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 certainly made the most of her role, which would have been ridiculous in the hands of a lesser actress.
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.
Both actresses have many classics on their resumes. Where does Baby Jane land on their filmographies?
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.
I have always felt “Mommy Dearest” is to gay people what “The Color Purple” is for black folks. Namely, required viewing if you want prove your street cred and that you belong : ) it’s like a secret handshake!
“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is an extraordinary, enduring, classic. I agree, in the hands of lesser actresses, Baby Jane would be in the $2 bin of forgotten movies.
Love the movie, Bette, Joan and Charles. The feud between Bette and Joan was very real according to Bette.
I would encourage fans of this film to also see “Baby Jane,” Billy Clift’s very campy drag film version. It’s very well done, in my opinion.
The movie was more nuanced than it at first seems. The ending when to a certain extent your sympathies shift was great. Lessor actresses would have blown it.
Probably the best article and interview I’ve ever read here! Charles Busch is AMAZING!
@skcord: I’m Black. And I hated the Color Purple. And come to think of it, so did my mother. We went and watched it together. And yes, Joan Crawfords performance was underrated. And Bette Davis once again was robbed of what should have been her fourth Academy award for her performance in “Baby Jane.” Her third should have been for ” All About Eve”.
An interesting tidbit from the movie is that production was stopped for several days because during the fight scene Bette Davis actually cracked a few of Joan Crawford’s ribs. So I think the feud was definitely real.
I loved the movie. I love Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. One of my favorite Bette Davis movies and one of her most underrated is Dead Ringer. There was something deliciously creepy about that movie and the ending was filled with such irony. I actually wasn’t into Joan Crawford and didn’t know much about her until seeing Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. What they consider child abuse in that movie is rather weak in my opinion. Anyway, Mildred Pierce is my favorite Joan Crawford movie.
I was probably around 11 when I caught this movie on TV and can still remember the sick feeling I got watching Davis torture the wheelchair bound Crawford on the screen. These two may not have liked each other, but they must have respected each other because both of them were such consummate professionals. It would have been downright criminal if they had never been allowed to collaborate on a film.
A very cynical friend of mine refers to this as the gay “It’s a Wonderful Life.” he also uses this film as a gay litmus test. He knows that a man is gay if he thinks tis film is a comedy.
Wait, it isn’t???
It’s one terrible movie. The initial scenes are so slow and labored that only Bette’s great, hammy performance barely makes it worth watching. Joan was one of the worst, famous actresses in Hollywood. She never realized how to develop a film character. Joan just played her roles from scene-to-scene to look good for the camera.
Bette Davis wasn’t “robbed” of an Oscar for Baby Jane. She deservedly lost to a fantastic up and coming Broadway actress named Anne Bancroft for “The Miracle Worker”. Who accepted the Oscar for Anne Bancroft the night she won? Joan Crawford.
Really? To get my ‘gay card’ I need to watch “Mommie Dearest”. I’ve only ever heard bad things about the movie. Here’s a snippet of a review of the movie from a film critic I admire:
“I can’t imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie. “Mommie Dearest” is a painful experience that drones on endlessly, as Joan Crawford’s relationship with her daughter, Christina, disintegrates from cruelty through jealousy into pathos. It is unremittingly depressing, not to any purpose of drama or entertainment, but just to depress. It left me feeling creepy.”
After reading that, I didn’t really feel any need to seek out the movie.
I don’t want to get onto an internet bitch-fight over who should have won the 1963 best actress Academy award ( Betty Davis) , but
Anne Bancroft’s roll in the Miracle Worker was really a supporting role, and Patty Duke as Helen, is reall the leading role. With Baby Jane, there is no mistake as to who the leading actress is. Besides, Patty Duke gave a better performance in a more demandin role than Anne. To pull off the nuance of a deaf and dumb girl, with authenticity is extremely difficult.
@ tackle: The “The Miracle Worker” of the movie’s title was Anne Sullivan, the role so memorably played by Anne Bancroft. Not taking anything away from Patty Duke’s amazing performance in the film, but it’s ludicrous to suggest that Anne Bancroft didn’t command the leading role in that story.
I’d argue Anne Bancroft was robbed in 1967 of a second lead actress Oscar for “The Graduate”, to Katherine Hepburn.
Sejjo, you SHOULD seek out “Mommie Dearest” for the John Waters DVD commentary alone. As Andy Warhol wrote in his diaries: “If THAT isn’t acting!! “. It’s a classic. Did you know Faye Dunaway was nearly named Best Actress for it by the New York Film Critics Association for her over the top (by about a thousand feet) performance?
@Snapper59: I agree. Hepburn’s Best Actress Oscar for 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” is one of the worst acting Oscars ever awarded.
Don’t listen to the critics @sejjo, the movie is SO over the top it becomes a comedy, very enjoyable! Also, Joan Crawford’s biological children along with Christina Crawford’s adopted brother all say she exaggerated that book, which makes me feel okay about all the laughing from my friends and me while watching! And @Tackle NOOOOOOOOOOO! That is such a good movie, if you haven’t watched it recently give it another chance, The Color Purple is an excellent film and has a lot of good quotables…. “I’s married now… I says I’s married now”
well- Davis’ first Oscar wasn’t deserved- she only got it because they snubbed her year before by not nominating her- Dangerous kinda sucks.
I thought Whales of August was pretty great. Not the classic that Baby Jane is, but an incredibly poignant last appearance for both Bette and Lillian Gish.
This film showed up on the Late Show annually when I was a kid. I was indoctrinated when young.
If I recall correctly, Davis was scheduled to play Blanche, but demanded the Jane role. I do know that Davis did her own make-up for the film and the first time she appeared on set, the director and worried about how over the top it was. But, of course, it’s perfect. She looks like she has been caking on make-up for years, never cleaning it off, but simply adding more each day.
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