Girl Fight: Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

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A feud functions differently than a fight: it lasts longer, it simmers, it requires more emotional effort, and it often outlives the two rivals. From the melodramatic weepies of the 1950s to current day reality TV, audiences have loved watching women feud, basking in the pseudo-sexual woman-on-woman contact. But before The Real Housewives, or the Dynasty-esque catfights between Linda Evans and Joan Collins, we had what might be called the progenitor of the female feud trope in the catfight classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962). Here, physical contact is replaced with a far more insidious blow: one dealt by the public to Davis and Crawford.

The film stars Bette Davis (the titular Jane) and Joan Crawford (Blanche), as two aging Hollywood stars, rivals, and sisters. Although the title of the film is a question (like the original Henry Farrell book upon which the movie is based), it is one that is never asked at any point. No one wonders nor cares what ever happened to former child star Baby Jane because Jane’s acting career has faded from the cultural imaginary. As much as she eagerly brings herself up in conversations, hoping to spur the memory of her fame, all people can do is feign recognition or talk about her far more iconic sister Blanche.

As Jane grows up, she can neither act, nor manage to stay sober; she is labelled a “no-talent broad” who only gets roles in her sister’s films because of a clause in Blanche’s contracts. Blanche, a radiant glamour girl and leading lady, is a Hollywood it-girl raking in money, accolades, and status—until a car accident leaves her paralyzed and at the mercy of her envious sister.

When director Robert Aldrich cast Davis and Crawford in the adaptation, he knew he would be bringing together two stars who despised each other. Though both women publicly denied the feud, it was rumoured that Davis considered herself a trained actress while she thought of Crawford as a superficial star. But their rivalry seemed to be of a more professional ilk: they were always competing for the same parts. What Aldrich didn’t anticipate was just how much the press and the fans would crave stories about the actresses’ off-screen fighting: audiences wanted to hear about power moves, vain demands, and their displays of aggression towards each other. Aldrich was tasked, then, with coaching the women to dismantle their own carefully crafted public images. As Anne Helen Petersen explains in her Scandals of Classic Hollywood, a star like Davis or Crawford was a “picture personality,” a combination of “on-screen and off-screen selves—selves that complemented and amplified each other.”

But whatever Aldrich did to manipulate the image of each woman within the film text, the press would still try to undo. Davis and Crawford were two once-powerhouse women sharing the screen, and the media longed to watch this spectacular Hollywood rivalry culminate in a cinematic catharsis by watching characters Blanche and Jane tear each other apart. Even though both stars shrugged off the gossip, stories of their behind-the-scenes feuding, whether true or false, would come to light. Just because their characters found some closure and solace with one another on screen did not mean the public would stop pitting Davis and Crawford against each other.

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The film spawned a particular kind of thriller movie genre known as the Grande Dame Guignol, or, as Renata Adler once coined it, “the Terrifying Older Actress Filicidal Mummy” film. (It is even, in less gracious moments, referred to as “hag horror.”) The genre revived the waning careers of its older actresses and would prove to be profitable for the studio as well—but at what cost?

While no one could confirm how deep the rivalry between the two women ran, and how seriously the two were feuding in real life, Richard Scheib explains in the Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review that their roles as Jane and Blanche were “uncommonly close to the truth.” Scheib argues that “Crawford and 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 own parents.” As tempting as this autobiographical gesture may be, it is hindsight that allows us to interpret the relationship between Jane and Blanche as parallel to that of Davis and Crawford. Whatever rivalry was spun or festering, it made for good on-screen chemistry—good in the sense that both could conceivably kill each other. It’s also what packed so many theatres with viewers.

Although Jane seems to be the culpable one in the film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? implicates the spectator in each woman’s self-destruction. We watch as two stars, churned out by the Old Hollywood system, tear the fine patina of glamour and vanity off. There’s a point in the film where we stop watching Blanche and Jane and see Davis and Crawford in their “gothic grotesquerie.” Each woman is vulnerable, shedding the image that each took so long to construct and maintain.

In 1962, when the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther reviewed the film, he said, of Jane and Blanche that “there is nothing particularly moving or significant about these two.” But they are significant and we’re not merely watching them passively. We too are complicit in their fall. These women—both the characters and the aged actresses who play them— have constructed an image of themselves for our enjoyment. They fight for first billing, or more screen time so we can see them, remember them. What we’re watching is two women who have shielded their real selves from us—the viewer, Hollywood, consumers, tabloids—so that they could entertain us and keep standing in front of a camera.

But what Crawford and Davis have been trying to hide of themselves throughout What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? inevitably seeps out through Blanche and Jane. Davis and Crawford momentarily unleash the ugliest, the most malicious and unflattering parts of themselves: the drinking, the lying, the scheming, the need for absolute control, the sagging flesh. What we’re watching is the undoing of two of Hollywood’s great dames. We’re watching as they disintegrate into their sallow characters.

In an unexpected twist, we don’t know who to hate more. Jane tortures Blanche, but Blanche, too, deceives: she never tells her sister about selling the house or potentially locking her up in a mental institution. Worst of all, Blanche has had Jane convinced that she was the cause of her accident and paralysis, when in fact, Blanche tried to kill her sister because Jane had been making fun of her at a party. When Blanche was found injured, it was assumed it had been Jane’s doing. After all this—after expecting some mythic showdown—it’s the viewer who is the enemy, who was egging on the rivalry all along. It’s Jane who unexpectedly sounds the sanest—when, after Blanche’s confession, she asks the most obvious question: “You mean, all this time we could have been friends?”

After the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Aldrich tried to reunite Davis and Crawford in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), but after filming some scenes, Crawford started phoning in sick and was eventually replaced by Olivia de Havilland. Both Davis and Crawford never thought much of their mutual dislike for each other—if anything, they praised one another’s professionalism and work ethic. Davis and Crawford left it at that, and yet audiences wanted more; they wanted them to fight and to hold a grudge. But unlike the typical Hollywood ending, not all feuds or rivalries need a proper resolution. Sometimes a lie is what helps get the job done.

Sara Black McCulloch is a writer and researcher living in Toronto. She has written for i-D, Maisonneuve, Adult, the Hairpin and The New Inquiry, among others.

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Sara Black McCulloch is a writer and researcher living in Toronto. She has written for i-D, Maisonneuve, Adult, the Hairpin and The New Inquiry, among others.