Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? lies perilously close to Sunset Blvd., so much so that the screenplay by Lukas Heller and the visual style by Robert Aldrich would be shameless repeats if they weren’t so rapturously evocative and explosively effective. You can call it whatever you want: a drug-addled fever dream variation on Sunset, a hysterical nightmare that Sunset had about itself, a corrosive purifying of Sunset so that all the relative cleanliness of the material had been washed away until only the abrasive sandpaper at the core remained. Ultimately, what saves What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is not how it differentiates itself from Sunset, but how it rips into the Sunset aesthetic with such scabrous gusto and full-throated commitment that it exposes the horror cinema trappings of the chiaroscuro noir-speckled visuals and wonderfully garish vulture-like acting of Billy Wilder’s venerable 1950 film, the ultimate Hollywood work on the perils of Hollywood.
Indeed, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was released in 1962 at the waning years of Hollywood when studio cinema was rampantly giving way to needless excess and a desperate inability to remain relevant amidst the new dogs of European cinema and independent American cinema. Directed by Robert Aldrich and photographed by the wonderful Ernest Haller (who had worked with Michael Curtiz, Victor Fleming, and Nicholas Ray), Baby Jane clearly boasts the benefit of talented visual craftsmen who realized that the only thing to do to keep the material from drowsy prestige-pic boredom was to go full on horror with the material. Sensible, for this was Aldrich’s best mode – his other greatest film, 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, took noir right up the horror threshold – and his pitch-black heart was always best grounded in the muck.
Not that grounded is a meaningful term to describe the progenitor of the so-called “hag horror” or “psycho-biddy” sub-genre, or the more apt and evocative “Grand Dame Guignol”, for that is exactly the film down to a tee: take the petrified, tragic Grand Dame Gloria Swanson character from Sunset, double-down with two such faded starlets, bubble the psychotic angle of the story until it rips right off the headline, purify it in the waters of German Expressionism and Universal Horror, rinse, repeat. Admittedly, the genre, which would stand tall through the New Horror of the ’70s, became a joke relatively quickly; the balance of gravity and camp is a perilous, provocative broadside to normative film tone, but it almost begs to lapse into the rut of outright comedy. You need a ruthless team of craftspersons like the ones Aldrich assembled to keep the material transfixed in nastiness, but you also need a light touch (not Aldrich’s forte) – one that is, here, provided by Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
Playing two elderly actresses – sisters – Blanche (Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis) who have walled themselves up in a fading, autumnal mansion after Hollywood turned a blind eye to Jane early in her career (she was a famed child star) and a car accident paralyzed Blanche from the waist down. In the early ’60s, they have faded with the memories of classical Hollywood, although Blanche – who resists a public life – is still a famous movie star whose past films are as popular as ever, even if she does not leave her crestfallen home to star in new ones. Jane, who functions as Blanche’s caretaker, is repulsed by her patient, and her general inability to function as anything other than a grotesque ghoul quickly runs even colder as Jane loses all grasp of reality and inhibition.
Which is a claustrophobic drunken stupor of a set-up that paves the way for deeply unsettling thematic provocation, with Blanche trapped with Jane due to Blanche’s inability to truly feel anger toward her troubled sister, and Jane trapped with Blanche due to Jane’s inability to provide for herself, and her inability to not be around to torment her sister. Jane’s resentment toward her sister’s success pre-accident was a chip on her shoulder that, in the ensuing years, has turned into a cancerous tumor of untempered, inhuman resentment and fang-drawn alcoholism, with Jane primarily using Blanche’s isolation as an excuse to mentally torture her and wind her up. Aldrich certainly knows how to draw our attention to the suggestable claustrophobia of the piece – he films the mansion with a lurid largeness that marks it as an ostentatious, gilded prison of wealth, but he emphasizes walls and ceilings, as well as uncomfortable close-ups when inside, to strangle the characters with each other’s presence (one shot literally frames Jane’s face trapped in the prismatic warping distortion of the empty alcohol bottles that have warped her personality through years of abuse). Add to this Jane’s attempt to rekindle her famous toddler-aged singer character, who sang disconcerting songs about daughters loving their daddies (she manipulated hers with rampant cruelty as a child), and you have a veritable bottled-up lamp of festering sexual urges and pulsing fears and anxieties.
It is, as it always is, easy to overrate theme, however, and I must confess that Baby Jane is less invested in exploring the bitter depths of human torment and discomfort that many respectable critics will likely admit. But Baby Jane is not a film interested in “respect” – none of Aldrich’s films were, and certainly not his great films. It is a film that wouldn’t much work striving for respect anyway; the deliriously deranged way it explores the traumatized, barbarically destructive human mind is far more interested in being the most perfect variation on oblong horror it possibly could be, and that is what it ends up being. Aldrich was a master filmmaker at his best, and the character framing in Baby Jane is filled with jagged, ruthless angles that block and hide the characters and reveal them like they were Frankenstein’s Monsters or, more appropriately, Mummys. The house they live in is a B-movie Xanadu with a Charles Foster Kane that would rip Welles’ aged journalist to shreds.
