I hadn’t ever seen this film before, but hoo boy did I know a lot about it. Anecdotes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s rivalry are legion, as are stories of “aging silent film star gone to seed and living in the past”. Fortunately, actually watching this film carried some surprises.
On the remote chance anyone is unfamiliar: the film deals with the lives of Jane and Blanche Hudson, a pair of sisters we first meet as girls. Jane is a vaudeville regular going by the stage name “Baby Jane”, best known for chirping out popular songs while sporting ringlets and frilly dresses as her proud father plays piano; he joins her for a dance break during her biggest hit, a sentimental ballad about “writing a letter to Daddy” and sending it to heaven. Off stage she is a spoiled brat, lording her fame over her more modest sister Blanche.
However, their mother urges Blanche to still be kind to Jane one day if their fortunes ever turn – which they do, during the classic-movie era of the 1930s. Blanche is now the star, with a number of studios vying for her work – but a clause in her contract forces studios to also give Jane some film work as well, a troubling prospect since the adult Jane can’t quite act and is also a bit fond of booze. But the studios grin and bear it – until one night after a studio party, when the sisters are driving home to their shared Hollywood mansion and get into a car crash, leaving Blanche a paraplegic in Jane’s care.
That’s all prelude to the bits you really want to see, and the bits you probably know about – Joan Crawford as the helpless Blanche, trapped on the second floor of their mansion and under the care of Bette Davis as Jane. But Jane’s care has been desultory, if not abusive – she still drinks to excess, she’s been hiding Blanche’s mail, and she’s been blowing through Blanche’s savings by forging her signature on checks. Jane hatches a scheme to revive her act, hiring down-on-his-luck composer (Victor Buono) to serve as her accompanist, but then learns that Blanche has been working with their housekeeper Elvira (Maidie Norman) to sell the house, and get Jane some psychological help. Assuming (probably correctly) that this kind of help will require a hospital stay, Jane amps up the abuse – taking away Blanche’s phone, denying her meals, and even tying her up when Jane needs to run errands. And all the while Jane is descending further and further into self-delusion and madness.
Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar with this film – an acknowledgement which reportedly made Crawford seethingly jealous. And, honestly, I kind of think there’s something to Crawford’s complaint – because it’s almost not fair to compare the two. Both do perfectly fine with their roles, but Jane is written as such a larger-than-life character that it’s likely a ficus plant cast in the role would still have scored a nomination. Crawford’s Blanche is confined to showing varying degrees of distress and that’s it, but as Jane, Davis gets to simper and pout and shriek and cackle and rant and generally go full-tilt bugnuts. Davis even did her own makeup when the on-set team balked at giving her the laid-on-with-a-trowel look she wanted.
And yet in my favorite scene, Jane has to show some restraint – and I can see why the glory went to Davis. About midway through the film, Victor Buono’s “Edwin” shows up at the house for his job interview with Jane; he knows nothing of her history, he’s just desperate for a job. So much so that when Jane simperingly tells him that “I used to be Baby Jane Hudson”, he gushes out an instant “Oh, are you really?” and plays along, heaping praise on her singing and eagerly agreeing that yes, the public is just dying to have her back. That whole scene is a dance between Davis and Buono – two cons trying to con each other – and it was a delight.
In the end, the Best Actress Oscar went to Anne Bancroft anyway – but ironically, Crawford had offered herself out as the official Oscar-Accepter for any of the other nominees, and since Bancroft was appearing on Broadway on Oscar Night, Crawford got to sweep onstage (past Davis) and grab some of the spotlight anyway.