Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is a landmark film. It introduced the “psycho-biddy” (or “hag horror”) subgenre, and, just as importantly, Baby Jane paired career-long arch nemeses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford onscreen for the first time.
Finally, audiences could watch the infamous Bette and Joan feud play out on the big screen.
We’ll go through the film’s horrifically fascinating plot, then behind the scenes to all the drama between Bette and Joan.
The film begins in a flashback to 1917: Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) is a child star of the Shirley Temple fashion. With her blonde ringlets, Baby Jane sings and dances her way into the hearts of audiences everywhere. Offstage, Baby Jane is the apple of her father’s eye. She’s also a spoiled brat who treats her sister, Blanche (Joan Crawford), horribly. Jane overshadows Blanche in every way. But as Mother Hudson tells Blanche:
“You’re the lucky one Blanche, really you are. Someday it’s going to be you that’s getting all the attention. And when that happens, I want you to try to be kinder to Jane and your father than they are to you now. Do you know what I mean? I hope you’ll try to remember that.”
To which young Blanche bitterly responds:
“Uh huh. I won’t forget. You bet I won’t forget!”
As we’ll soon see, Blanche really doesn’t forget…
Blanche Becomes a Star
Flash forward to 1935.
Both Jane and Blanche are Hollywood movie stars. Or rather, Jane wants to be a star, but her childhood talent and beauty faded in adulthood. Blanche, on the other hand, has blossomed in both areas. She’s now a beautiful, talented, and respected mega star. It’s only because of Blanche’s influence that Jane receives any film work.
Interesting side note: at this point in the film, director Robert Aldrich used footage from old Bette Davis and Joan Crawford films, including Bette in 1933’s Parachute Jumper, and Joan in 1934’s Sadie McKee, as if it were footage from films the fictional Hudson sisters made.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Young adult Jane is bitterly jealous of Blanche’s success. And she still doesn’t treat Blanche very well.
At a party one night, Jane spends the whole evening imitating Blanche and making fun of her. Afterwards, the Hudson sisters drive home together.
Somehow, Blanche ends up crippled.
Her limp body is found sandwiched between her car and the grand iron gate in front of her mansion. Three days later, Jane is located at a hotel in a drunken stupor…
Guess what conclusions and rumors spread.
It seems obvious that an insanely jealous Jane rammed the car into Blanche. The now crippled Blanche must remain in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
The Hudson Sisters in Middle Age
Flash forward to the film’s present day of 1962.
Despite their dramatic past, the middle-aged Hudson sisters live together. They’re viewed as the eccentrics of the neighborhood. Blanche seems relatively normal, but she’s stuck in her bedroom all day, unable to even go downstairs in her wheelchair because there’s no elevator. Besides Elvira (Maidie Norman), a maid who comes a few times each week, Jane is Blanche’s only contact with the outside world.
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It’s Jane who brings Blanche all of her meals, and cashes the checks from Blanche’s investments, which the two women live on. Jane also answers the phone calls, steals and reads Blanche’s mail, drinks like a fish, wears crazy Victorian-era little girl outfits, and cakes on the make-up.
If the description above didn’t tip you off, I’ll tell you straight out:
Jane Hudson has lost her mind.
In her head, she’s still Baby Jane Hudson, the world’s darling child entertainer. When Jane discovers that Blanche plans to sell the house and put her (Jane) in a home, Jane goes from merely treating her sister like a dog to actively trying to kill her.
Jane's Demented Plan
Jane first tries to kill Blanche by starving her. Jane begins serving Blanche inedible dinners that she knows Blanche won’t eat, including a dead rat from the cellar, and Blanche’s dead pet parakeet.
“You wouldn’t be able to do all these awful things to me if I weren’t still in this chair!”
Blanche emotionally cries.
And Jane, cruelly but logically, responds:
“But you are Blanche, you ARE in the chair!”
Jane Goes Off the Deep End
Jane beats Blanche almost senseless after catching her on the phone, arranging for a doctor to come take Jane away. Jane then gags and ties Blanche up. When Elvira discovers Blanche’s terrible state, Jane decides that she now must kill Elvira with a hammer to keep her from alerting the police.
When Elvira’s body turns up a few days after Jane dumps it, Jane decides the only thing left for her to do now is take Blanche down to the beach.
Blanche is incredibly weak from starving to death, so she can’t really put up a fight.
