Spotlight on Robert Aldrich’s
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
by Jacqueline Wong
From his excessive exhibitions of violence in Kiss Me Deadly to his extreme variations in representations of helplessness in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Robert Aldrich was known for his hard-hitting directorial style that pushes the boundaries of cinematic sado-masochism.
According to Alain Silver and James Ursini in their biography, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films, Aldrich wanted to infuse his films with “balls, energy, and real sex” (Silver 12). They further add that he “often addressed the questions of violence and brutality […] with an uncommon directness” with his characters undergoing “the same, inexorable moral reduction. And often both the idealists and the cynics — the social extremists — perish” (Silver 61). These attributes seem to have organically aided in creating the effects of horror and suspense in Aldrich’s 1962 film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, whose story concept depicts all of these factors to the extreme.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1960) originated as a horror novel by Henry Farrell. As a story written in the horror genre, it lay the foundations for exploring, as Gina Wisker writes in her article Don’t Look Now!,
fear and dreadful desires, on split selves, the rejected Other, and dangerous boundaries, divisions and spaces: […] and the domestic family home […] It exposes hidden fears and lurking perversities derived from disgust at difference, at the body, at the Other, and at the abject, the ‘not I’, rejected otherness. (Wisker 22)
Aldrich, with his hard-hitting aspirations, mines the existing scenarios and character types in his film version of the story to play up these themes and evoke in his audience sensations of fear, frustration, pity and helplessness — sensations that both Blanche and her sister Jane grapple with in their domestic home.
Threats to Time and Space
In ways that transcend simple genetic makeup, each sister is a part of the other. At the same time, each sister in some form or other is at odds with the other. They coexist in a place that ought to be familiar and comfortable, yet it becomes, as Freud would put it, uncanny: it becomes a condition of
contradictory experiences of the homely and familiar such as the family, lover, home, everyday actions — and a revelation of what is concealed, alternative versions of self, energies which might burst out and threaten everyday life. (Wisker 21)
Jane and Blanche both reveal that as sisters, they “know each other quite well” (as Blanche mentions to her caretaker, Elvira). Jane knows “everything that goes on in this house” (also serving as a censor, reading and filtering Blanche’s mail) and knows Blanche so well that she can imitate her voice, mannerisms and signature.
As Jane progressively invades Blanche’s sense of security, space, finances, physical body (through food deprivation and beatings) and identity, the audience senses that she will consume Blanche to the point of annihilation and instinctively fears for Blanche’s safety. Yet this fear is planted deeply in their characters even before the two characters as old women confront each other. When we are first introduced to the old and crippled Blanche, she is transfixed on the television set, watching reruns of the character that she once was. To a further and more horrific extent, Jane mentally inhabits the vaudeville world of her childhood and actively tries to resurrect her past act in the present. Hence, we are given a sense that Blanche and Jane are already inherently consumed by their own pasts. Their identities are constantly threatened by their selves and by their “others.”
The Fear and Pity of the Other
The extent to which each sister is an “other” is depicted as ambiguous, and this perception is further blurred by the fact that the two sisters are both performers. They identify themselves as individuals who take on a multitude of identities, and it seems as though each time a separate identity is “taken on,” the previous identity is at risk of becoming consumed.
Sometimes these identities are voluntary; sometimes they are subconscious and may in fact become self-fulfilling prophecies. Jane fluidly assumes many identities: that of Blanche, that of her younger self, and as the ending implies (in which Blanche confesses that it was Blanche who tried to run Jane over), that of an envious killer. Jane’s talent for acting like Blanche implies a degree of sanity — a sense that Jane knows what she’s doing and is in actuality, a good actor. Subconsciously, however (even if we are not to believe that Blanche was telling the truth about her confession), another identity has been imposed on Jane: that of an attempted killer, reinforced by a past reputation of having attempted to run over her sister. Jane takes on this role with the same degree of fluidity that she uses when she takes on the role of her innocent, forgiving sister, which raises the question as to who Jane really is. This question is never answered and the audience ultimately never knows what ever happened to Baby Jane.
