Bette Davis Feuds with Joan Crawford, Does What No Makeup Artist Dares, and runs to the Hollywood Hills! It's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
November 29, 2019 Updated February 7, 2022
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is a landmark film. It introduced the “psycho-biddy” or “hag horror” subgenre. And, just as importantly, it paired Bette Davis onscreen with her career-long arch nemesis, Joan Crawford.
For the first time ever, audiences could watch the infamous Bette and Joan feud play out on the big screen.
You can rent or purchase Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? here on Amazon [aff. link].
Lets get right to the plot, then go behind the scenes for all the drama between Bette and Joan during production.
The film starts in a flashback to 1917: Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) is a child star of the Shirley Temple fashion—blonde ringlets, singing and dancing her way into the hearts of audiences. The apple of her father’s eye, the very spoiled and bratty Baby Jane not only overshadows her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), she also treats her horribly. And their father follows suit. 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.”
“Uh huh. I won’t forget. You bet I won’t forget!”
Young Blanche bitterly responds.
And boy, 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 is trying to be a star, but her childhood talent and beauty faded in adulthood. Blanche, on the other hand, completely blossomed as an adult in both of these areas. In fact, Blanche is a mega star, and the only reason Jane gets any film roles at all is because Blanche is her sister.
Really cool side note: at this point in the film, director Robert Aldrich actually used footage from old Bette Davis and Joan Crawford films, as if it were footage from films the fictional Hudson sisters made.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Young adult Jane is bitter and jealous of Blanche’s success. And she still doesn’t treat Blanche very well.
One night after a party–where Jane spends the whole evening imitating Blanche and making fun of her–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. Jane is found three days later in a drunken stupor in a hotel room…
Guess what conclusions and rumors spread.
Yep, it seems obvious that Jane, out of jealousy, rammed the car into Blanche, and crippled her sister.
As a result of the accident, 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.
The Hudson sisters are living together in middle age, regarded as the eccentrics of the neighborhood. Though Blanche is pretty normal, she’s stuck in her bedroom all day long, unable to even go downstairs in her wheelchair because there is no elevator. Jane is her only contact with the outside world, besides Elvira (Maidie Norman), a maid who comes a few times a week.
Not only does Jane bring Blanche her meals, Jane also cashes all the checks from Blanche’s investments, which the two women live on. Jane takes all the phone calls, steals and reads Blanche’s mail, drinks like a fish, wears crazy Victorian-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. And when Jane finds out 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
The first thing Jane does to try to kill Blanche is starve her. If you saw the inedible dinners Jane begins serving her sister, you’d understand why Blanche stops eating.
For example, here’s a dialogue that results after Jane brings Blanche a tasty meal from the cellar:
“Oh Blanche, you know we got rats in the cellar?”
(Yes, Jane just served her sister a dead rat.)
To which Blanche responds:
“You wouldn’t be able to do all these awful things to me if I weren’t still in this chair!”
And Jane, cruelly, but logically, replies:
“But you are Blanche, you ARE in the chair!”
Jane Goes Off the Deep End
Jane beats her sister almost senseless when she catches Blanche trying to call a doctor to take Jane away. Then, Jane feels she has no other choice but to kill Elvira with a hammer when Elvira discovers that Jane tied and gagged Blanche in her bedroom.
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 this revelation, a crowd gathers around Jane as she dances in the sand with two strawberry ice cream cones for her and Blanche to enjoy. The police, who’ve been looking for Jane since Elvira’s body was found, spot the scene. They close in on Jane as they discover Blanche’s probably dead body.
And that’s the end of the film.
Bette and Joan: The Best Feud Forever
The hate Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had for each other went all the way back to Bette’s 1935 film, Dangerous, when Bette had an affair with her leading man, Franchot Tone, who, not coincidentally, was Joan’s fiancé.
Bette and Joan were both strong personalities who–perhaps not surprisingly–shared many similarities. But their gifts as actresses were very different. Bette envied Joan’s beauty, while Joan envied Bette’s talent.
This mutual envy helped fuel the Davis/Crawford feud throughout the decades.
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, CEO of Pepsi Cola, died, Joan inherited all his debt. And Bette was broke and unpopular after proving incredibly difficult and unreliable as Maxine in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana on Broadway.
Up and coming Director Robert Aldrich didn’t have much trouble signing Joan on as Blanche in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. But he guessed that signing Bette would be another story. Especially if she knew that Joan Crawford would be her costar.
Joan had already approached Bette with the idea of costarring with her in Baby Jane? some months earlier.
“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
So 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.
When Bette read the script, she loved it, and asked Blake who her costar would be. Blake lied, and said they didn’t 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.”
Sly. But it worked.
Bette took the check, cashed it, and two days later found none other than Joan Crawford sitting next to director Robert Aldrich on set.
“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 absolute perfection.
Joan Crawford on the other hand, wouldn’t be caught dead looking anything but glamorous. To Bette’s major annoyance, Joan insisted on making Blanche a beautiful crippled recluse.
Bette was quite vocal about her annoyance:
“Miss Crawford was a fool. A good actress looks the part. Why she insisted on making Blanche look glamorous, I just don’t know…Blanch 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
Not only did Bette and Joan play these mental games with each other, they also found ways to physically abuse each other during filming.
The scene in Baby Jane? when Jane kicks the crippled Blanche almost senseless on the floor was Bette’s golden opportunity to take her aggression towards Joan out on Joan. The scene was rehearsed and shot with Bette kicking a dummy. But for the close-ups of Joan, they obviously needed to have Joan herself there on the floor, taking the beating.
Bette was supposed to just pretend to kick Joan.
But OOPS. She ended up actually kicking her…Bette always insisted that:
“I barely touched her!”
But somehow gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was led to believe, and write in her column, that Bette’s…accidental…kick to Joan:
“Raised a fair lump on Joan’s head.”
It wasn’t just Bette who dished out the physical punishment. Joan had her opportunity to make Bette suffer during the scene where Jane pulls the crippled Blanche from her bed and down the hall.
Joan decided that the day the scene was shot would be a good time to wear a lead-lined weight lifting belt to the set.
And she did.
When the scene finished filming, Bette’s back was so destroyed from lifting Joan that she screamed bloody murder.
The Hollywood Hills in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
This doesn’t exactly fall under the category of “physical punishment,” but there was one more thing Joan did that physically got in Bette’s way.
It was rumored that Joan had three different sizes of falsies she liked to wear.
A different bust size for all occasions, how nice.
But this proved problematic for Bette in the final scenes of Baby Jane?, when Blanche is laying on her back in the sand, and Jane is hovering above her. Bette took issue with the falsies size–which seemed to defy gravity–that Joan chose to wear for the scene. 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 perfectly worded, snarky comments about Joan Crawford during filming. But it was Joan who arguably got the last word on the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? drama.
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 teased Bette at the 1963 Academy Awards. Bette was nominated for her work in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, while Crawford was overlooked. A 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 Anne Bancroft, not Bette, won the Oscar that year, Joan happily glided by Bette to accept the award for Bancroft, and 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.
Oh well. 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 said:
“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.”
Despite the resounding success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and an attempt at a follow up pairing in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), there would never again be another onscreen pairing of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
(Both Davis and Crawford started filming Charlotte, but it was just too much. Joan was replaced with Olivia de Havilland, a female costar Bette actually got along with.)
Despite the infamous feud and nearly life-long cat fight, Bette 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
And that wraps up Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and our month with Bette Davis.
Come back next week as I introduce our new Star Spotlight, the loveable Joan Blondell.