“What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?” is a perfect title for a movie about movie stars who have been largely forgotten. These two stars, the Hudson sisters Jane (Bette Davis) and Blanche (Joan Crawford), had far different times in Hollywood. Jane had risen to stardom as a spoiled child performer in 1917. Blanche became a star in Depression-era Hollywood, whose major box office draw meant that studios had to listen to her when she begged them to give her sister roles. For the favor, Jane runs her over in a drunken rage, paralyzing Blanche and committing both of them to a painful, suffocating 30 years together.
While Bette Davis and Joan Crawford shared many similar qualities — so much so that they were often fighting for the same roles when they both worked at Warner Bros. — there was one major difference, one whose narrative Davis especially pushed. In Davis’ eyes, it all came down to her willingness to be a genuine actor, not vain in the way movie stars (particularly as she referred to Crawford) tended to be. She was willing to be ugly, deranged, lustful, passionate, whatever the role required, and “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?” would require a major leap from her.
Meanwhile, as Davis put it in her 1987 memoir “This ‘n’ That,” Crawford refused to “not look gorgeous” while making the movie. As Davis perceived it, that was a betrayal of the characters and what they should look like, and of the haunting tragedy at the movie’s center.
Davis’ idea for what Jane should look like would be shocking to the viewers, and it became immediately controversial to the filmmakers. As Ron Howard would learn some 20 years later, Davis was a force to be reckoned with, and directors crossed her at their own peril.