While basically just waiting to die on the beach, Blanche finally comes clean with Jane about what really happened the night of the crippling accident. As Blanche explains:
“You weren’t driving that night. I made you waste your whole life, thinking you’d crippled me. You didn’t do it, Jane. I did it myself. Don’t you understand? I crippled myself…I made you open the gates. I watched you get out of the car—you’d been so cruel to me at the party…I watched you get out of the car, I wanted to run you down, crush you, but you saw the car coming. I hit the gate. I snapped my spine.”
Jane, who’s completely lost her mind, responds simply:
“Then you mean…all this time we could have been friends?”
After Blanche’s revelation, Jane picks up a couple strawberry ice cream cones for herself and Blanche to enjoy. A crowd gathers as Jane dances in the sand with the two cones. The police, who’ve been looking for Jane ever since Elvira’s body was found, spot the scene. They close in on Jane, and discover Blanche’s probably dead body.
And that’s the end of the film.
Bette and Joan: Best Feud Forever
The hate Bette Davis and Joan Crawford shared for each other dated back to Bette’s 1935 Warner Bros. film, Dangerous. During filming, Bette began an affair with her leading man, Franchot Tone, who, not coincidentally, was Joan’s fiancé.
Reportedly, the affair was Bette’s way of getting at Joan, whose beauty and star treatment over at MGM she envied.
Joan on the other hand was already jealous of Bette’s talent, and the meaty roles that Warner Bros. gave her. Joan knew of Bette’s romance with her fiancé, but proceeded to marry Franchot Tone anyway.
As it turned out, the Crawford/David feud would far outlive the marriage. Indeed, fueled by their mutual envy and similarly strong personalities, the feud between Bette and Joan would ultimately outlast all of Bette’s four marriages, and all of Joan’s four marriages.
Bette Signs on for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
By the early 1960s, both Bette and Joan were experiencing career slumps. They were also both in financial trouble. When Joan’s husband, Alfred Steele, the CEO of Pepsi Cola, died, Joan inherited all of his debt. And Bette was broke and unpopular after proving incredibly difficult and unreliable during her run on Broadway (as Maxine) in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana.
Due to her financial hardships, up and coming Director Robert Aldrich didn’t have much trouble signing Joan Crawford on as Blanche in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. But he correctly guessed that signing Bette Davis would be another story.
Especially if Bette knew that Joan Crawford would be her costar.
Joan had approached Bette with the idea of costarring with her in Baby Jane? some months earlier. Bette’s private response to Joan’s offer was predictable:
“If she thinks I’m going to play that stupid bitch in the wheelchair, she’s got another thing coming!”
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: An Offer Bette Couldn't Refuse
To get around Bette’s opposition, Aldrich had his assistant, Walter Blake, make Bette an offer she couldn’t refuse: a check for $25,000 up front, just for signing on to make the film.
Bette read the script, loved it, and asked Blake who her costar would be. Blake lied, and said he did not yet know:
“I couldn’t tell her it was Crawford because they were enemies. I had to get her signature on that check and then tell her, when she couldn’t back out.”
It was a sly move.
And it worked.
Bette took the check, and signed and cashed it. When she arrived on set two days later, Bette was shocked to find none other than Joan Crawford sitting next to director Robert Aldrich.
“You’ve got to be kidding. I won’t work with her!”
To which Blake answered:
“Well, Bette, you’ve got to. We just paid you $25,000.”
Bette knew he was right, and admitted defeat. She would star alongside Crawford, and, as Margo Channing would say, it was a bumpy film set.
Whatever Happened to BabyJane: Glamour vs. Grotesque
A significant point of contention between Bette and Joan on the Baby Jane? set was their differing opinions of how sisters Jane and Blanche Hudson should look.
Bette never shied away from de-glamorizing herself for a role. In fact, it seemed at times that she enjoyed it.
For her role of Jane Hudson, Bette envisioned a woman who, in Bette’s words:
“I felt Jane never washed her face, just added another layer of make up each day.”
Bette further believed that:
“What I had in mind, no professional make up man would have dared put on me.”
So Bette Davis took charge of her own make-up for the film, and created Jane Hudson’s grotesque look herself. Though some doubted her instincts initially, as filming progressed, it was hard to argue with the look Bette created for her character: Jane’s garish appearance was perfect.
Joan Crawford on the other hand wouldn’t be caught dead looking anything less glamorous. To Bette’s major annoyance, Joan insisted on making Blanche a beautiful crippled recluse.
Bette was quite vocal about her exasperation:
“Miss Crawford was a fool. A good actress looks the part. Why she insisted on making Blanche look glamorous, I just don’t know…Blanche was a cripple! She was a recluse. She never left the house or saw anybody, yet Miss Crawford made her appear as if she lived in Elizabeth Arden’s beauty salon.”
