On one hand, it’s sort of surprising that Ryan Murphy got FX to bankroll a presumably expensive (big stars, lavish production, period piece) miniseries about the making and aftershocks of a 55-year-old movie. On the other, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane isn’t just any 55-year-old movie. A surprise box office hit upon its release on Halloween day 1962, Baby Jane gave an adrenaline shot to the floundering careers of stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford — not only by pairing them up, but by pitting them against each other. Viewers in the years hence would come to regard it as a twisted camp classic, its images of its iconic stars making each other miserable easily superimposed with the juicy legends that grew around its production. That’s pretty much the spirit of Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan (or, at least, of the pilot episode I’ve seen). But Baby Jane itself is much more complicated — and stimulating — than that.
The quick summary, if you need it: we begin with two prologues. The first, set in 1917, introduces us to kid star Baby Jane Hudson and her huckster dad, who perform a cringe-worthy but popular vaudeville act while Jane’s sister Blanche steams in the wings. “Someday it’s going to be you that’s getting all the attention,” their mother promises Blanche, and when we catch up with the pair in 1935, she’s right. Their fortunes have reversed; Blanche is a big-time movie star, and while Jane is also in the movies, it’s only because her continued employment is part of her successful sister’s studio contract. But then there’s a horrible automobile accident at the gate of their home, presumably Jane’s fault, that leaves Blanche confined to a wheelchair.
And that brings us to “YESTERDAY” — the present, circa 1962, with Blanche (Crawford) stuck in her chair in the upstairs bedroom, and Jane (Davis) her sister’s perpetually irritated (and drunken) caretaker. The bulk of the movie is spent in the house, with Robert Aldrich’s taut direction and Ernest Haller’s crisp black and white photography capturing the anxiety of being trapped in that confined space. And this is what so often gets lost about Baby Jane: it’s a real thriller, dark, suspenseful, and intense. Alrich squeezes that main location like a vice, turning Blanche’s impossible staircase descent into a mountain that she can’t climb, cranking up the psychological warfare between the two, with Jane terrorizing, gaslighting, starving, and abusing her poor sister. And when it gets physical, we’re not laughing.
Lukas Heller’s script, drawn from Henry Farrell’s novel, is keenly attuned to the duo’s shifting power dynamics (“Now you have to depend on me for your food again — so ya see, we’re right back where we started!”). Those dynamics, and Blanche’s general incapacity, make the situational tension all the more relentless. There are moments in the film, over and over, when Blanche could be saved: by herself, by maid Elvira, by Jane’s would-be suitor Edwin, by the cops that eventually bring him to their door. But they can’t quite make it to her, and by the end, we understand why. Blanche and Jane have to see this thing through themselves.
Baby Jane’s success prompted its own subgenre of psychological horror films centered on aging female characters (often even duplicating Baby Jane’s title structure), dubbed “psycho-biddy” or “hag horror,” pictures like Who Slew Auntie Roo?, What’s the Matter with Helen?, and What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? Aldrich, Davis, and Crawford even tried to go back to the well themselves, making the similarly-styled Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, though Crawford was replaced by Olivia de Havilland during production (a story presumably to be told later in Feud’s run).
But Baby Jane predated another movement in cinema as well. In the 1970s, Hollywood entered a period of particularly rampant nostalgia, both with films explicitly about the olden days of the industry (The Day of the Locust, Nickelodeon, W.C. Fields and Me, Gable and Lombard, and Won Ton Ton, the Dog That Saved Hollywood) and juicy, newly liberated deconstructionist takes on popular genres of the era (via directors like Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese). These portraits were both celebratory and cynical, often at the same time, and Baby Jane is very much in that spirit.
In many ways, it achieves that tricky balance by being a film about itself, and its stars. In the 1935 sequence, the studio executives are watching scenes from real Bette Davis movies — 1933’s Parachute Jumper and Ex-Lady, to be precise — and dragging them: “She stinks, doesn’t she?” In the contemporary scenes, Blanche is experiencing a bit of a renaissance thanks to her old movies’ popularity on TV; she’s seen watching one of them, a Crawford vehicle called Sadie McKee, and commenting on her performance in it. These snapshots of its stars’ younger iterations aren’t just easy history or context — they allow (force, really) the viewer to blur the line between actors and characters, so when we compare them to their miserable, aged latter-day iterations, we assume they’re one and the same.
That cloudiness isn’t solely used for winking in-jokes (as in an early scene of the two legends comparing movies and roles from back in the glory days), or outright mocking (particularly Jane’s delusional comeback hopes: “Y’know, there are a lot of people who remember me. Lots of ‘em!”). They lend the film, and the actors inhabiting it, genuine pathos. And surprisingly enough, that’s even more true for Davis — who purposefully overdoes it, in her fright make-up and little-girl curls — than for Crawford, who plays it comparatively straight. Davis keeps going back to the mirror in her “rehearsal room,” drunkenly roaring that “You could have been better than all of ‘em” or singing songs from her faded youth, and the way she looks at herself, really looks, in those scenes isn’t camp. It’s an actress wrestling, semi-tragically, with her age. This may be a broad performance, but it’s not a dishonest one.
And that’s what renders Feud: Bette and Joan, though entertaining, ultimately moot: anything compelling it has to say about these two actors, about how they treated each other or were treated by their industry, has already been said by the film they made all those years ago. In the more than half century since its release, film fans have made sport of digging out What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’s copious subtext. All Feud is really doing is turning it into text.