Bette Davis' role leaves a bad aftertaste in Robert Aldrich darkly comic 1962 horror.
Like an even more pathetic riff on Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in her regressive yearning for past stardom, and even recalling the viciousness of Regina Giddens – her character in William Wyler’s The Little Foxes – with the veneer of propriety stripped away, Bette Davis’ Jane Hudson is a fully-fledged screen monster.
Robert Aldrich’s 1962 horror picture begins in 1917 with ‘Baby’ Jane wowing the crowds as a spoiled childhood celebrity while her sister Blanche looks on. We quickly cut to 1935 and note the sisters’ reversal of fortune, with Blanche becoming a major movie star and Jane now an unbankable drunk. We then move with a cruel thud to ‘yesterday’, as a witty title card informs.
In the present, the now elderly sisters live in a decaying mansion in which a booze-addled and increasingly cruel Jane looks after Blanche (Joan Crawford), now confined to a wheelchair after a career-ending automobile incident years earlier, an incident believed to have been perpetrated by a jealous Jane.
'Cruelty’ is the operative word here, and not just in Jane’s behaviour towards Blanche. There’s a certain brutality in presenting Davis in grotesque make-up that accentuates her age (54 at the time of the film’s release but looking at least a decade older). Joan Crawford gets off somewhat lighter: in an early scene, Aldrich has Blanche watch her old movies on TV, and her youthful visage on the small screen contrasts notably with the wrinkleemphasising close-ups of the aged actress.
And yet in bringing this pair of screen legends together, Aldrich has crafted a taut if gloriously over-the-top horror exercise that also doubles as a Hollywood tale so bleak it makes Sunset Boulevard look all sweetness and light. Over 134 minutes, Jane wages a war of espionage and psychic terror against her sister, intercepting her mail, cutting off all contact with outsiders and putting dead birds and rats in her meals.
These last moments are played as high camp or low horror, depending on how you look at them, but there are plenty of heavily accented intrusions of the grotesque that are both horrifying and deliriously irresistible.
There are also enough instances of situational suspense (will Blanche amble downstairs in time to place a phone call before Jane returns home?) to draw the appropriate comparisons to Hitchcock Bette Davis’ best roles of her '30s and '40s heyday (Now, Voyager; Dark Victory) were sympathetic portraits of women ill at ease in a male dominated society.
In her weaker roles, a suspicious number of which were directed by Wyler, she’s either blamed for her ‘aberrant’ behaviour (Jezebel) or presented as a conniving bitch (The Little Foxes).
That Baby Jane builds out of the latter mode while exaggerating it hideously means that Aldrich offers a highly entertaining riff on one aspect of the Davis persona. It also means that, despite a third-act revelation that presents Jane in a slightly altered light, we’re forced to accept a near caricature of what was already the least felicitous strain of Davis’ cinematic identity in order to welcome the legendary actress back to the screen.
How will Aldrich’s 1962 classic play to contemporary audiences?
There are plenty of thrills and no shortage of suspense in this darkly comic horror film.
There’s no question we’ve witnessed something significant, but the characterisation of the Bette Davis role leaves something of a bad aftertaste.