Golden Age Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were both Academy Award-winners who had begun to fall out of the spotlight when they agreed to headline Robert Aldrich's disturbing thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Warner Bros. had low expectations for the film's profitability, and so gave it a correspondingly low budget. But Aldrich and his legendary leading ladies had the last laugh as the sisters-centered drama went on to become a sleeper hit that eventually earned Oscar acclaim, and later became an iconic horror classic birthing the psycho-biddy subgenre.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is so much more than a horror movie. Depending on whom you ask, it's a campy but deadly dark comedy, a chilling physiological thriller, or one of the most disturbing dramas ever made about the fringe of Hollywood fame. Part of the joy of watching the film again (and again and again) is deciding for yourself what kind of movie it is, and what's really going on beneath the Hudson sisters' many layers of dementia and deception.
The story begins in 1917, where Baby Jane Hudson is the darling child star of the vaudeville circuit doted on by her starry-eyed stage dad, while her stern sister Blanche is constantly ignored by him. Their mother promises young Blanche that some day it will be her turn in the spotlight, and when that time comes, she entreats her to forgive Jane her childish spite and spoiled brat antics. Then, the narrative jumps to 1932, where Blanche is a major movie star and Jane has fallen out of fashion in part because of her drinking problem and temperamental nature. All of this is laid out in a lengthy scene by two studio execs, before the sisters head home for a fateful night that will shape them both forever.
Another leap in time takes us to 1962, where the Hudson sisters are cloistered in Blanche's mansion, where she—crippled from that terrible incident decades ago—depends on Jane for her every need. But years of resentment, recrimination, and lies have curdled any love between them into a rank and vile hatred that fuels a mind-bending game of cat and mouse. Both women fantasize about a life free from each other; Blanche looks into selling her house and essentially fleeing her sister, while Jane begins prepping costumes and song numbers for her envisioned comeback. However, their years of mutual isolation have inextricably entangled their fates.
The combined screen presence of Davis and Crawford is still one of the film's brightest draws, especially as each discards their typical grace and charm to create a gruesome portrait of sisterhood gone sour. Caked in ugly slabs of pancake make-up, Davis deftly and dramatically spins between Jane's feuding personas of coarse drunken hag and petulant, spoiled child. Hers is the showier role, but Crawford's restrained performance as the shuddering self-made martyr keeps Davis's menacing performance from veering into clownish. They work in tandem, keeping the balance between the heart-wrenching but theatrical drama and the blood-curling yet absurd horror.
Their caustic chemistry is so entrancing that scenes without one or the other feel frustratingly flat, especially because these are mostly filled with exposition-heavy dialogue and largely irrelevant characters talking about Blanche and Jane's backstory. These, plus some hammy supporting performances, cross fades, and awkward zooms date the film a bit. But Aldrich's directing sings in the scintillating scenes between Davis and Crawford that are so layered that each re-watching makes you question afresh what is truth and what is a lie. Ultimately, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is still an incredible drama that challenges audiences to decide which sister is cat, and which is mouse—or rat—in the twisted game.
Fans of classic Hollywood cinema will appreciate the details Warner Home Video have packed into What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?'s Blu-ray. With a carefully constructed 16x9 digital transfer from the original camera negative and remastered soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1, the film looks striking in crisp black and white. The interior of the case holds a 35-page booklet with a slew of movie stills, posters, and publicity articles amid production details and trivia.
On the disc itself, there's a behind-the-scenes featurette from the film's original release, plus three individual doc shorts dedicated to the film's stars. Film Profile: Joan Crawford and All About Bette are older, but Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition is brand new and explores Davis and Crawford's reputations, their histories and how their similarities as "ultra-ambitious, fierce divas" fueled their kinetic kinship in this, their first film performing together. All of the above give movie fans a deeper appreciation of the tempestuous relationship between the stars that reportedly fueled their collaboration in Baby Jane.
The disc also embraces the Oscar-winning film's reputation as a campy cult classic. There's a clip of a skirt flippin' Davis promoting the film on The Andy Williams Show by singing a song inspired by the film. Then, alongside the original trailer, the disc offers "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Dan-o-rama Movie Mix, a kitschy music video that pays tribute to the film's camp legacy. Finally, the commentary track offered features drag queens Charles Busch (star of Die, Mommy, Die) and John "Lypsinka" Epperson, who joke at the start, "Warner Bros. sees us as the new Bette and Joan!" The two have a deep respect for the film and great knowledge of its stars, but as neither had anything even remotely to do with its production, the commentary is largely speculation and much wondering aloud about its cast and execution, which makes for an underwhelming viewing experience.
With a blend of old and new elements that attempt to honor Baby Jane's reputation as an incredible film as well as a camp classic, the disc's special features are ultimately a mixed bag. But the restoration of the film is so masterfully done that it makes this Blu-ray well worth the price of admission.