Likewise, Blanche, in having placed blame on her sister after the accident, takes on the role of a sympathetic victim who forgives her sister from the beginning. Over the years, this victim “role” seems to have taken over her to the point at which she becomes, in actuality, a crippled victim who gets abused to the point of near-and-possibly-even-true death. The sheer impact of these imposed identities becomes evident when Blanche confesses her deception to Jane. When Blache tells Jane that she’s innocent, Jane befriends Blanche and takes on the identity of an innocent and finally gets Blanche food.
Jane becomes Blanche’s outward projection of her own guilt — an abject entity of horror that Blanche tries to suppress, deny and reject, yet that remains an essential part of her very self. Jane becomes a contradiction that cannot be reconciled and that constantly threatens Blanche’s identity and her own.
Restraint: Variations on a Theme
This internal conflict within Jane and Blanche is augmented by the outward conflict manifested in the two sisters’ individual goals as they attempt to reclaim the identities that have been usurped from them.
Blanche, feeling inherently trapped and threatened by an increasingly mentally ill sister, wants to sell the house and lock her sister away in a nursing home. When her sister tries to wreak vengeance on her, Blanche then adopts the primary motive of self-preservation.
Jane, feeling as though her own identity as a young girl has been inherently stifled, wants to revive her old vaudeville act and reclaim the attention and public admiration that she feels that Blanche as well as time have usurped from her.
The restrictions of age impose an essentially insurmountable barrier upon the two sisters. While both are anachronisms, Jane more vehemently refuses to accept old age as her identity. Baby Jane has fully assimilated the concept of herself as a “baby” — to the point at which not becoming Baby Jane becomes tantamount to not being anything — or a thing that draws closer and closer to the brink of death.
In her article, Baby Jane Grew Up: The Dramatic Intersection of Age with Disability, Sally Chivers expands on Mary Russo’s concept of the “scandal of anachronism”:
As [Mary Russo] puts it, “Acting one’s age, in a certain sense, can be understood as a caution against risk taking with higher and higher stakes associated with advanced chronological age until finally, acting one’s age means to die.”
(qtd. in Chivers 213)
However, according to Russo, “‘not acting one’s age…is not only inappropriate but dangerous, exposing the female subject, especially, to ridicule, contempt, pity, and scorn’” (qtd. in Chivers 213). Baby Jane risks all of this, yet in a way, she can only choose between her own self assertion and her own annihilation in the form of accepting her present identity. Jane chooses to assert her own identity and to dispose of Blanche who has been trying to stifle it by putting selling the house and putting her in a home (and, unknown to Jane, by deceiving Jane about her own identity as a jealous individual responsible for crippling her sister).
Blanche experiences the physical restrictions of age, handicap, a victim identity, social isolation, and guilt. Her connections to the outside world are successively and mercilessly subtracted until she is entirely alone. In such a situation, survival is her only goal.
Blanche can never be mobile again and Jane can never be young again. Both are prisoners of their aged physical bodies and of their reputations as guilty or innocent. Both attempt in vain to achieve these personal identity-fulfilling goals.
All conditions are laid out for the notion of restraint, which the audience experiences vicariously as well as physically — conscious of all that is going on yet captive and helpless in a darkened movie theatre. Their desires remain perpetually unfulfilled throughout the progression of the story. They are put in a position in which they know about the events that are unfolding and are unable to intervene and help the characters.
In his book, The Suspense Thriller: Films in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Derry describes the audience as being thrust into the role of “the peculiar character . . . who can see, hear, walk, fly, swim under water, jump from place to place, but, cannot touch or move anything except this own body” (Derry 45). The audience’s vicarious sympathizes with the main characters thereby transcend to a meta level. Their own desires become stifled and denied and they are equally thrust into a position of silent helplessness.
It is this situation that Aldrich exploits in order to milk the audience’s suspense. Again and again, he presents the audience with situations in which they, knowing the information that they know, could help Blanche if they could intervene. Again and again, their desires go unsatisfied and they are left feeling frustrated with the course of events as well as helpless and powerless.
