"Sister, sister, oh so fair, why is there blood all over your hair?"
- Film Tagline
7 November 1962
"Bette Davis and Joan Crawford Portray Sisters in Melodrama"
JOAN CRAWFORD AND BETTE DAVIS MAKE A COUPLE OF FORMIDABLE FREAKS IN THE NEW ROBERT ALDRICH MELODRAMA, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" But we're afraid this unique conjunction of the two one-time top-ranking stars in a story about two aging sisters who were once theatrical celebrities themselves does not afford either opportunity to do more than wear grotesque costumes, make up to look like witches and chew the scenery to shreds.
As this pair of profoundly jealous has-beens who live alone in an old Hollywood house, where one of them (Miss Crawford), a cripple, is confined to a wheelchair as the result of a long-ago vindictive "accident," they do get off some amusing and eventually blood-chilling displays of screaming sororal hatred and general monstrousness.
Especially Miss Davis. As the mobile one who is slowly torturing to death the helpless sister whose fame as a movie actress eclipsed her own as a child vaudeville star, she shrieks and shrills in brazen fashion, bats her huge mascaraed eyes with evil glee, snarls at the charitable neighbors and acts like a maniac. Indeed, it is only as a maniac that her character can be credited here - a sadly demented creature who is simply working out an ancient spite.
If you see her as that and see this picture, which opened yesterday in several score neighborhood theaters, as a "chiller" of the old-fashioned type - as a straight exercise in studied horror - you may find it a fairly gripping film.
The feeble attempts that Mr. Aldrich has made to suggest the irony of two once idolized and wealthy females living in such depravity and the pathos of their deep-seated envy having brought them to this, wash out very quickly under the flood of sheer grotesquerie. There is nothing particularly moving or significant about these two.
Miss Crawford does have the less malevolent and more sympathetic role. As a poor thing stuck in a wheelchair, unable to counter or resist her diabolic sister when she delivers a dinner tray bearing a dead pet canary or a scalded rat, she might earn one's gentle compassion. But she is such a sweetly smiling fraud, such an artlessly helpless ninny, that one feels virtually nothing for her. No wonder her crazy sister finds her a deadly bore.
Of course, she does have her big chance to chew some scenery when she has to drag herself to the telephone and when she later thrashes about in pop-eyed terror with her hands tied and a tape across her mouth.
Victor Buono gets a nice chance to do some elaborate acting, too. He plays a fat piano player who is invited into the house. But his weirdly epicene intruder is little more than a colorful buffoon, a bit of comic relief, in the proceedings. He takes a fast powder toward the end.
Maidie Norman also gets in for a few tense scenes as an anxious maid, and Anna Lee burbles occasionally as the woman who lives next door.
Of course, we won't tell you how it comes out. But the revelation at the end would be enough to tag the whole thing synthetic and a contrivance, if nothing else did - which it does.
A sleeper that became a sensation when it was released, the film sparked a trend in casting one-time Hollywood leading ladies in horror/thriller melodramas. However, none of those that followed were on a par with Baby Jane: Crawford in Strait-Jacket, Berserk, etc.; Davis in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Dead Ringer, etc.; Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage (and Charlotte with Davis and Joseph Cotten)...and even Joan Bennett in the gothic TV phenomenon, "Dark Shadows." But the film did more than make money (it was the first Hollywood film to earn back its budget in one weekend) and set a trend, it was also nominated for five Academy Awards and won for best B&W costume design.
This film is celebrated for many reasons, but it is the performance of Bette Davis that cements Baby Jane's place as a classic outside any genre. Davis "kicks out the jams" and gives a bravura portrayal, one of fascinating depth. Her Baby Jane Hudson is a grotesque, yes, she's over-the-top and she is terrifying at times...but she also has comic elements...and she is also a tragic, even touching figure. Crawford deserves attention, too, for bravely going toe-to-toe with Davis and turning in one of her most interesting performances, and Victor Buono, above with Davis, is also notable for his magnificently repellent rendition of the corpulent accompanist Jane hires when she decides to return to show business. Classic Film and TV Cafe
"This is a film that was literally meant to be seen on Halloween - it was released on 31 October 1962."
A visit to Jack Paar's talk program found Davis regaling the host over Hollywood's initial reluctance to back she and Crawford as co-stars. "We wouldn't give you a dime for those two old broads" was self-deprecating humor to roll viewers in the aisles, but Crawford was less amused (her letter the following day asked that Davis not refer to her as an old broad). This may have actually been where enmity between the two had beginnings, for Davis was nothing if not outrageous during interviews and cared less about maintaining dignity Crawford cherished".
Bette Davis seemed to have divined those camp sensibilities Baby Jane would eventually appeal to. She embraced the full out performing needed to put this one over, both onscreen and as uninhibited promoter for the film. It was OK by Davis to see her early emoting submitted to ridicule during opening flashback sequences detailing why Baby Jane never made it as an ingenue player. - Greenbriar Picture Shows
Jack Warner (above in his office with Davis, Crawford, and Aldrich) likened sneak audience reaction to a match lit in a paint factory (watch Baby Jane on television and imagine how those shudders reverberated over a hundred rows of seats). Aldrich had started out with a good story, plus Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, neither of whom raised interest or dollars among prospective studio backers. - Greenbriar Picture Shows
Joan Crawford on acting in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane" - including being served the dead rat for dinner:
Awards for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane
Best Black and White Costume Design - Norma Koch - 1962 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science
Best Black and White Cinematography - Ernest Haller - 1962 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Pic - Victor Buono - 1962 Hollywood Foreign Press Association
Best Director - Robert Aldrich - 1962 Directors Guild of America
Best Supporting Actor - Victor Buono - 1962 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama - Bette Davis - 1962 Hollywood Foreign Press Association
Best Sound - Joseph Kelly - 1962 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science
Best Actress - Bette Davis - 1962 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science
One of the more lurid posters used to promote the film, which was more black and white Gothic than technicolour horror.