When What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? came out, a large part of its success was the shock of seeing the two former stars reduced to monsters. The horror in the film fails to translate so well to todays teen and twentysomething audiences who often find the film dated and ludicrous because they are not conversant with the films context that it represented a shock trashing of two of the icons of Hollywood glamour in the 1940s. Bette Davis in particular shocked everybody with her completely over-the-top performance. It is a real theatre-rattling barnstormer of a delivery that she gives and one that garnered her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. She goes totally bonkers and the results are fascinatingly grotesque to watch. The scene where she in cracked, gargoyle makeup sings a song Ive Written a Letter to Daddy in a cracked, girl-like voice is a masterpiece of the memorably bizarre and twisted.
Joan Crawfords fine performance was not unexpectedly overshadowed by Bette Davis but is one that elicits a good deal of pained sympathy. Although such is something that the film seems to misunderstand. The final twist in the ending mutes the horror seeming to imply that we should forgive Jane for what she has done as Blanche deserved it. A good deal of the venom between the characters was apparently something that existed between the two actresses in real-life with both delighting in spitefully nasty games of one-upmanship on the other on set there was even a book written about such Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud (1989) by Shaun Considine. The irony that only came out in later years is that the roles were uncommonly close to the truth upon the parts of both actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were both utterly vain, particularly when it came to their own celebrity, both abused their own family members and both had daughters who wrote books about the cruelty of their parents.
Director Robert Aldrich has the power to shock at his disposal the dead rat scene always has gross-out impact. There are the odd moments of suspense the move down the stairs and the balled-up note although there are also times when the film seems talky, almost too stagy, and needs more drive and tension. Indeed, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a film whose effect lies with the barnstorming theatrics of its two stars rather than as a straight psycho-thriller. (It would make a very interesting revival as a stage play). There is fine black-and-white photography, which only serves to bring out the deliberately unglamorous making-up of its two stars. The other Academy Award nominee among the cast was Victor Buono as Supporting Actor there is a sly amusement to the scenes with his mother and a piquant charm to his clumsy English mannerdness in the scenes with an outrageously flirting Bette Davis. In recent years, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has gained the status of a gay cult classic because of its campy over-acting.
The film was later blandly remade as a tv movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1991), which was executive produced by Robert Aldrichs son William. In a piece of freakish stunt casting, the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis roles were played respectively by real-life sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave.
Robert Aldrich later returned with Bette Davis (and it was originally intended Joan Crawford who quit/was fired in mid-production because of the rivalry with Davis) in a follow-up of sorts Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), which is a much better film, if not as famous. Also of interest is Robert Aldrichs The Killing of Sister George (1968), which returns to the same Hollywood Grand Guignol as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? although is not a horror film, and his The Legend of Lylah Clare (1969), where a producer attempts to turn Kim Novak into a replica of his dead wife, which hovers for a time on the edge of being a ghost story. In the Hollywood Guignol stakes, Aldrich also produced a further Batty Old Dames psycho film What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969) and Bert I. Gordons Picture Mommy Dead (1966) where the spirit of Zsa Zsa Gabor haunts her daughter from out of a painting. Robert Aldrich had a celebrated career that stretched between the 1950s and 1980s, making films such as The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Longest Yard (1974) and The Choirboys (1977). He made several other films of genre interest, including the quasi-sf Mickey Spillane adaptation Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which is perhaps one of the finest of all Hollywood film noirs, and the nuclear missile silo hijacking thriller Twilights Last Gleaming (1977).
Novelist Henry Farrell, whose 1960 novel the film was based on, also developed a film career as a result of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Farrell furnished the script for Robert Aldrichs Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the novel for the Curtis Harrington-directed Baby Jane copy How Awful About Allan (1970) and the script for Harringtons Whats the Matter with Helen? (1971), as well as scripts for two tv movies, the haunted house drama The House That Would Not Die (1970) and the clairvoyance thriller The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972).