What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 American psychological thriller–horror film produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, about an aging former actress who holds her paraplegic sister captive in an old Hollywood mansion. The screenplay by Lukas Heller is based on the 1960 novel of the same name by Henry Farrell. Upon the film's release, it was met with widespread critical and box office acclaim and was later nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for Best Costume Design, Black and White.
The intensely bitter Hollywood rivalry between the film's two stars, Davis and Crawford, was heavily important to the film's initial success. This in part led to the revitalization of the then-waning careers of the two stars. In the years after release, critics continued to acclaim the film for its psychologically driven black comedy, camp, and creation of the psycho-biddy subgenre. The film's then unheard of and controversial plot meant that it originally received an X rating in the UK. Because of the appeal of the film's stars, Dave Itzkoff in The New York Times has identified it as being a "cult classic". In 2003 the character of Baby Jane Hudson was ranked No. 44 on the American Film Institute's list of the 50 Best Villains of American Cinema.
In 1917, "Baby Jane" Hudson is an adored yet ill-tempered vaudevillian child star while her older sister Blanche lives in her shadow. By 1935, their fortunes have reversed: Blanche is a successful film actress and Jane lives in obscurity, her films having failed. One night, Jane mocks Blanche at a party, prompting Blanche to run away in tears. That same night, Blanche is paralyzed from the waist down in a mysterious car accident that is unofficially blamed on Jane, who is found three days later in a drunken stupor.
In 1962 a wheelchair-bound Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis) are living together in Blanche's mansion, purchased with Blanche's movie earnings. By now, Jane has descended into alcoholism and mental illness and treats Blanche with cruelty to punish her for stealing her spotlight. Later, when Blanche informs Jane she may be selling the house, Jane's mental health begins to deteriorate further. During an argument, she removes the telephone from Blanche's bedroom, cutting Blanche off from the outside world. Later, Jane begins denying Blanche food, until she serves Blanche her dead parakeet on a platter—and, at a later meal, a rat that she killed in the cellar.
Jane becomes obsessed with recapturing her childhood stardom and puts an advertisement in the paper for a pianist to accompany her singing, When Jane leaves the house, Blanche tries to get the attention of her neighbor, Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee), by writing a note pleading for help and throwing it out her bedroom window. Jane returns in time to notice the note and prevents Mrs. Bates from seeing it. When Jane reads the note, the two sisters quarrel again.
When Blanche's caretaker Elvira Stitt (Maidie Norman) comes to clean the house, Jane pays her and gives her the day off, but when Elvira returns later on, Jane abruptly fires her and sends her away. After Jane goes to the bank to get some cash, Elvira comes back and finds that Jane has locked Blanche in her room. When Jane returns a neighbor tells her she saw Elvira go into the house. Jane confronts Elvira. Meanwhile, eccentric and cash-strapped Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) sees Jane's newspaper advertisement and arrives at the mansion, where Jane hires him as her accompanist. Desperate for cash, Edwin insincerely flatters Jane and encourages her to revive her act. While Jane drives Edwin home, Blanche searches the house for food and discovers Jane has been forging her signature on checks. Desperate for help, Blanche crawls down the stairs and calls their doctor, telling him of Jane's erratic behavior and begging him to come to the house. Jane returns in time to find Blanche on the phone and beats her unconscious before imitating her voice over the phone and telling the doctor not to come. She then binds and gags Blanche and locks her back in her upstairs bedroom. Elvira, still suspicious of Jane, returns the next day and discovers Blanche in a weakened and starved state. Before she can rescue her, however, Jane beats Elvira to death with a hammer and disposes of her body.
Days later, the police call upon the Hudson house and tell Jane that her maid's cousin has reported her missing. The panicked Jane prepares to leave, taking Blanche with her. Before they can leave, Edwin shows up uninvited and drunk, and discovers Blanche in her bed, bound and emaciated. Edwin flees to a drugstore where he notifies the authorities.
Jane drives Blanche to the beach and reverts to her childhood self. Near death, Blanche confesses that her paralysis is her own fault: on the night of the accident, she had tried to run Jane over because she was angry at her sister for mocking her, and ever since she has let Jane believe she was to blame for her spine being severed when the car struck the iron gate of their house. Pathetically, Jane asks, "You mean all this time we could have been friends?" With childlike joy, Jane goes to a beachside snack bar to get ice-cream cones for herself and Blanche, then succumbs completely to her insanity and dances before a crowd of puzzled onlookers, believing she is once again "Baby Jane", performing for her adoring fans. Two police officers, who have come to arrest Jane for Elvira's murder, see Blanche lying motionless in the sand and rush to her.
- Bette Davis as Jane Hudson
- Julie Allred as nine-year-old Jane
- Debbie Burton as young Jane's singing voice
- Joan Crawford as Blanche Hudson
- Gina Gillespie as thirteen-year-old Blanche
- Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg
- Marjorie Bennett as Dehlia Flagg
- Maidie Norman as Elvira Stitt
- Anna Lee as Mrs. Bates
- B. D. Merrill as Liza Bates
- Dave Willock as Ray Hudson
- Anne Barton as Cora Hudson
- Wesley Addy as Marty McDonald
- Bert Freed as Ben Golden
- Robert Cornthwaite as Doctor Shelby
Bette Davis came up with her own makeup for her role. She said that Jane was someone who never washed her face, but just added more makeup.
