'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?': THR's 1962 Review
On Oct. 31, 1962, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford headlined What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the tale of two sisters sharing a dilapidated mansion. Famously, the two stars were none too keen on each other, with their relationship now the subject of an FX series, Feud: Bette and Joan. The Hollywood Reporter's original 1962 review is below.
Whatever else it may turn out to be, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is certainly one of the most fascinating and unusual cinema items of the year, and one that will capture a huge amount of publicity and comment.
Robert Aldrich's production for Warner Bros. is a lurid melodrama of hate, revenge and murder, a high-class horror film, in the Hitchcock vein, with virtuoso performances from Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and moments both searing and poignant. Aldrich directed as well as produced the Seven Arts presentation for Warners. Kenneth Hyman was executive producer.
As it stands, Baby Jane does not always sustain its own powerful pace. Such a story, essentially a short story or mystery yarn rather than a narrative with the development and change of a novel, has to be told in almost breathless fashion, one incident piled upon another, flashing trickery that binds without unnecessary explanation. Baby Jane could be improved by cutting subplotting and exposition of minor characters, unimportant in the total framework and not diverting in themselves. Stripped of unessentials, the focus would sharpen, the spell would be heightened, and the grim, relentless story — broken as it is already with bizarre humor — would be more totally successful.
Lukas Heller's screenplay is based on a book by Henry Farrell and is concerned with two aged actresses immured in their Hollywood home. One, Bette Davis, was a child star. Her sister, Joan Crawford, was a failure as a child but a great success as an adult movie star. Miss Davis' adult failure and her mad belief that her sister deliberately eclipsed her provides the basis for the corrosive relationship that ties them. Miss Crawford's career was terminated when she became hopelessly crippled in an "accident" engineered by her embittered and jealous sister. Or so the premise runs, until the surprise conclusion.
Miss Davis plays with all the baroque technique at her command, which is unmatched by any other actress. Got up to resemble a flour-faced, slash-lipped refugee from the silent days, sporting blonde corkscrew curls, she is visually frightful. She goes about her chores with the somnolence of the insanely purposeful. The part has no shadings, except an occasional horrible coyness, but Miss Davis sustains it by sheer will. Miss Crawford, playing the less gaudy role, has an equally difficult conception. She is ostensibly sane, and she is being starved to death by her sister in particularly gruesome fashion. Miss Crawford plays her scenes of cajolery, panic and despair with supple skill. Between the two actresses, it is a confrontation of tremendous personality, and a standoff for honors.
Maidie Norman does a nice job as maid to the sisters, and a note of rationality in the house of horrors. Victor Buono contributes a further of rococo as Miss Davis' musical accompanist. Others helpful include Marjorie Bennett, Anna Lee, Barbara Merrill, Dave Willock, Ann Barton and moppets Julie Allred and Gina Gillespie.
Ernest Haller's black-and-white photography is almost unsparing in its hard, clear look at the enormous brutalities of such a life as the Misses Davis and Crawford live. His last shot of Miss Davis is particularly memorable. Music by DeVol is touching in every mood, and most notable in giving a pathos to Miss Davis' character that is not otherwise indicated. William Glasgow's settings are keyed to mood and the background. Michael Luciano's editing is vigorous in assisting the tempo. Norma Koch's costumes are a memorable asset. Sound by Jack Solomon is proficient. — James Powers, originally published on Oct. 26, 1962