Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Horror Show: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane has a reputation of something of a camp classic. It’s easy to see why: former Hollywood starlets Joan Crawford and Bette Davis star in the movie, both of them playing their roles with total abandon. The film also helped popularize the very campy “hagsploitation” or “psycho biddy” genre–that is, movies about and usually starring some aging actress looking haggard and going crazy.
That said, as a film, Baby Jane doesn’t really deserve the onus of camp. The story: Davis plays Jane Hudson, a hard-drinking, half-crazy former child star in way too much makeup. Crawford plays Jane’s sister, Blanche, herself a former actress and bombshell, paralyzed by Jane in a car accident. The two women live together in virtual seclusion pining for their glory days. When Blanche plots to have Jane committed to an insane asylum, Jane begins to psychologically torture the wheelchair-bound Blanche. Jane also hires an effete, sycophantic pianist named Edwin (Victor Buono), in hopes of reviving her child act.
Baby Jane features some unhinged acting by Crawford, Buono and, in particular, Davis, as the characters in the movie begin their excruciating descent into madness. Director Robert Aldrich embraces the gothic outrageousness of it all: thus, what begins as an exercise in over-the-top style quickly becomes a taut thriller, a claustrophobic and ever-wilder horror show…and a sly statement about sexism Hollywood’s penchant for using, then abandoning, talent. There’s a reason Davis and Buono both scored Oscar nominations for their work: they’re not chewing scenery. Rather, they both deliver performances devoid of inhibition. And to be clear: Davis gives one of the bravest performances in history.
Drag queens, Feud and the legend of camp aside, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is one of the greatest of all movie horror thrillers, just as frightening as The Shining, The Exorcist, Psycho or Halloween. Give it a look this weekend and dump the camp. This movie is scary as Hell.
Note: If you really want a campy version of this story, check out the 1991 remake starring real-life sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave. Consider yourself warned.
Streams on HBO Max, Amazon, YouTube & VUDU.