Monday, April 4, 2016

Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Most classic film buffs, at least the ones I know, can remember the first time that they saw any one of their favourite actors. They can remember not only the film, but even the circumstances down to the time of day. What is more, for most classic film buffs, at least the ones I know, the film that served as an introduction to any given favourite actor is usually one made when the actor was at the height of his or her career or close to it. As an example, the first film in which I ever saw Audrey Hepburn was My Fair Lady (1964). For that matter, the first film I saw that starred Vivien Leigh was Gone with the Wind (1939). That having been said, there are a few exceptions where the first time I saw one of my favourite actors was not a movie made at the height of his or her career. For me this is particularly true of Bette Davis. She is one of my all time favourite actresses, but I saw her in a film that was made after the height of her stardom.

That film was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).  Not only was it the first film in which I ever saw Bette Davis, but the actress who was always reportedly her rival as well, Joan Crawford. Although both women were still highly regarded and highly respected, their careers were not what they had been in the Thirties and Forties. As the Fifties progressed, both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford increasingly appeared on television rather than in feature films. From 1957 to 1962 Bette Davis guest starred on such shows as Schlitz Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre, Studio 57, General Electric Theatre, Suspicion, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Wagon Train (on which she guest starred twice).  During that same period Miss Davis only appeared in three films (John Paul Jones, The Scapegoat, and Pocketful of Miracles).  Bette Davis was still a legend, but her career was not what it once had been. Fortunately, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? would revitalise the career of both Bette Davis.

Of course, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? would be very different from anything Bette Davis had done before.  Directed by Robert Aldrich and based on the novel by Henry Farrell, the movie centred on two ageing sisters: one time child star Baby Jane (Bette Davis) and her handicapped, but one time movie star sister Blanche (Joan Crawford). Baby Jane, envious of her sister's success in adulthood, outright abuses her sister, such abuse only getting worse when she learns Blanche plans to sell their mansion and place Jane in a sanatorium. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is often called a "psychological thriller" and could even be considered an outright horror film. 

There are conflicting accounts as to how the two legendary actresses were cast as the leads of the film. Robert Aldrich claims that he came up with the idea of casting the two in a film together. According to Joan Crawford, she told Mr. Aldrich that she wanted to work with him once more (having worked with him on Autumn Leaves from 1956) and actually suggested Bette Davis as her co-star.

The casting of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane was a major piece of entertainment news at the time. Even then the rivalry between the two actresses was legendary. Indeed, it is difficult to determine how much truth there actually is to the various tales of the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford over the years. Whether there was a good deal of truth regarding the alleged animosity between the two actresses before What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, it would seems possible that there was afterwards.

Indeed, reports vary wildly as to how well Bette Davis and Joan Crawford got along on the set. Director Robert Aldrich has said that the two got along together on the set, even though it was clear they disliked each other.  He has said that neither tried to upstage the other and "They both behaved in a wonderfully professional manner."  According to other reports, however, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were often spiteful to each other on the set. In the scene where Jane assaults Blanche with a telephone, Miss Davis reportedly kicked Miss Crawford in the head, something the latter claimed Miss Davis did on purpose. Later, in the scene where Jane must carry Blanche from her bed, Bette Davis asked Joan Crawford not to be dead weight, as she had a bad back. When Miss Davis went to carry Miss Crawford, however, she found the actress so heavy that it put her back in a good deal of pain. Miss Davis claimed Miss Crawford lined her costume with lead weights.

While reports of the two actresses feuding during the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? may be mere legend, there is much more truth to reports of their feuding following the movie's release. Bette Davis was nominated for the Oscar for Best Lead Actress, which infuriated Joan Crawford who was not nominated. Joan Crawford actually campaigned against Bette Davis winning the Oscar and even telephoned the other nominees with an offer of accepting the award on their behalf! Ultimately Bette Davis lost the Oscar to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker (1962).

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? proved to be very successful at the box office. It also received overwhelmingly positive reviews. In addition to the nomination for Bette Davis, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was nominated for four other Oscars. It won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design.

Given the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, it should come as no surprise that Robert Aldrich wanted to feature Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in another film. Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte was to have starred Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but Miss Crawford remained on the set for only four days before dropping out due to illness. Olivia de Havilland then took over Joan Crawford's role.

The success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? would revitalise Bette Davis's career. In the Sixties she not only appeared in Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte, but in such films as Where Love Has Gone (1964) and Connecting Rooms (1970). Not surprisingly, many of the films in which Bette Davis starred in the Sixties would be psychological thrillers similar to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte, if not outright horror movies. In the wake of the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, she appeared in such films as Dead Ringer (1964), The Nanny (1965), and The Anniversary (1968).

Indeed, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? can be credited with the creation of a whole subgenre of horror movies or thrillers, the psycho-biddy movie.  Pyscho-biddy movies are films featuring a mentally unbalanced, older woman, usually one who had once been glamorous. Among the psycho-biddy films released in the wake of the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? were Strait-Jacket (1964), starring Joan Crawford,  Lady in a Cage (1964), Fanatic (1965), The Night Walker (1965), Berserk! (1967), starring Joan Crawford, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), What's the Matter with Helen? (1971), and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971).  The boom in the psycho-biddy subgenre finally wound down in the early Seventies.

Following What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Bette Davis's career never really slowed down. She continued to work steadily through the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. In fact, her final film, Wicked Stepmother (1989), was released the year she died. Over the years Bette Davis gave many notable performances, including  Dark Victory; Now, Voyager; and All About Eve. She played everything from Queen Elizabeth I to Catherine the Great. For many, however, Baby Jane remains among her best remembered performances. Bette Davis's portrayal of Baby Jane Hudson is over the top and entirely demented, and yet one of the most fully realised characters she ever played. It is clear that Bette Davis put a lot of work into the role and it shows. All in all, while it might not be her most glamorous role, it was a good one through which to be introduced to Bette Davis.


Silver Screenings said...

You said it – Baby Jane is one over-the-top character, but she is utterly mesmerizing. Bette Davis is pitch-perfect in that role, in my opinion.

I remember watching this movie for the first time. II was horrified by Davis' character, but I couldn't keep my eyes off her. Joan Crawford is superb, too, but Davis OWNS this movie.

Perfect choice for this blogathon!

Spiritually Cramped said...

A Bette Davis blogathon wouldn't be complete without this classic. I love the anecdote about Crawford calling voters - very undignified but I guess jealousy makes you do strange things! Davis' willingness to truly embrace the 'horror' of her character still seems so contentious - it says so much – then, and now – about beauty and vanity, how we perceive and what we expect from movie stars

(Vicki from Girls Do Film)

Phyl said...

I agree with Silver Screenings! My dad was watching the film late one night and after catching sight of Davis I thought, who would want to watch that?! But then I couldn't stop watching it!!! Then I had to watch it again with the beginning!