This psychological horror/thriller film focuses on the bitter relationship between siblings “Baby Jane” Hudson (Bette Davis), who was once a vaudevillian child star, and her former movie actress sister Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) who is now a paraplegic. With the decline of vaudeville and the rise of motion pictures, Blanche had become a rousing success at the box office, while Jane failed to transition to the screen and fell into a life ruined by alcoholism and mental illness. Now, the siblings live together in Blanche’s decaying mansion, with Jane exerting greater and greater control over her wheelchair-bound sibling. But how extreme will she ultimately get in her quest for vengeance?
Davis and Crawford became infamously embroiled in a bitter rivalry during production of this film (which alone has been the subject of much Hollywood legend and lore that will not be further explored in this review, as well as many related works including, most recently, an FX miniseries simply and aptly entitled FEUD). However, as director Robert Altrich put it, “It’s proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly.” And while there’s no telling how much of their rivalry transitioned into the filmed performances as opposed to what both of them would have otherwise invented, there’s no doubting how uniquely emotional the lead roles are: Davis as the maniacal sadist longing for a return to fame, and Crawford as the timid cripple virtually always confined to her upstairs bedroom. It would be unfair to say that one outperformed the other here, even though Davis received a rightly-deserved Oscar® nomination for Best Actress.
Adding to the leads’ stellar performances, Lukas Heller’s well-penned screenplay (based on the eponymous Henry Farrell novel), and Altrich’s superb overall direction is some equally stellar below-the-line work. Magnificent costuming by the usually mononymic Norma Koch won her this film’s only Academy Award®, while the succinctly-framed cinematography of Ernest Haller was also nominated. Frank DeVol’s score also echoes the terse, suspenseful nature of the production and augments the visual elements very nicely.
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? is unquestionably one of the greatest examples of psychological horror ever put on celluloid. It was so influential that it even launched a brief subgenre of films known as the psycho-biddy film, which of course included later contributions by both of this film’s stars and its director (I already viewed another typical example of this subgenre last year in the 1965 Crawford vehicle I SAW WHAT YOU DID), but in this case, the original really is the best.