In the 1962 classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Bette Davis delivers a truly horrifying performance. As Jane Hudson, Davis is both tough to watch and riveting in her performance that really makes this film a classic. Apart from Davis, the film drags and the story felt like it could have been told in much less time.
The film begins in the past with Baby Jane Hudson in a sold-out performance. Baby Jane sings, I’ve written a letter to daddy, and the crowd erupts after the performance. Jane’s father takes advantage of this popularity by selling creepy Baby Jane dolls outside the hall. The fans line up to buy the doll and overhear an argument between Baby Jane and her father. The little girl is an absolute brat and I’ve never hated a young person as much as I did Baby Jane. The father predictably gives in to the “star” of the show. We skip a few years ahead and we see Bette Davis as Jane Hudson, a fully grown woman who struggles on screen. During this point in the film it’s revealed that Jane’s sister Blanche, has taken over the spotlight and is the successful one of the two sisters. Blanche is one of the most powerful actresses during this time and it’s speculated that she’s the reason Jane continues to get parts. We then get to the critical scene in the film. Blanche and Jane are driving home and Blanche gets out to open the gate. Once the gate is opened, Jane hits the gas and runs into the house and her sister, paralyzing her.
From here, the film really bends towards the horror department as we are in present day and we see the full view of Davis’ Jane Hudson. The make-up is ugly and the way Davis uses her eyes in this film reminds me of that creepy doll from the beginning of the film. It’s unsettling to say the least. With the paralysis, Blanche has left the movie business and is stuck in the upstairs of her house, fully dependent on her sister Jane. Jane is a terrible woman who lives to torment her sister. She allows Blanche’s bird to fly out of the house, then sticks it on a plate for her dinner. Jane also serves a rat for dinner towards the end of the film. With this kind of a storyline it gets a little towards the side of unbelievable and that does take the film down a few notches for me. What we get in the second part of the film is Jane tormenting Blanche, followed by Blanche’s attempt to get help from her abusive sister. The final reveal of this film is interesting, but the star of the film really is Davis and that horrific make-up.
I first heard of this film via the Movies You Should See podcast hosted by Simply Syndicated. Their analysis of the film was thoughtful and engaging and it really did make me want to go out and see this film. After seeing it, I can say that I wished the storyline of the pianist was removed. The film was fairly long for the amount of plot to cover and while I was entertained by Davis’ performance, particularly when she’s attempting to be a normal woman, I didn’t care for the pianist and his mother/secretary. The eyes of Bette Davis really are the reason to watch this film, and it’s created an image in my mind that will stick with me for quite a while.