In one instance, Blanche attempts to throw a plea of help to her neighbor, Mrs. Bates, when her sister leaves the house. In her letter, she boldly outlines that the worst case scenario would be if the letter she was writing were shown to her sister. Murphy’s Law first comes into play when Blanche’s attempt to throw the message into her neighbor’s yard falls short and doesn’t reach her. It next comes into play when her sister shows up and stands in dangerous proximity to the letter. The audience’s hopes are teased when Mrs. Bates comes up and talks to Jane, standing in equal proximity to the letter, and suspense is further augmented when Blanche discovers that the letter has disappeared, implying that one of the ladies now has the letter. Murphy’s Law comes into play a final time in this sequence when Jane reveals that she indeed has the letter and Blanche’s worst case scenario becomes manifest.
Such instances occur very frequently in this film. At moments in which help is most needed, such as when Jane puts Elvira’s dead body in her car to dump it in a river, help is withheld for often trivial yet rational reasons (Mrs. Bates nearly discovers Elvira, but her inability to grasp the severity of the situation prevents her from assuming anything abnormal about Jane — her calmness and trusting nature become antagonistic). When Blanche finally succeeds in her goal of getting to the phone, the incompetent doctor’s reluctance to visit Blanche, thereby allowing her to suffer the worst possible consequence of her sister beating and binding her to the brink of death. Even when Blanche is finally brought into a public environment by her psychologically broken sister, she is still denied help — even when police are present.
As a result, as the film progresses, the audience continually feels a sense of unease and a suspicion that the greatest antagonist in the course of the film may not be so much the abnormal or extraordinary characters, but normal characters most resembling themselves.
The narrative construction in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? instills in the audience the ultimate sense of fear and conflict and they are left with their own, more personal sense of irreconcilable turmoil that threatens to blur the line between the characters they fear onscreen and themselves.
The Hope Teaser
The integration of simultaneous narrative trajectories enhances the audience’s sense of conflict and anticipation. They are fed on almost equal levels the plot developments for Blanche, the protagonist, and Jane, the antagonist. This intercutting establishes a sense of time for the audience and also allows the audience to sympathize with both characters. Jane’s mental illness spoils Blanche’s sense of security and Blanche retaliates with her plan to sell their house and put Jane in a home. This in turn unsettles Jane, who retaliates by cutting stripping Blanche of her independence and making her life miserable.
As Blanche has the underhand throughout the majority of the narrative, the audience roots for Blanche to succeed in every intercut sequence and becomes frustrated when her attempts are either failed or foiled. Silver and Ursini write,
Jane’s succession of absences from the house are interposed with Blanche’s attempts at escape. This creates a series of plot- frustrating anticlimaxes, which are frustrating or anticlimactic only in the sense of impeding the movement towards denouement. (Silver 208)
Blanche’s chances of success are never high (they seem to range from 50/50 to perhaps 1/100) and the audience realize that Blanche is more likely than not to fail in her attempts; yet the lingering time and intercutting of Jane’s outdoor expeditions serve to tease a sense of hope out of the audience and keep their sense of anticipation alive.
This cross-cutting creates one form of time dependence essential to suspense. Another form of time dependence is delay. In an interview conducted by Pierre Sauvage in 1976, Aldrich explains, “when somebody comes in and lays the dead bird down in front of her, I wanted to delay her reaction, so there’s time for the cut to Crawford and then back to her reaction. Film is a time arrester. In fact, both reactions would be happening at the same time” (Miller 107). Aldrich thus uses this cross-cutting technique to suspend not only information but also emotion. Aldrich was so bent on making sure that every emotional reaction was recorded that he ultimately decided to have two cameras rolling when many of his scenes were being filmed. As Klavan would put it, “Suspense is in the pauses between the pulls of the trigger; between the time the reader knows what might happen and the time it actually happens or doesn’t” (Klavan 15).
Proximity is another device that Aldrich uses to milk the audience’s sense of suspense. Sources of help for Blanche are often very near — her neighbor is within ear distance and the piano player enters Blanche’s own home yet doesn’t hear her. At the beach, not only are people around, but police also seem to be within a few yards of Blanche and talking about her abduction (“We’ll find her. I guess maybe it’ll be too late”). This equally enhances the audience’s sense of hope and brings their frustration to a peak as their hopes of Blanche’s discovery still fail to be actualized.