Joan shot back with her own criticism of Bette’s over-the-top-grotesque get-up for Jane:
“My reasons [for making Blanche glamorous] were just as valid as hers, with all those layers of rice powder she wore and that ghastly lipstick. But Miss Davis was always partial to covering up her face in motion pictures. She called it ‘art.’ Others might call it camouflage—a cover up for the absence of beauty.”
What a sass-mouth, that Joan.
Physical Punishment on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
In addition to these mental games, Bette and Joan found ways to physically abuse each other during filming.
The scene in Baby Jane? where Jane kicks the crippled Blanche almost senseless on the floor was Bette’s golden opportunity to take her aggression towards Joan out on Joan. It was rehearsed and shot with Bette kicking a dummy, but for the close-ups, Joan herself had to be there on the floor, taking the beating.
Bette was supposed to just pretend to kick Joan.
But perhaps not surprisingly, Bette kicked Joan for real. Bette always insisted that:
“I barely touched her!”
But somehow gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was led to believe, and write in her column, that one of Bette’s “accidental” kicks to Joan:
“Raised a fair lump on Joan’s head.”
It wasn’t just Bette who dished out the physical punishment. Joan had her own opportunity to make Bette suffer in the scene where Jane pulls the crippled Blanche from her bed and down the hall.
Joan decided that the day this scene was shot would be a good time to wear a lead-lined weight lifting belt to work.
And she did.
When the scene finished filming, Bette’s back was so destroyed from lifting the dead weight Joan that she screamed bloody murder.
The Hollywood Hills in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
Joan’s next trick didn’t qualify as “physical punishment,” but still proved a tangible hardship for Bette: it was rumored that Joan had three different sizes of falsies she liked to wear. Each day, Joan strapped on whatever pair she felt best fit the scene.
This became problematic for Bette in the final scenes of Baby Jane?, when Blanche lies on her back in the sand, and Jane hovers above her. Bette took issue with the size of falsies that Joan selected to wear that day. They seemed to defy gravity. As Bette complained:
“You never know what size boobs that broad has strapped on! She must have a different set for each day of the week!…She’s supposed to be shriveling away while Baby Jane starves her to death, but her chest keeps growing! I keep running into them like the Hollywood Hills!”
Bette Davis made endless craftily worded, snarky comments about Joan Crawford during filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. But Joan’s superior payment plan arguably gave her the last laugh.
Though Bette was paid more up front for the picture—Joan was paid $30,000 up front, while Bette received $60,000—Joan negotiated for 15 percent of Baby Jane’s? profits, while Bette was in for only 10 percent of the film’s worldwide gross profits.
When Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? premiered, it made back its production cost in a mere 11 days. It was then that Bette knew she’d made a mistake by not negotiating for a deal like Crawford’s. Ultimately, Joan made over $1 million on Baby Jane?, compared to Bette’s $600,000, a fact that annoyed Bette the rest of her life.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane Oscar Drama!
Joan further taunted Bette at the 1963 Academy Awards. Bette was nominated for her work in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, while Joan was overlooked. Disgruntled, Joan called the other Best Actress nominees and offered to accept the award on their behalf should any of them win and not be able to attend the ceremony.
When the absent Anne Bancroft won the Oscar that year, Joan happily glided past Bette to accept the award. Joan took advantage of every photo opportunity to pose with the other winners that year while Bette lamented the loss of an Oscar she felt she rightly deserved.
At least Bette had the chance to call Joan an “old broad” in public.
While promoting Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Bette offended Joan when she shared that:
“Everybody in Hollywood told him [director Robert Aldrich] not to make a picture with two old broads!”
The next day, Bette received a telegram from Joan with a very specific request:
“Please do not refer to me in that manner in the future.”
The resounding success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? led to an attempted follow-up pairing of Davis and Crawford in 1964’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. But the drama was just too much. Joan was replaced with Olivia de Havilland, a female costar Bette actually got along with.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford never made another film together.
Despite the infamous feud and nearly life-long cat fight, Bette Davis did have some really nice words to say about Joan Crawford:
“Whatever I say about Miss Crawford, she’s a star…and she’s one of the few left. No question about it.”
Bette Davis was a cruel enemy to be sure, but in the final analysis, this spunky lady clearly had class.
Bette Davis: A True Star
That wraps up Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.
Join me next for all about the loveable Joan Blondell.