Roasted rat … pet bird on a platter … murder by hammer … and one creepy rendition of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.”
The shocks in Robert Aldrich‘s deliciously garish thriller “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), which co-starred Hollywood icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, still pack a jolt. But there was drama on off camera during filming.
The juicy jousting between two screen legends then past the ingenue stage — Crawford was 56, Davis was 54 — has inspired a much-discussed miniseries, FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” starring Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford.
A fresh look at Aldrich’s classic reveals a film that, though undeniably campy, holds a weird fascination. The story has two aging sisters with show-biz pasts living in abject misery in a moldering mansion. Jane (Davis) was a child star in vaudeville known as “Baby Jane.” Blanche (Crawford) had a successful movie career, but is now confined to a wheelchair. Jane becomes increasingly unhinged by guilt over causing Blanche’s immobility (or so Jane thinks), and her own inability to let go of her child-star past.
VIDEO: “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy”
Considering Davis’ garish, self-created look as Jane — face powdered into oblivion, hair in matted curls, vampire eyeliner and lipstick — it’s no wonder the character is beloved by professional female impersonators. Davis seems unconcerned over whether she is overplaying — she there — while Crawford provides the perfect complement as the victim with her own skeleton in the closet. In their only film together — well, they were to co-star in Aldrich’s followup, “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” but that’s another story — Davis and Crawford are an unforgettable team.
And, in one sense, both women walked away from their infamous feud as winners.
Neither actress’ career was exactly on fire when they made “Baby Jane.” But the film was a surprise hit, and thereafter, Davis and Crawford tapped into a new vein of work — in Hollywood in England. Between their sometimes far-flung “straight” roles, Davis and Crawford were sustained by the horror genre for the rest of their careers.
VIDEO: Trailer for “Feud: Better and Joan”
After “Baby Jane,” Crawford starred in “Strait-Jacket” (1964), “I Saw What You Did” (1965), “Berserk!” (1967) and “Trog” (1970). Meanwhile, Davis made “Dead Ringer” (1964), “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964), “The Nanny” (1965), “The Anniversary” (1968), “Burnt Offerings” (1976) and “Wicked Stepmother” (1989).
Other actresses — Olivia de Havilland, Tallulah Bankhead, Shelley Winters, Debbie Reynolds — benefited from this subgenre of horror snarkily referred to has “hagsploitation” (which happens to be the title of Episode 6 of “Feud”).
And, as with many cinematic trends, the first film is still the best.