by Evan J Peterson
On Tuesday, July 5th, we’ll gather in Scarecrow Video’s screening room for another session of SHRIEK: A Women of Horror Film & Discussion Class. This month, we’ll talk about Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a cult classic that offers us two iconic Hollywood actresses pitted against one another in a very unflattering (but superbly acted) showdown.
Stats on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Major protagonists: female
Major actors: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Maidie Norman, Victor Buono
Director: Robert Aldrich
Writer: Henry Farrell (source novel), Lukas Heller (Screenplay)
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Yes indeed.
Bette Davis plays the title character, Baby Jane Hudson. Once a child star on the Vaudeville stage, Jane has dissolved into alcoholism and mental illness. She’s a tragic villain, but a terrifying one. Nonetheless, she’s one of the protagonists—perhaps even the solitary protagonist. She certainly has more lines and screen time than her co-star. The more recognizable protagonist is her sister Blanche, played by Joan Crawford. Both actresses have been stripped of their glamour and reduced to literal invalids—Crawford the physical, Davis the mental.
This itself is an extraordinary thing, particularly for its time. Two female megastars, past their prime, have been turned into pitiful creatures and set against one another. This isn’t Rear Window, in which a sexy Jimmy Stewart has a broken leg. Blanche is permanently crippled, trapped in her Gothic house, and at her sister’s mercy. The film has a definite Hitchcockian feel, and has been compared to a cross between Psycho and Sunset Boulevard. Speaking of Sunset Boulevard, that film and this one set up a popular Hollywood subgenre: Grande Dame Guignol (named after the French “Theater of the Grotesque”), in which aging lead actresses are cast as monstrous villains in horror movies. Also known misogynistically as “Hagsploitation,” the subgenre includes such other Davis and Crawford pictures as Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and Strait-Jacket. More recent examples and twists on the theme include Death Becomes Her and American Horror Story: Coven.
It’s difficult to believe that the film isn’t intended to be campy. Bette Davis certainly hams it up as a character who isn’t merely insane—she’s altogether comically, pitifully, and terrifyingly mad. It even appears that Crawford and Davis are at times in two different films: Crawford in a family Gothic horror film, Davis in a dark comedy. Crawford’s performance maintains the dignity she always prized, while Davis has no qualms making herself absolutely grotesque. Is it any wonder that the film is so beloved by gay men that drag queens such as Bianca Del Rio and Peaches Christ continue to adapt it for the stage?
Despite their very different performances, the film works. Instead of a clash of tones, the horror and camp comedy fuse to throw viewers off. There’s a John Waters meets David Lynch effect, which shows how much each director was inspired by this film. It’s never quite predictable whether a character is about to be murdered in cold blood or treated to a song and dance number.
While Crawford and Davis are the absolute stars of the show, to the exclusion of any other major character, attention should be given to the performance of Maidie Norman. Norman plays housekeeper Elvira, who tries valiently to intervene in the torture of Blanche. As a black actress and character in 1962, she shakes up race and class dynamics at her big moment of ordering Jane to get out of her way.
I’ve chosen Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? for SHRIEK for several reasons. Firstly, it’s a fantastic horror film, no less so for its comedic moments. The performances are stellar. Secondly, it’s a great twentieth century Gothic. All the elements are there: family secrets, past sins coming back to haunt, isolation, rich people fallen from grace and groveling for their lost glory, and a big shadowy house in which it all hits the fan.
Most importantly, the film features two iconic actresses in some of their best performances, excluding major male characters altogether. Furthermore, both actresses are in their fifties, and both characters are disabled. I leave it to the community discussion to determine whether individual attendees consider this a feminist horror film or not.
By the end, it’s no longer clear who we feel more sympathy for: Blanche, the tortured cripple who seems a bit too innocent after all, or Jane, who has regressed to the point of being a child in an aging body, turning to the sister she’s tormented to save her one last time.
Join us at Scarecrow Video this Tuesday to recover from Independence Day with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Evan J Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.