RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK
‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ (1962), the psychologically driven black comedy – later dubbed the psycho-biddy subgenre – narrating the tale of two sisters sharing a dilapidated mansion, is remembered for the on-screen clash between the real-life, long-time intensely bitter rivals: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In fact, the film gave a bizarre new lease of life to these two actresses, who had ruled Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1956, actress Joan Crawford appeared in the film, ‘Autumn Leaves’ directed by Robert Aldrich. Ever since then, according to Aldrich, Crawford had regularly expressed interest in working together again. Crawford had also always wanted to work with Bette Davis and kept after Aldrich to find a project in which she could co-star with Davis. Several years later, a secretary sent Aldrich a suspenseful 1960 novel by Henry Farrell titled, ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ The rights to the book were for sale and Aldrich secured them for $61,000. Writer Lukas Heller was then hired to adapt the book into a screenplay.
After Aldrich managed to sign both the actresses, securing finances for the film became a problem, following which the two actresses decided to accept lower salaries in exchange for a share of the film’s profits. When actor, Peter Lawford reportedly turned down the role of Edwin Flagg in the movie, Victor Buono was signed for it and went on to get an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.
Eliot Hyman, the head of a small Seven Arts production company believed in the project from the beginning, though he knew it was also high risk. The budget he offered would be bare bones, but the film nevertheless got made.
According to Davis, Crawford came to her during the pre-production phase of the film and said that she hoped her “colour scheme” wouldn’t clash with Davis’. To that Davis replied, “Colour scheme??? Joan, I haven’t a speck of colour in any dress I wear. Wear any colour you want. Besides, it’s a black-and-white film.”
On July 23, 1961, filming started on ‘What Ever…’ at the Producers Studio, Hollywood. The house exterior of the Hudson mansion is located at 172 South McCadden Place in the neighbourhood of Hancock Park, Los Angeles. Other residential exteriors show cottages on DeLongpre Avenue near Harvard Avenue in Hollywood without their current gated courtyards. The scene on the beach was shot in Malibu, a beach city in western Los Angeles County, California.
Ernest Haller, the iconic cinematographer of ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939) was brought back to photograph this black-and-white, mainly as he had previously worked with Davis as well as Crawford, in several films.
Crawford was scheduled to appear alongside Davis on a publicity tour of the film but cancelled at the last minute. Davis claimed that Crawford backed out because she didn’t want to share the stage with her.
After filming was completed, the public comments of the two actresses against each other propelled their animosity into a life-long feud. The film was a huge success, recouping its costs within eleven days of its nationwide release, and revived the career of the two actresses. Produced at a budget of $1 million, the film went on to collect $9.5 at the worldwide Box Office and $4,050,000 in theatrical rentals in North America. The film also received very positive reviews and elicited mixed responses over the Davis/ Crawford combination.
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, but won only one in the Best Costume Design category. The Best Actress Oscar occasioned the last act of the long-running feud between the two legendary actresses. Davis was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category for the eleventh time. Soon Crawford secretly contacted each of the other four Oscar nominees in the category – Katharine Hepburn, Lee Remick, Geraldine Page, and Anne Bancroft – to let them know that if they could not attend the ceremony, she would be happy to accept the Oscar on their behalf; all agreed. Both Davis and Crawford were backstage when actress Anne Bancroft, who was absent due to a Broadway commitment was announced as the winner, and Crawford accepted the award on her behalf. Davis, for the rest of her life believed that Crawford had campaigned against her and told Oscar voters to vote for the ‘Miracle Worker’ (1962) star – Anne Bancroft – in order to upstage her, a charge Crawford denied.
In the United Kingdom, the film was given an X certificate by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in 1962, with a few minor cuts. These cuts were waived for a video submission, which was given an 18 certificate in 1988, meaning no-one under 18 years of age could purchase a copy of the film. However, in 2004, the film was re-submitted for a theatrical re-release, and it was given a 12A certificate, now meaning persons under 12 years of age could view it if accompanied by an adult. It remains in this category.
In 1963 Aldrich and Davis travelled to the Cannes Film Festival to screen ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ for a competition. It was there that she saw the finished film for the very first time.
Interestingly, the production of the sequel of ‘What Ever… ‘, titled ‘Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte’ (1964) based on Farrell’s unpublished short story, ‘What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?’ began with Davis, Crawford and Aldrich all together on location in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. However, just a few days into shooting, Crawford became ill and checked into a hospital. Weeks later, she asked to be released from the film and was replaced by Davis’ good friend Olivia de Havilland. Davis and Crawford never worked together again.
In 1991, a made-for-television film titled ‘What Ever Happened to…’ was directed by David Greene. It starred real-life sisters, Lynn Redgrave as Baby Jane and Vanessa Redgrave as Blanche.
‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ (2017), an American anthology for television FX series, chronicled the rivalry between Davis and Crawford, during and after the production of their 1962 film.