The Diamonds and Gold Blogathon: Bette Davis and The Baby Jane Paradox
The world can be a scary place for an aging actress. With Hollywood’s well documented misogynistic tendencies, veteran actress, no matter how tremendous their talents maybe, are often cast aside in favor of a youthful, fresh face. Actresses that once graced the top of the marquee are soon regulated to mothers and grandmothers before they reach the age of 35 while their male counterparts are allowed to romance a new generation of actress well into their 50’s . And those are the lucky ones because for others, their age is simply the end of their careers. One actress, however, took another route, the “work with what you’ve got” route and in the process gave one of the best on-screen performances of her career. The actress I am talking about is, of course, Bette Davis for her performance in the delightfully campy but all around disturbing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
The film came to Davis at a low-point in her acting tenure. Despite her massive success with All About Eve at the start of the 1950’s, the rest of decade did not follow that example. After a series of bad films, mediocre stage plays, and another failed marriage, Davis knew she needed something to breathe life into her dying career and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was just that. For those of you who may not know, the film centers around the morbid and abusive relationship between the mental unstable former child star, Baby Jane Hudson, to her wheel-bound former matinee idol sister, Blanche. Understanding that the role of Baby Jane Hudson could be the revival force her career so desperately needed, Davis did the only thing she knew how to do – she unabashedly threw herself into the role.
Stuck in the past of her former childhood glory, Baby Jane is something of a Norma Desmond on experimental steroids. She is all at once the cruel and deranged tormentor to her crippled sister, yet at the same time so child-like her glee from doing so. She is a desperately unstable drunk, and yet clearly victim of a past that drove her to that point. In short, she is both comedy and tragedy wrapped in a crazed gothic-horror package. The most impressive part of Davis performance, in my opinion, was her ability to convey this duality of character in such a believable manner. Take, for instance, the infamous scene where Jane sings “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.” From her grotesquely make-up to her baby doll dress to her awkward dance, everything about her appearance and movement screams deranged instability. Her external self is nothing but shield made from her personal delusions. However, it is in that very delusion that Baby Jane gains her child-like sincerity.
Another great element of Davis’s performance is her ability to convey Baby Jane’s longing for the past; longing so great that it that she allows it to shallow her whole. Yes, that is displayed by her appearance but Davis takes that delusion further with her ever expressive face. The sincerity of Davis’s performance comes after the audience is able to look past her baroque costuming and make-up. When looking at just her face, just her emotions, there is nothing false. She is expressing the joy, awe and validation that she could only receive when performance before a loving, devoted audience because in her view at that moment, she is performing to a loving audience. Even if the reality is only her own, she is completely true in it. In that moment, she is Baby Jane; that spoiled vaudevillian star who just wants to make her father proud. She is completely lost in the moment, lost in her performance, and lost in her delusions. She is lost in her own sincerity, even if the moment itself is not sincere and that is the power of Davis’s performance.
Although the film is often relegated to the notion of a fun piece of campy filmmaking, Davis did, indeed, work with that she was given. What could have been a campy, over the top performance devoid of any emotion was turned into a campy, over the top performance justified by the extremely paradoxical emotions portrayed by Davis. The result: one of the most memorable and purposely uncomfortable film performances of all time. This is surly Davis “working with what you’ve got” at it’s very best.
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub