Two faded stars caricaturing themselves, one Hollywood-baiting director snapping at the hand that feeds him, and a Grand Guignol hothouse of jealousy and celebrity fuel What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, a nightmarish psychodrama from Robert Aldrich. Silver screen legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis play two sisters desperately clinging to their long lost glory days. Grotesquely camp, it's one of the most acidic indictments of Tinsel Town since Gloria Swanson got ready for her close up in Sunset Boulevard.
A coup of ironic casting, Aldrich's film is one of the great movies about the movies. Enticing legendary enemies Crawford and Davis on-screen together, Aldrich cooks up some brilliant chemistry between them. Davis becomes 'Baby Jane', a vaudeville child star while Crawford stars as her movie star sister, Blanche. After a car accident leaves Blanche housebound in a wheelchair, Jane begins to crack up, tormenting her sister with beatings, imprisonment and rat suppers.
"PEELS BACK THE VENEER OF CELEBRITY"
Aldrich had been down this route before with Jack Palance raging against the movie machine in The Big Knife (1955), but this time he was more interested in the debasing power of fame than the corruption of the studio system itself. Blurring real life and the movies by using clips from the stars' past glories, Aldrich peels back the veneer of celebrity. It's hateful stuff, with Davis stealing the show as the mentally deranged carer who veers from hysterical melodramatics to a terrifyingly cracked impersonation of her co-star at the flick of a switch.
Most famously, it was the off-screen action that added to the film's success. Relentlessly bitchy, the stars lived up to Aldrich's misanthropic cynicism. Davis claimed Crawford had "slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie"; Crawford accused her of being "phony". Turning the monstrous egos of his stars into ugly spectacle, Aldrich proves that the desire for fame and celebrity knows no limits of self-debasement.