Why are there so many films and books about a woman isolated from the world and cut off from life, forever imprisoned in some glorious past, craving love or attention and mistaking fantasy for reality? Miss Havisham is the ultimate example. Another is William Faulker's Emily. In film, we've got Vivien Leight's Blanche DuBois and Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond, 2 of the greatest performances in cinema (strictly speaking Blanche's not so isolated, but even whilst living among other people, she lives in her own world and has her own version of truth). What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has not 1, but 2 characters that live in the past: the crippled Blanche, in a wheelchair, watches her own films from 3 decades ago and keeps talking about a successful career killed by a car crash; whilst her sister Jane, more extreme and more pathetic, keeps talking about her fame as a child star, which is even further back in the past.
The film is a psychological thriller. Crippled and isolated from almost everyone else, Blanche is dependent on 1 person, who unfortunately hates her. It can be seen that from an early age, the sisters don't get along very well. I hesitate to say they have a love-hate relationship- is there any love in it? There's certainly lots of loathing, especially on Jane's side. One wonders why they keep living together in the same house- they just do, detesting and tormenting each other. Imagine being entirely dependent on a person who not only hates you from the core of their being and has lots of power over you but who is also mad. As Blanche talks of her plan of selling the house and having someone to take care of Jane, Jane becomes madder and madder. What do you think she can do? How far do you think she can go? Where is the limit for a deranged person?
The problem with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is that, as in the novel The Woman in White, the villain is surrounded, and unhindered, by a bunch of slow, dim-witted characters, whose stupidity is part of the plot mechanics. The tension is increased and the film becomes more horrifying as Jane slowly takes away everything from Blanche and cuts off all of her connections with the outside world and increasingly terrorises her, but because the helpless one continually fails and the evil one consistently wins by always getting back in time to catch everything and thwart all of the captive's attempts, it increasingly feels like a farce. Impatience leads to annoyance. Why is Blanche so idiotic? Why doesn't she shout to get the attention of the neighbour? Why does she take so much more time to type a note and throw it than for her sister to go out, do something and then drive back? Why does she not look before throwing the crumpled note? Why does she try to watch/ eavesdrop on Jane and the piano player instead of taking advantage of the moment, when Jane's busy, to find a way to escape? Why does she take so much time getting down the stairs and making the phone call that Jane drives away and does several things and can still get home on time to catch her? Why does she call the doctor instead of 911? When she gets hold of the doctor, why does she not go straight to the point, that her sister's getting more seriously sick mentally, terrorising, isolating and starving her, forging her signatures on checks and perhaps planning to kill her? Why does she talk in circles so the doctor doesn't realise the seriousness of the situation? Why does Elvira, the maid, spend so much time opening the door? Why does she stand till and make a whole speech before it, that when Jane comes back from a drive, she still hasn't forced it open? Why does the neighbour, always finding Jane obnoxious and unbearable, still have a friendly talk and tell her everything? Why does she not notice something strange in Jane's reaction? Why does she not notice anything? Why does Elvira threaten Jane to call the police, which is more likely to do harm than good? Why does she put down the hammer? Why does she let Jane stand behind her, and not look around? Why does she not see that the gagged Blanche's panicky, alarmed look is a way to signal danger? etc.
Or maybe they aren't slow, I'm just quick (having learnt quite a few things from suspense and thriller films and crime series).
However, those are minor nuisances. What we get is Bette Davis at her best, perhaps even surpassing her own performance in All About Eve. Jane's face's full of contempt whenever she walks into the room and looks at her own sister; everything she does seems filled of loathing; even the way she walks around, carrying the tray, shows a kind of resistance- we can see, watching her walk alone, that she's fed up with the job and sick of the person of whom she takes care, but can do nothing about it. At some point her resistance no longer stops at making known her hatred (shown in the walk, for example), reading and throwing away the fan mail or quarrelling and mocking; she goes further, and further, and further. Bette Davis portrays Jane as ugly, selfish, self-absorbed, grumpy, rude, deceitful, mean-minded, envious, vengeful, cruel, ruthless, violent, merciless and, above all, unpredictable. And yet, she doesn't make Jane a complete monster- she humanises her. The same way she has no fear depicting all the odiousness, meanness and brutality of the character, she shows no hesitation in looking absolutely ridiculous, especially in the scene where she, looking more like a waxwork than Gloria Swanson does in Sunset Boulevard, wears a dress and sings "I've Written a Letter to Daddy". That scene and the little moments when she says she's Baby Jane Hudson and expects recognition and an enthusiastic response from a stranger make her pathetic and awfully pitiable in her delusion and madness. And when she, after a moment of delirium, suddenly sees herself in the mirror and screams in horror, it's devastating. The different facets of her character and the contrasts between when she knows what she's doing (and doing something cruel) and when she's detached from reality, give Jane Hudson depth, complexity and a kind of humanity.
Bette Davis transforms into the character. She can look grotesque, but her grotesqueness never seems out of place. Her style is forceful and intense, and there is a kind of rawness to her performance that is both terrifying and heartbreaking. This is a performance that once seen, can never be forgotten.