Films That Haunt Me: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: two notorious queens of screen melodrama who absolutely hated each other. The Hollywood rivalry. It doesn’t make sense that they would do a film together, but lo and behold, it happened. No surprise that it’s a horror film, either, and one of the most powerful ever made. This is WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

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The film pits Davis and Crawford against each other as sisters, one a forgotten child star and the other a fading Hollywood actress, locked together in their decaying Los Angeles mansion. The former hates the latter because of her long-lasting success; the latter hates the former because, rumor has it, she caused a car crash that landed her sister in a wheelchair. In their old age, their hatred has only grown. And it’s about to explode into some violence.

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“Baby Jane” is a very special film. It was born from the actual conflict between these actresses, and the energy of this conflict is present throughout every scene. But what makes it truly remarkable are the characters. The boiling, unrequited hatred between them resembles something from Shirley Jackson or Flannery O’Connor – pure human grotesqueness.

There is no monster or murderer in this film other than their rivalry, but that proves to be a greater villain than any other. The vicious nature of the sister’s attacks on each other (mainly Davis, as the bitter child star, on wheelchair-bound Crawford) is utterly shocking. Particularly because there is deep emotion behind it, the undeniable bond of sisters.

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The film’s imagery is a necessity to discuss as well. Davis is ingenious as the forgotten Baby Jane, dolled up in a terrible amount of makeup, prancing around like a little girl – or exploding in murderous rages. Watching her prowl through the decayed mansion is a chilling as any screen demon. And the progression of her vengeance on her sister – starting with sisterly pranks, escalating into acts of brutality – is absolutely chilling, even more so because she isn’t doing it fully out of spite. But I won’t give too much away.

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Here we have a perfect example of film alchemy: so many elements gelling almost by luck into a piece of cinema that defies effort. Grand Guignol sets, neo-Gothic imagery (creepy dolls included), two grotesque characters… and a deeply unhealthy sibling relationship, bolstered by the actual animosity between the stars. All of this igniting into a single work of horrific, beautiful film. For that reason it is special, and a must-see – if the viewer is content with having their mind warped for two hours.

 

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2 Responses to “Films That Haunt Me: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?”

  1. I love this film! It’s absolutely mesmerizing and you’re bang on about the on-screen energy.

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