Which – in your opinion – is the biggest bitch-fight in movie history? Meryl Streep versus Goldie Hawn in the bonkers that was Death Becomes Her? Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones battling it out in Chicago?
Anne Hathaway against Kate Hudson in Bride Wars? These sisters-turn-arch-nemeses plots do not come as rabble-rousing, sadistically thrilling than Bette Davis and Joan Crawford clawing each other’s throats in this atmospheric horror-drama hybrid Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In fact, the rivalry in this film had extended so much in real life that these two veteran thespians plot to destroy each other in the name of Hollywood glory during the production of this movie. Cue Davis’s haughty demeanour, piping that she played the titular Baby Jane and that Miss Crawford played ‘whatever’. The bitchfest didn’t end there. At the Oscars, Davis was nominated and clearly expecting a triumph, but the ever-vindictive Crawford elbowed her way and accepted the Best Actress for the absentee Anne Bancroft, who won for The Miracle Worker. Strangely enough, whilst they thirst for each other’s downfall, the world watched with a psychotic, maniacal glee.
This black-pitch comedy is actually flogged as a horror piece, director Robert Aldrich visibly borrowing Hitchcockian elements (Psycho being released two years earlier). The black-and-white cinematography, the dark shadowy house of the Hudson sisters, even the duplicitous, lunatic characters with a fetish of flesh torture – all of Hitch’s trademarks are there, only cranked up to horrific, hysterical levels. The set-up here is the jealousy between the siblings, Baby Jane being the centre of the limelight as a spoilt-rotten vaudevillian child-star and other sister Blanche, always hidden under the shadows, harbouring venomous bile. A car accident one night sets up this bizarre drag-queen contest. Cut to decades later, they are both ageing has-beens: Blanche on a wheelchair yet still despairing to look glamorous, hair pulled to a bun, reliving her old-screen persona, and Jane, a decaying, decomposing, washed-up pensioner, white-faced with make-up and sashaying like Judy Garland in a circus musical. Both Davis and Crawford both lend extraordinary performances, but let’s admit, this is Davis’s show. Arguably playing the far juicier role an abominable old hag, she recalls Miss Havisham but with a darker, demoralising edge. Unafraid to defy glamour and even parody her own persona, Bette Davis gamely romp around looking like someone who just walked out of a morgue, even miming Crawford’s glamour-puss elocution as she talks in the phone, ordering fags and booze. The result is high-wire mix of sheer tar-black comedy and carnival horror. Yet this is not a horror without depth; it’s also a psychological exploration into one of the most reviled attitudes in Hollywood – ageism. This serves as a perfect double-bill to Billy Wilder’s legendary Sunset Boulevard.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? screened at Film4 Summer Screen at the Somerset House, 2013.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Robert Aldrich | CAST: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono | SCREENPLAY: Lukas Heller | PRODUCER: Warner Bros. Pictures | RUNNING-TIME: 132 mins | GENRE: Drama/Thriller/Horror | COUNTRY: USA