The celluloid showdown between rumored arch rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is planted firmly on the the pantheon of inspired screen teams alongside Gable and Leigh and Bogie and Bacall. The demented 1962 hit, about two former movie star sisters — one an invalid, the other deranged — living in a decaying Hollywood mansion, riffed on the real-life legends of Davis and Crawford. It also launched a slew of similar chillers starring actresses of a certain age and endures as rite-of-passage viewing for gay people through this day. Tales of the feud between the two women reached such a fever pitch that it inspired numerous outrageous rumors, books and even an upcoming film with Jessica Lange attached.
Charles Busch, one of the brightest illuminaries of the American stage, has been a fan of the thriller since seeing it as a precocious 8-year-old boy. His lifelong love of classic cinema has informed many of his most famous works including Die Mommy Die and Psycho Beach Party. He’s such a devotee of Baby Jane that Turner Classic Movies asked him to introduce the screening of the film at the festival tonight. Busch chatted with Queerty about first seeing the film, the rumored feud between its stars and why this 52-year-old movie is still watched regularly by LGBT fans today.
You recorded an audio commentary for the Baby Jane DVD and are introducing the film at TCM. How did you relationship with this movie begin?
My father took us to see it was I was 8-years-old.
This must have been a creepy experience for an 8-year-old.
Well, I was a gay 8-year-old so I was sophisticated already. I remember really getting into it. I was obsessed with actresses from the womb and Baby Jane is actress heaven. These two great stars who’d fallen on hard times were paired and in 1962 that was part of the appeal. These were legendary bigger than life stars who were thought of as rivals and who hadn’t done anything terribly exciting in about 10 years and they were paired. What I find interesting about the movie is there are numerous cases in film history when a director and stars will take a movie that lesser hands and transform it from what would have been a forgotten programmer.
Bette Davis was a great great film actress. Maybe it’s because of where she was at in her career at the time that she really went for broke and delivered this audacious brave performance. You’re both terrified of her and terrifed for her. Here’s a movie where she has to serve a dead rat to her sister, but she makes you understand it. [Laughs] That’s probably how I’d act if I were serving a dead rat to my sister. She showed us the humanity and complexity.
Do you think Davis and Crawford really feuded or was this drummed up for publicity?
Well, at Warner Bros. during the 1940s Bette Davis had been the queen of the lot and her career had peaked when Crawford came in and won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce. I’m sure for two very ambitious actresses that probably wasn’t a great turf to share. From everything I’ve read, though, it was very drummed up. They were both very, very professional and knew how important this movie was for both of them. They were very similar in some ways. Their careers always came first. They both had a series of unsuccessful marriages and financial reversals, yet there were also some very fundamental differences. Bette Davis was always recognized as a very serious actress, while Crawford was always fighting for a kind of legitimacy that seemed to elude her. Crawford enjoyed being a movie star and all that implied, while Davis was one of the first anti-stars that rejected the superficial trappings of stardom.
It’s the last really great movie either of them made. It’s a real pity, especially with Davis. She was about 54 when she made it and she was at a creative peak in this film. It did launch her on some other big-budget horror-suspense movies like Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and Dead Ringer until she finally became tawdrier and tawdrier. Crawford’s next movies were all lower budget exploitation films. I find it frustrating because she still had possibilities and you wish she’d been tested more.
Why did they kept accepting roles in these low-budget horror films during this period?
They had financial problems at times and children to support. In Davis’ case she had a mentally-challenged kid in an institution and financial responsibilities. They had to take what was offered. I’m sure Crawford wouldn’t have done Trog if she’d been offered a revival of The Glass Menagerie. [Laughs]
When the film was released Davis got the lion’s share of the attention and an Oscar nomination, but I think Crawford’s performance is underrated. She’s playing against such a huge, appropriately over-the-top turn by Davis, yet she holds her own in their scenes together.
Well, she’s a star. There are remarkable tight close-ups of her face and those eyes and that bone structure. Ordinary people don’t look like that and have kind of intense charisma. I think she’s a simpler actress than Davis. Crawford tended to play one thing at a time, whereas Davis had so many colors in her pallet to draw from. Crawford holds her own because she’s such a strong personality and had magnetic charisma.
The film was surprisingly a huge hit at the box office. Why do you think audiences responded to it so strongly?
I think Psycho, which came out in 1960, was as much an influence on Baby Jane as something like Sunset Boulevard. It’s about the inhabitants of this dark house and the exterior world is so brightly lit. Psycho was such a big hit that it was probably very much on peoples’ minds. Warner Bros. thought nobody would be interested in a film with two has-been actresses so they wouldn’t give them any money. Finally Seven Arts gave them a very small budget and it was shot quickly. Sometimes limitations like that are to your advantage. I’ve read they didn’t have money to do proper rear screen projection for the driving scenes so they actually stuck a camera on the car when Bette Davis driving around. We sometimes laugh now when we see old films with obvious rear projection. So this gave it more of a contemporary look.
Have you ever encountered any real-life Baby Janes?
It’s interesting in L.A. when you go to Ralph’s supermarket late at night, you see those people in the aisles. You see Baby Janes and the Victor Buono characters — these grotesque painted-up old women in the supermarket late at night and you think they came here when they were young to be an actress and this is what they turned into. You see them on the street. There’s a level of grotesquerie in L.A. that you don’t see in any other city I’ve been in. A lot of people show up with the dream of being a movie star. Few of them succeed, but a lot of them stick around.
Why does this film have such enduring appeal for gay audiences?
It’s one of those handful of movies you have to see to get your gay card. There’s All About Eve, Auntie Mame, Sunset Boulevard, Valley of the Dolls, Mommie Dearest, The Women… Here, you’ve got bigger than life actresses, fabulous bitchy dialogue that’s like a big juicy steak both actresses are tearing apart with their bare teeth. [Laughs] It’s about the movies. I don’t know why, but often gay people have an interest in Hollywood of the past. Traditionally, it is one of the classics of gay cinema. It’s interesting that all of those movies, except for The Women, were directed by very heterosexual men. The two real totems are Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve were both written and directed by very straight men.
Watch the trailer for the film below.