A desire to be admired…
As part of “Turner Classic Movies: 31 Days of Oscar,” when I sat down to watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I wasn’t really quite sure what to expect. I knew from the comments of family members, who had seen it years ago, that the film was a real acting tour-de-force, with Bette Davis portraying Jane Hudson, an unstable middle-aged woman (who was a mildly famous child performer, and ultimately unsuccessful actor in her later years), and Joan Crawford playing her sister Blanche, a crippled woman who was once a talented, popular actor, but became paralyzed after an ambiguous car accident.
Well, the film did not disappoint. As it ended, I was overcome by what I had seen. The physical and mental brutality, the entrapment, the murder…within one household shared between two sisters.
There is so much to say about this powerful film, whether it be the seething jealousy of Jane towards her sister Blanche and her fury at Blanche’s attainment of a sustaining fame that lives on in the minds of those old and young; whether it be the frailness of Blanche, her physical inability to escape the clutches of her sister’s inner turmoil; whether it be the captivating dynamic between Davis and Crawford, as actors, overall—a relationship on screen (and supposedly off) that delves into envy and hatred.
Because there is just so much to explore with this film, I decided to pick one scene that stood out to me in particular…And that is the final moment in the film in which Jane Hudson is dancing on the beach.
Jane, with two strawberry ice creams in hand, walks on the beach to her sister, Blanche, who is lying on the sand, near death (Blanche was trapped in her bed throughout the last moments of the film, arms tied up in rope, mouth taped shut, slowly wasting away, until Edwin Flagg, a piano player in need of some money, (played by the actor Victor Buono) finds her and runs out of the house in an intoxicated, active state of bewilderment). Jane, inebriated and overwhelmed, grabs the semi-unconscious Blanche and puts her in the car, driving them both to the beach—a place where they used to go when they were younger, when Jane was beloved. When Jane is walking to her sister, two policemen approach her, knowing who she is, knowing what she has done, and wanting to know where her sister is. Jane, instead of properly answering their questions, however, dances for the newly formed crowd of beachgoers that surround her.
This scene, for me, is very saddening and really encompasses some of the overarching ideas evoked in the film—the desire for fame, for recognition, for a semblance of a past that can never be reclaimed. As Jane Hudson innocently twirls round and round, and as those around her snicker and look on confusingly, she performs as if she were the child performer of years ago. With a smile on her painted face, she looks upward with joy and happiness, with an internal glow, as if she were on the stage once again being admired. Different from the mental and physical cruelties of some of the earlier scenes of the film, this moment really stood out to me with its outer image of lightheartedness and deeper image of emotional suffering. In this scene on the beach, within her false daze of renown, Jane Hudson is in another world, another time of years past, a place where she was “Baby Jane Hudson” and was a star. Temporality has vanished in her mind. For her, the past is the present and the future.
I commend Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for their remarkable performances in this film. I recommend those who have not yet seen it to watch the film and enjoy the sheer talent of these actors on the screen.
Find out more about “Turner Classic Movies: 31 Days of Oscar” here.