesy songs like “I Wrote My Daddy a Letter,” while her real daddy accompanied her on the piano. Baby Jane was adored by her throngs of fans and, of course, by her daddy. Neither Jane nor her father cared very much for Blanche. Jane was spoiled and Blanche was forgotten. As the sisters grew into adulthood, things changed. Blanche became a famous and beloved actress, while Jane’s schlocky films were the laughing stock of Hollywood.
At some point during the height of her success, Blanche is partially paralyzed in a freak automobile accident. It’s assumed the drunken Jane was responsible, though she is never punished for the crime. Years later the aging sisters share a large Hollywood home, living off of Blanche’s royalty checks. The disabled Blanche is confined to her upstairs bedroom and the hallway at the top of the stairs. Her only contact with the outside world is via her phone and her housekeeper, Elvira (Maidie Norman). Jane is clearly unstable. She’s an alcoholic who can’t get over her lost fame. She wears garish makeup and frilly dresses much like she wore on stage as a child.
Bette Davis steals the show. Crawford does a nice job as the victimized Blanche, but Davis takes the role of Jane and runs with it. Her fearless performance makes the character unforgettable. With each passing scene, Jane’s madness deepens and the horror she inflicts on her sister becomes more frightening. What begins as verbal taunts turns to mental torment and physical abuse. The desperate-for-fame Jane harbors dreams of resurrecting her career. She even hires a pianist (Victor Buono) to play her old songs. Her aged performance of “I Wrote a Letter to Daddy” is both difficult to watch and mesmerizing at the same time. To see someone so pathetic, yet so unaware of her own self, is fascinating.