DAY 20. SUNDAY DINNER: From exceptional eating scenes to full on foodie fodder. Come hungry!
After a viewing of this movie at a very young age, I decided that I’d never have chaffing dishes in my house. That may never come true just because I doubt I’ll ever have the money to spend on such luxurious accoutrements, but also because the moment where Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) serves her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) her parakeet — and later a rat — on a silver platter, I was put off on silver serviceware for the rest of my days. This is not a meal fit for Ms. Crawford!
Robert Aldrich had the idea of bringing together two of America’s most enduring screen icons in one film where they’d bring their long-rumored rivalry to the story of two sisters who had been used up by show business.
Baby Jane was once a vaudeville star who held her family under her thumb, using her stardom to get whatever she wanted. That all changed once movies took over and she couldn’t adapt, so by 1935, her sister Blanche is the toast of Tinseltown while she’s a shell of her former self, her movies seen as failures. One night at a party, an accident leaves Blanche paralyzed from the waist down and it’s all blamed on a drunken Jane.
Flash to three decades later, as residuals from Blanche’s films are enough to keep the sisters in house and home, as the two former stars live in the shadows of their past glories. Jane has become a raging alcoholic, trapping her wheelchair-bound sister within their home, denying her even basic sustenance — hence the pet and vermin meal scenes described above.
Although Jane has gone far into middle age, she still wears the pancake make-up and outfits of her Baby past. She’s hired Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) to play piano for her, preparing an entirely new show to take on the road. And to get there, she’s using her sister’s money.
Only madness and murder can follow, as well as the revelation that Blanche isn’t the innocent victim that she aspires to be. Both sisters have been forced into roles that they’ve played way beyond typecasting. As both sisters find themselves on a beach, with Blanche dehydrated and near-death, Jane’s plaintively sad question “You mean all this time we could have been friends?” cuts through this film, which ends before giving any resolution to the fate of either character.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was a cultural force, changing Hollywood so that older actresses didn’t have to fade into the role of the matron. It’d be followed by other so-called psycho-biddy films like Aldrich’s follow-up Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, as well as movies that also asked questions like What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, What’s the Matter with Helen? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?
The feud between the two actresses — which began years before this movie and would extend to their deaths — is so legendary that books and even an entire FX series was created to document it. From allegations that Crawford backed out of a publicity tour because she didn’t want to share the stage with Davis to Crawford accepting Anne Bancroft’s Best Actress statue for The Miracle Worker in a successful attempt to overshadow her enemy, this war was just like the movie — only 100% reality.
I mean — this is the movie where Bette Davis installed a free Coca-Cola machine on the set for the cast and crew for the sole reason of drawing the ire of Crawford, who was on the board of Pepsi.
There are also plenty of personal touches by both actresses. Davis did all of her own makeup, saying “What I had in mind no professional makeup man would have dared to put on me. I felt Jane never washed her face, just added another layer of makeup each day.” And Crawford, who was an avid collector of Margaret Keane’s “sad eyes” paintings, made sure that the paintings appear in next door neighbor Mrs. Bates’ house, inclduing the famous Big Eyes piece.
While Ingrid Bergman, Susan Hayward, Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, Jennifer Jones and Ginger Rogers were all rumored for Baby Jane and Tallulah Bankhead, Claudette Colbert, Olivia de Havilland and Marlene Dietrich were all in the running to play Blanche, only Davis and Crawford’s maniac energy — and downright hatred of one another — could make this film work as well as it does.
I truly believe that is Ms. Davis could have served Ms. Crawford a rat on a fancy tray, she would have done so. This is a film I’ve returned to time and time again, even if I’ve made sure to never eat a meal that has a silver cover on it.