Remove the patina of camp that coats What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, thanks in great part to the over-the-top onscreen performances by and even more over-the-top behind-the-scenes battles between leading ladies Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and what you have is one of the most disturbing psychological breakdowns ever put to screen. You also have one of cinema’s most tragic characters in the form of “Baby” Jane Hudson.
I feel torn as to how much I want to write here about Jane. I’ve been a bit more lenient when it comes to revealing certain things about older movies, but to really get into the nitty gritty of why I think she deserves to be lauded as a Lady of Horror May-hem would require significant revelations about this movie, including one that I’m not that keen to give away here. I’d hate to deny anyone the joy of discovering this movie in all its twisted, tortuous glory.
Let it be known, though, that I think Jane Hudson’s downward spiraling is one of the most upsetting and heartbreaking cinematic presentations of mental instability. Baby Jane trumps even that “number one fan” for her inability to process reality in socially acceptable ways. Jane’s unhinged “care” of her sister Blanche, in fact, is quite the precursory permutation of Annie Wilkes’s treatment of Paul Sheldon. Jane believes that she cannot escape her past, either mentally or physically, thanks to the total dependence of Blanche upon her. Theirs is a codependency of chaotically epic proportions, and Jane’s resentment and guilt are equally palpable and poisonous to her already fragile mental state.
Watching Baby Jane’s story the first time might make you laugh. Okay, watching her story the first time will make you laugh. But watch her again. Watch her as you would watch a real person behaving in these ways. Watch her knowing how it all ends. Just watch her.