Whenever a sequence does end and an outcome is established, Blanche is continually presented with an unsatisfactory package deal. The end result is a raising of the stakes: either she does not get what she wants and her situation gets worse or she does get what she wants, but there’s a catch. One instance of this is when she finally establishes phone contact with the doctor and finds the doctor fully indifferent to what he perceives to be her situation. To make Blanche’s circumstances worse, Jane arrives and discovers Blanche speaking on the phone. Jane then decides to beat her unconscious, tie her up in her room and starve her.
It is likely that Aldrich’s own low-budget restrictions served to enhance What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’s impact on the audience’s sense of suspense. Another important cinematic device in enhancing suspense in a film is the use of suggestion.
Suggestion is established through the limited presentation of information coupled with the withholding of integral details as to the information’s significance. In The Suspense Thriller, Derry emphasizes the
importance of objects in suspense thrillers, as well as their dual nature (that is, each object generally implying the eventual presence of something else and therefore setting up suspense — for example, the gun’s implication that someone will be shot, the door’s implication that someone will walk through it).
This generates a sense of ambiguity and tension and increases an audience’s desire to know more. This can be in the form of unexplained abnormal phenomena, such as Jane’s serving Blanche’s dead bird to her for lunch. Like the presence of a gun, the meaning of this bird isn’t entirely clear, but it suggests the presence of trouble and stimulates the audience’s imagination — thus allowing them to gradually accept the possibility of absurd or abnormal occurrences. This teasing of the imagination is important for, as Andrew Klavan writes in his article, “The Uses of Suspense,” “suspense is not about the things that are happening; it’s about the things that might happen, that threaten to happen” (Klavan 14). Hence, this low budget film’s necessity to integrate minimal props and scenes has forced Aldrich to further exercise techniques of suggestion, which work in a narrative’s favor to enhance an audience’s imagination play and subsequent sense of suspense.
A major utilization of suggestion in this film is the portrayal of a woman’s foot stepping on a gas pedal followed by screams. The audience doesn’t know to whom the foot or the screams belongs, although they assume that it was Jane’s foot on the pedal that caused Blanche’s screams and crippling. The necessity of such information withholding becomes clear in the very end of the film when the twist is exposed: it was Blanche’s foot on the pedal and Jane’s screams; Jane was innocent all along and did not deliberately intend to harm her sister.
In every instance of suggestion, an intense sense of perspective is established, which works in a low budget film’s favor since only a few vital images are necessary. Perspective manipulates empathy and sets up the necessary information needed to create plot twists. Hicks suggests that such forms of cinematic manipulation are integral elements that contribute to a film’s success. He writes, “the success of a Thriller depends almost entirely on the filmmakers’ ability to confidently assure the audience that they are watching near-documentary authenticity, while simultaneously hoodwinking them into giving up their dependence on the real world altogether” (Hicks 25).
The emotional effectiveness of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? may also be attributed to the film’s musical selections. In his article, “The Fright Stuff,” which appeared in a 2007 edition of The Hollywood Reporter, Jeff Bond describes how composers of horror films attempt to create the auditory effects of blunt instruments or weapons in their musical scores. Aldrich, apparently a fan of various forms of weapons since the beginning (as implied in his excessive weapon imagery in Kiss Me Deadly), also makes use of this technique. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? introduces savage drums after the car crash sequence, which evokes an ominous sense of violence amid the otherwise glamorous world of two Hollywood actresses.
