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Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

"Old Age is no Place for Sissies"

By Rachel RobbinsPublished about a month ago 5 min read
Top Story - November 2023
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) Joan Crawford and Bette Davis

“It’s October,” they said.

“Watch something scary,” they said.

So, I thought what could be scarier than an old woman?

Answer – two old women.

And that is the crux of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). We are asked to look at old age as a decaying, vengeful, terrifying spectacle.

It’s a film that takes two great stars of the 1930s and 1940s and looks upon them unfavourably in the 1960s. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who Jean Basinger (Historian) described as playing “exaggerated women,” now get to exaggerate the obsolescence of old age. All shot in the old technology of black and white.

Jane and Blanche

Some quick plot points – but not too many spoilers.

The film opens in 1917. Baby Jane Hudson is a precocious child princess of Vaudeville. From off-stage, Blanche her sister, looks at the ingratitude and attention-seeking that makes a star.

Swing forward to 1935, Blanche is a film star, while the studio struggles to find a place for the hammy over-acting of her sister.

And then there is a car-crash against the gates of a Hollywood mansion.

A crashed car and a broken Baby Jane doll

The first twelve minutes of the film, before the credits, are set in a past, that we asked to compare with the decay and decrepit present of 1962.

The two sisters now have an eerily co-dependent relationship based on vengeance and duty.

Baby Jane (Bette Davis) is dressed in the frills of childhood with white powder and curls, a Miss Haversham of wasted youth and squandered opportunities. She is a slouching drudge, frayed at the edges, slurring and soppy.

Blanche (Joan Crawford) is in a wheelchair. She has false eyelashes and a heavy-made up brow. Her appearance still matters, but is shot without the forgiving soft focus on the lens. In the 1950s she would have had her neck covered by scarves or dark shadows. But now her forehead and neck are uncovered, wrinkles on display.

This is a Hollywood movie about Hollywood’s ageist beauty standards.

Bette Davis as Jane Hudson

I call this a horror movie, because we are supposed to recoil at their appearances. Old women rarely make it onto our screens and now we know why.

Horror movies can be particularly harsh on women. Let’s face it under the Production Code, normal women were punished for ambition, leaving husbands, having sex, getting pregnant. Now imagine how much harsher the punishment would be if she were a zombie or a vampire… or worse … old.

It is better that old women are invisible because when they are visible, they are mad and dangerous.

Joan Crawford as Blanche Hudson

But horror movies are supposed to make us flinch, tense up and scream. And this is not a movie for thirsty bloody-lusters.

I flinched when Jane kicked Blanche, but I only saw Jane's face.

The murder that disentangles Jane’s fragile reality is not shown, but reflected in Blanche’s face.

The scream is Jane’s at the sight of her own reflection.

Bette Davis as Jane Hudson

Molly Haskell (feminist film critic) claimed that Joan and Bette “were turned into travesties of themselves”.

It is easy to rail against the awful trajectory for female stars.

Clark Gable, James Stewart, Cary Grant can continue to be leading men with younger actresses, but the evolution for female stars is different. By the 1940s they were too old to be considered sexual spectacle (and Bette Davis probably never was), so they evolved into hard-edged career women and by the time that stage was over they became spectacles of horror.

And of course, I could be angry about the double standards of ageing. I could be furious about the lack of stories that women are allowed to tell. But here’s the flip side.

It looks like fun.

Who wouldn’t love to slam down a tray and say:

I didn't bring your breakfast, because you didn't eat your din-din!

I didn't bring your breakfast, because you didn't eat your din dins.

Baby Jane’s accent, the cackle, the screaming, the plotting, the manipultation, being let loose to get mad and angry.

And it is a compelling performance, because being grotesque requires an excellent consistency of attack and risk-taking exuberance.

It’s a performance that is more likely to win awards, to be remembered, and it has a political point. It gives voice to the problems of female stardom in a creative, forceful rant.

I love this exchange:

Blanche: Jane, do you remember when I first came back after the accident?

Jane: You promised you wouldn't ever talk about that again.

Blanche: I know I did. But I'm still in this chair. After all those years, I'm still in this chair. Doesn't that give you some kind of responsibility? Jane, I'm just trying to explain to you how things really are. You wouldn't be able to do these awful things to me if I weren't still in this chair.

Jane: But you *are*, Blanche! You *are* in that chair!

The finger pointing, the camp, the fury. It is delicious.

You *are" in that chair.

But here’s the kicker. I’ve been talking about old women. But for me the real horror was finding out the age of the actors at the time of the performance. Bette Davis was born in 1908 and Joan Crawford also claimed that as her year of birth (although it is widely believe she was a couple of years older). So, in 1962, they were both 54. That is the age I am now.

In the words of Janice from Friends – Oh My God! Is that how young people see me? (Don’t answer that).

54 and close to the end...

It has been a tough week for 54 year olds. I woke up yesterday to discover Matthew Perry had died. He was 54.

I remember Chandler Bing saying to Jon Favreau’s character, Pete Becker – Monica’s millionaire boyfriend – “You’re our age. You’re our age.”

Matthew Perry was my age. He was a funny guy. He changed the cadences of the way my generation spoke. Nobody should write off what else he might have achieved. It hurts to know we will never know.

Matthew Perry (1969 - 2023)

And nobody knows what else I might achieve. Don't write me off yet. And just so you know, I’m prepared to be gloriously camp and extravagant to get it.

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About the Creator

Rachel Robbins

Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.

Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.

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Comments (8)

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  • Cindy Calder24 days ago

    I grew up with this movie - a true classic. You're right: two old women are scary as hell, especially when one's made up to look like she's a young girl. I still reference "Baby Jane" when I see such a sight!

  • Gerald Holmes27 days ago

    This is very well done. I love that movie for one thing only, The Acting! They don't make them like that anymore, sadly! Congrats on a well deserved Top Story.

  • Mr Ahsan27 days ago

    The skillfully weaves together film analysis, cultural commentary, and personal reflections, making it an engaging and thought-provoking read. I say good job

  • Rachel Deeming27 days ago

    I have never seen this film although I know all about it. When I was younger, I didn't like Bette Davis but having seen an interview with her on Parkinson in the highlights of his interviewing career, I was struck by how charismatic and alluring she was, even as an older woman - sitting there, smoking with her handbag and hat, she looked out of place, like a character herself, and yet, I remember being drawn in by her conversation. She held the audience in the palm of her hand. Thank you for this great article and I am 50 and feel like I have many, many years in me yet. In fact, in some ways, I feel like I'm just getting started.

  • Babs Iverson27 days ago

    Marvelous review!!! ❤️❤️💕

  • Marie Wilson28 days ago

    "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" is indeed a "delicious" flick! Considered the 1st of the hagsploitation films, it transcended that term (and all the others they tried to pin on the older actresses in horror-type flicks). Thanks for another great look at some of Hollywood's best, Rachel. Congrats on TS!

  • Rebecca Mortonabout a month ago

    You are singing my song, sister! Don't write me off yet either, world! I'm in my, uh, mid-fifties also! I am in shock that this is the age of the two stars of "Baby Jane", and I also recently realized that my husband and I are around the age of Archie and Edith Bunker!, at least in the first few seasons. Wha???

  • Excellent insights and observations and a probably Top Story

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