Meanwhile, Haller’s cinematography could sour any human soul away from a belief in the possibility of niceness in the human world. The violent discomfort of the black-and-white, two colors that are contrasted and pitted against one another in every frame in this film, turns even the most mundane object into a soul-sapped beacon of terror in a world ruled by a live-action Disney villainess. Combined with Frank Devol’s penetrating, Bernard Herrmann meets theater pomp meets iron cage of cotton candy nightmares score, the film makes no claims to A-picture depth. Instead, it is a full-on B movie of the highest order, influenced by the prowling Psycho and partners in crime with Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, both released within one year of Baby Jane. It is no surprise that the film kicks into high gear only once the faded, somewhat pointless and largely expository prologue to the opening credits passes. It is in this opening credits sequences (approximately 10 minutes into the film) that Aldrich first dives deep down into the cavernous realm of horror cinema, and the film, from that point, never comes back up for air.
The dueling Grand Dames of Baby Jane, however, are the heart of a heartless movie. Together, they are a pas-de-deux of fire and ice, with the monstrous odd angles of Bette Davis jutting into the ribs of the weathered, vacant, down-tempoed Crawford, both of whom famously despised each other in real life and who palpably dig in to their roles to one-up the other and steal the movie. The clash is voluminous and volcanic, and, although Davis is plainly given the plumb role, the film wouldn’t work without each adopting a totally disfigured, disagreeing style as a means to sell the abject mental distance between the two sisters. Crawford’s famously craggy facial features seem more tired than ever here, evoking the years of punishing torment she has faced (and Haller addresses the crags of her skin head-on, doing nothing to make either woman any prettier at all). Davis, for her part, is elephantine in a role that calls for a high-camp take on Gloria Swanson filtered through cocaine and nightmares, seething with human and inhuman energy and threatening to grab the celluloid and eviscerate the camera at every moment.
It takes a mighty film to avoid Davis positively reverberating through every crack and running away with the piece, but Aldrich (and the haughty, wallowing drone of a screenplay by Heller) keep everything tied down, if not exactly stagnant. Everything in Baby Jane clamors for attention, aiming for the gut and shackling you to the screen with a toy box of theatrical tricks all played in a caterwauling vibrato such that the notes attain the tactile potency of a flailing morning star run out of control. Baby Jane is a last breath of a motion picture, and arguably a last breath for classical Hollywood cinema before the New Wave would come about a few years later. But the “classics” it evokes most thoroughly are not the Casablancas of the world. This is a turn back to the pre-Code horrors of the early ’30s, when American cinema was a touch nastier and a smidgen more unrestrained by convention and propriety.
Admittedly, moral qualms abound – it is generally not in society’s best interest to demonize elderly women this way, and the film’s depiction of Hollywood women is inherently fearful – but this amoral motion picture exists in a theatrical, stagebound register where every performance tick and presentational design choice evokes a world of fiction such that it is easy to view Jane as a victim of the Hollywood machine more than an outright villain. Everything is so viciously campy and theatrical that the characters don’t even pretend to be “real women”; they are instead theatrical performances, waxworks types choked in Aldrich’s glass menagerie of framing choices and the film’s habit of depicting them in mid-performance, with Jane even playing Blanche at one point in the film. It is as if the two characters aren’t real people at all, but permanently warped Hollywood vultures turned into the roles they played in prior lives.
Of course, the film’s anti-realism doesn’t excuse the depiction of Jane – she is the most self-centered arch-stereotype of a conniving woman who will do anything to achieve success, and thus a fundamentally gendered character (I would very much like to say that it is a film about the performance of gender and peeks behind the layers of her identity to reveal the tragedies that malformed her that way, but I do not think this is the case). If it isn’t a gendered film, this is only because it seems to exist in a primordial, pre-sexual zone where humans, and thus genders, do not really exist, but then it is a film that arrives into a gendered world, and thus bears scrutiny for its negative depiction of its primary female character.
It is impossible to deny the temperamental display of whirlwind craft on display in Baby Jane, however, a craft that trickles down to every bare detail. Norma Koch’s costuming rightfully won an Oscar, but it even is topped by the make-up for Jane’s character, chosen and applied by Davis herself. She wisely drowns Jane in a layer of artificial paleness that depicts her as a ghostly white maelstrom wearing the literal mask of an empty soul, using every trick she learned in showbiz – including a cocktail of self-love and self-hate – to pantomime pure evil until it seeps down into her true identity. She is a Venus Fly Trap, no question, but the film makes it almost impossible not to be drawn into the allure of this particular Venus Fly Trap such that the questionable depiction of the character is overturned by the passion and perfection with which the depiction is presented. The early 1960s are likely the weakest five year span in all of Hollywood history. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is one of the few deranged highlights of the time period, one of the most sensationally suggestive, and one of the most impeccably crafted.