Aldrich’s casting choices also synergized well with the film. According to Chivers, the offer to Bette Davis to do Baby Jane “came after she placed an advertisement in Hollywood trade publications: ‘Mother of three — 10, 11 and 15 — divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in motion pictures. Mobile still. And more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood (has had Broadway). Bette Davis, c/o Martin Baum, GAC. References upon request.’” Davis “‘wanted everybody to know I was back in Hollywood — and back with a vengeance!’ […] she was called upon by Aldrich to portray: Baby Jane returning to the Hollywood stage in search of revenge (qtd. In Vermilye 122)” (Chivers 217–218). This personal resonance between Bette Davis and the role of Baby Jane, coupled with her real life rivalry with Joan Crawford who was selected to play her on-screen rival, enabled the film to portray a heightened sense of emotional truth that would resonate with the audiences in turn. Aldrich himself was also considered an outsider in the film business, being an independent filmmaker, which allowed his portrayal of Hollywood to echo his own sentiments of cynicism toward the film industry.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? thus became a niche film with general audience appeal and seems to perfectly conform to Clint Culpepper of Screen Gems’ objective: “Keep costs down, risks low, niches narrow and grosses high,” which he mentions are the keys to his success in a Variety article by Anne Thompson, published in September, 2007.
Silver attests that it was this “Hollywood dichotomy that both frustrated and sustained Aldrich’s work,” which was infused with “violent, angst-ridden outbursts of existential despair” (Silver 58–59). The film resonated strongly with groups who considered themselves to be “others.” In his article, The Text in the Third Degree: Gay camp recoupment in What ever Happened To…? And High Heels, Bruce Williams describes the film’s popularity among gay audiences: “pay money they did, particularly gay males, for whom the actresses had invented the term ‘bitch goddess’. Gays loved the extremities, the camp histrionics” (Williams 165). This audience sees a part of themselves in Bette Davis’s character, and there has emerged a “cultural phenomenon of gay-men-citing-Bette-Davis-citing-herself” (Williams 162). Among their subculture, Baby Jane and Blanche have become popular characters in drag shows and Halloween parties, and a Texas-based alternative rock group, founded in 1998, named their band, “Baby Jane Hudson”; and in 2002, Lee Pockriss, composer of gold record recipients “Catch a Falling Star” and “Johnny Angel” released a musical version of Farrell’s original novel, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Older women may also see themselves in this film, which makes the film’s emotional impact all the deeper:
The two most famous shots, the bird’s-eye-view of Blanche spinning in her chair and the close-up of Jane’s mirror recognition of age, derive their aesthetic power from a horrific depiction of age and disability. The horror appeal involves frightening audiences through images of changed, supposedly monstrous bodies, undermining the very age and disability upon which the film relies. (Chivers 225)
Aldrich has always been a visceral, even violent film director; and despite — and most likely because of — their shocking nature, films such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? have succeeded in evoking some of the most intense feelings of suspense in a movie-going audience.
Suspense is the sensation that we feel when we hope for the best and fear the worst; and in suspense films, the worst is what we are most often brought to face — we expect this and we fear it, and yet something within the dichotomous recesses of the human psyche causes us to intentionally and willingly enter the movie theatre and experience it.
Bond, Jeff. “The Fright Stuff.” Hollywood Reporter – International Edition. 402.10 (2007): S33-S48.
Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Castle, Mort, ed. On Writing Horror. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2007.
Chivers, Sally. “Baby Jane Grew Up: The Dramatic Intersection of Age with Disability.” Canadian Review of American Studies. 36.2 (2006): 211–227.
Derry, Charles. The Suspense Thriller: Films in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1988.
Hicks, Neill D. Writing the Thriller Film: The Terror Within. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2002.
Klavan, Andrew. “The Uses of Suspense.” Writer. 107.5 (1994): 13–16.
Miller, Eugene L. and Edwin T. Arnold, eds. Robert Aldrich: Interviews. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Silver, Alain and James Ursini. What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich? His Life and His Films. New York: Limelight Editions, 1995.
Thompson, Anne. “High concepts at low costs.” Variety. 10 Sept. 2007: A4, A36.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Dir. Robert Aldrich. Perf. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Wesley Addy. 1962. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2006.
Williams, Bruce “The Text in the Third Degree: Gay camp recoupment in What Ever Happened To…? and High Heels.” New Review of Film and Television Studies. 2.2 (2004): 161–179.
Williams, Valentine. “Crime Fiction According to Hoyle.” The Saturday Evening Post. 204.2 (1931): 33–109.
Wisker, Gina. “Don’t Look Now! The compulsions and revelations of Daphne du Maurier’s horror writing.” Journal of Gender Studies. 8.1 (1999): 19–33.