The house exterior of the Hudson mansion is located at 172 South McCadden Place in the neighborhood of Hancock Park, Los Angeles. Other residential exteriors show cottages on DeLongpre Avenue near Harvard Avenue in Hollywood without their current gated courtyards. The scene on the beach was shot in Malibu, reportedly the same site where Aldrich filmed the final scene of Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Footage from the Bette Davis films Parachute Jumper and Ex-Lady (both 1933) and the Joan Crawford film Sadie McKee (1934) was used to represent the film acting of Baby Jane and Blanche respectively.
The neighbour's daughter was played by Davis' daughter B. D. Merrill who, following in the footsteps of Crawford's daughter Christina, later wrote a memoir that depicted her mother in an unfavorable light.
Crawford was scheduled to appear alongside Davis on a publicity tour of Baby Jane but cancelled at the last minute. Davis claimed that Crawford backed out because she didn't want to share the stage with her. In a 1972 telephone conversation, Crawford related to future author Shaun Considine that after seeing a screening of the film she urged Davis to go and have a look. When she didn't hear back from her co-star, Crawford called Davis and asked her what she thought of the film to which Davis replied, "You were so right, Joan. The picture is good. And I was terrific." Crawford replied, "That was it. She never said anything about my performance. Not a word." Considine alleges that this denial from Davis (with regard to Joan's talent as an actress) prompted Crawford to cancel the publicity tour and upstage Davis at the Oscars.
Prior to the Oscars ceremony, Crawford contacted the Best Actress nominees who were unable to attend the ceremonies and offered to accept the award on their behalf should they win. Davis claimed that Crawford lobbied against her among Academy voters. When Anne Bancroft was declared the winner for The Miracle Worker, she was in New York performing in a play, and had agreed to have Crawford accept her award if she won. Crawford triumphantly swept on-stage to pick up the trophy. Davis later commented, "It would have meant a million more dollars to our film if I had won. Joan was thrilled I hadn't." As both Davis and Crawford had accepted lower salaries in exchange for a share of the film's profits, Davis considered it especially foolish of Crawford to have worked against their common interests, especially at a time when roles for actresses of their generation were hard to find.
During the filming of Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Crawford acknowledged to visiting reporter/author Lawrence J. Quirk the difficulty she was having with Davis because of the Oscar incident but added, "She acted like Baby Jane was a one-woman show after they nominated her. What was I supposed to do, let her hog all the glory, act like I hadn't even been in the movie? She got the nomination. I didn't begrudge her that, but it would have been nice if she'd been a little gracious in interviews and given me a little credit. I would have done it for her."
The film's success spawned a succession of horror/thriller films featuring psychotic older women, later dubbed the psycho-biddy subgenre, among them Aldrich's Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, and director Curtis Harrington's Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and What's the Matter with Helen?. It was parodied by the Italian comedy film What Ever Happened to Baby Toto?
Shaun Considine's 1989 book Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud chronicles the actresses' rivalry, including their experience shooting this film.
Comedy duo French and Saunders (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) did a BBC episode called "Whatever Happened to Baby Dawn" in 22 March 1990.
The film was remade in 1991 as a television film starring real-life sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave.
In 2006, Christina Aguilera adopted a new alter ego called Baby Jane after Bette Davis' character in the film.
In episode 4 of RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars (season 2), the queens' acting chops are tested in parody movie sequels of RuPaul's favourite movies. A parody of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? called Wha' Ha' Happened To Baby JJ? was made by Alaska and Alyssa Edwards.
The backstage battle between Crawford and Davis during the production of the film is the basis for Bette and Joan, the 2017 first season of the Ryan Murphy television series Feud. It stars Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis. It premiered on March 5, 2017.
The film received very positive reviews and elicited mixed responses over the Davis/Crawford combination. In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther observed, "[Davis and Crawford] do get off some amusing and eventually blood-chilling displays of screaming sororal hatred and general monstrousness ... 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."
Variety stated, "Although the results heavily favor Davis (and she earns the credit), it should be recognized that the plot, of necessity, allows her to run unfettered through all the stages of oncoming insanity ... Crawford gives a quiet, remarkably fine interpretation of the crippled Blanche, held in emotionally by the nature and temperament of the role."
TV Guide awarded the film four stars, calling it "Star wars, trenchantly served" and adding, "If it sometimes looks like a poisonous senior citizen show with over-the-top spoiled ham, just try to look away ... As in the best Hitchcock movies, suspense, rather than actual mayhem, drives the film."
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes the film holds an approval rating of 92% based on 48 reviews.
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for Best Costume Design.
- Academy Award for Best Actress (Bette Davis, nominee)
- Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Victor Buono, nominee)
- Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Black and White (Norma Koch, winner)
- Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black and White (Ernest Haller, nominee)
- Academy Award for Best Sound (Joseph D. Kelly, nominee)
- BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress (Crawford, nominee)
- BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress (Davis, nominee)
- Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama (Davis, nominee)
- Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture (Buono, nominee)
- Laurel Award for Golden Laurel for Sleeper of the Year (Winner)
- Golden Palm – 1963 Cannes Film Festival (nominee)
The film was a surprise box office hit, grossing $9 million at the worldwide box office and $4,050,000 in theatrical rentals in North America. Its estimated budget was only $980,000.
In the United Kingdom, the film was originally given an X certificate by the BBFC in 1962, with a few minor cuts. These cuts were waived for a video submission, which was given an 18 certificate in 1988, meaning no-one under 18 years of age could purchase a copy of the film. However, in 2004, the film was re-submitted for a theatrical re-release, and it was given a 12A certificate, now meaning persons under 12 years of age could view it if accompanied by an adult. It remains at this category.