Baby Jane is basically Shirley Temple, a child star singing and dancing her way to fame. She’s extremely spoiled, and mistreats her sister Blanche, who looks more like Wednesday Addams. Flash forward 18 years: Blanche (Joan Crawford) is an established movie star, while Jane (Bette Davis) is pretty much booed out of Hollywood for not being able to act. Their careers are both stopped short when a car accident leaves Blanche paralyzed, and Jane is blamed. Flash forward twenty-seven years: Blanche is still sweet and humble, while Jane is bitter and demented. When she learns Blanche is planning to sell the house they live in and put her away in a mental hospital, Jane tortures her, doing things like alternately starving her and feeding her horrible things. The situation escalates until Jane is driven to murder.
Besides the question of why Blanche’s room is upstairs, the most striking thing about the film to me is the performances. Davis is extremely unsettling as Jane; she has a child’s selfishness combined with an adult’s malevolence. But despite her anger, she’s also fragile. There’s a scene when she recites from her childhood act; she’s trying for cute and innocent, but her droopy face and cracked voice are just pathetic and creepy—she sees herself in a mirror and starts bawling. Crawford as Blanche is also stellar; if Mommie Dearest can be believed, she must have been working extra hard to appear kind and rational.
Also interesting (but sadder) is the character of Elvira (Maidie Norman), the sisters’ Black maid. Being suspicious of Jane and strongly protective of Blanche, she’s the voice of reason and the smartest person in the movie. She becomes really hostile to Jane, and in one scene has Jane cowed when she catches her being cruel to Blanche. She’s so likable and such a strong character (hey, it’s the ’60s, a little cheekiness was often the best you could hope for in terms of Black characters) that it’s devastating (but not surprising, alas) when Jane kills her.
The plot is pretty original, and the film is really disturbing—we never know what Jane’s going to do next, but it’s bound to be unpleasant. This is one of those classic horror films that I never ended up seeing until my twenties. I’m glad I finally got around to it. It’s dark and intelligent; check it out if you’re in the mood for something psychological. As a special treat, I’ve included a clip of Davis singing “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” juxtaposed with Susan Sarandon performing it in character as Davis on Feud: Bette and Joan. Good luck getting it out of your head.