Film In Depth

Great Villains: Baby Jane Hudson

She wasn’t a mass murderer, a vicious gangster, or a supernatural sorceress, but Baby Jane Hudson still ranks as one of cinema’s most sinister villains, just for being herself: a sister, a child star, and an abuser. Played by Bette Davis in Robert Aldrich’s 1962 film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Baby Jane was named one of AFI’s Top 50 Villains, and well deservedly so, as she’s one of the most insidious villains in movie history—even without a sky-high body count.

Davis with XX, who played Baby Jane
Bette with Julie Allred, who played the younger Baby Jane

In the film, we learn that Jane was a wildly successful child star, known for her trademark (and already creepy) ditty, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.” As a kid, she was spoiled rotten by her father, to the displeasure of both her mother and her envious younger sister, Blanche. However, as the years pass, Blanche also pursues an acting career, and becomes successful in her own right, while Jane’s attempts to maintain her adult career are flagging. Years of this sibling tension crescendos with an intentional car accident outside their home—an accident that leaves Blanche wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life, and effectively ends her career. The majority of the film takes place three decades after this accident, with Jane and Blanche living a secluded existence together in the now-decaying mansion, their maid Elvira (Maidie Norman) their primary source of contact with the outside world.

Due to her disability, Blanche is now fully dependent on Jane; a fact that Jane takes full advantage of by dominating their relationship to a wicked extent. Jane’s bullying ranges from psychological and emotional abuse, such as continuously berating her sister, isolating her, denying her food, and killing her pets; to full-on physical beatings and attacks later on in the picture. Jane is depicted as severely mentally unstable, assumedly from spending her formative years being valued only for being “cute,” without ever receiving the discipline she needed to give her the stability and strength to succeed in the adult world. She reverts to a childish nature, not only in her appearance and dress, but also in her behaviors—while punishing your sister for some perceived slight by serving her a dead bird for lunch doesn’t seem like a logical course of action for an adult, to a petulant, selfish 6-year-old it would probably seem like a clever vindication. To put it lightly, this is not the type of woman who should be acting as a guardian for a physically disabled person, and thus emerges Blanche’s struggle to be saved from the one person who was supposed to save her.

ap080117023889Physically, Davis has been transformed into something truly monstrous to reflect Jane’s evil spirit: a cartoonishly grotesque figure, with pale, caked-on foundation, trademark eyes exaggerated with thick mascara, lips and eyebrows dark, and, most disturbing of all, bleached-blonde hair pressed neatly into childlike ringlets. The discord of the imagery of this older woman attempting to mask herself as something more youthful is unsettling, to say the least, for the viewer. She ends up looking like a living doll—or, perhaps more accurately, like a corpse, preserved in formaldehyde and given a look of feigned life by a novice mortician. (Credit to the makeup team for creating this terrifying visage from the normally fresh-faced Davis, seen below for comparison.)

babyjane-slapAnother element of what makes Baby Jane so destructive as a villain is that, ultimately, she’s family. For much of the movie, Blanche hesitates to take any action to defend herself, or even really identify her sister as an abuser. To outsiders, Jane appears to be a self-sacrificing angel, giving up her own life to care for her disabled sister. But the reality is much more sinister, and Blanche is faced with determining at what point the abuse has gotten so bad that she, virtually defenseless in a fight against her sister, has a better chance of surviving by standing up to Jane rather than letting it continue. As anyone who’s ever had to sever a toxic relationship with a close friend or family member knows, a pre-existing history can makes things much more difficult to parse. A Freddy Krueger-type is obviously harmful to you and must be defeated; but even admitting to yourself that your sister would be abusing you so badly goes against natural instincts and societal expectations.

Bette and Joan looking fabulous out of the costume makeup

While Baby Jane may cut a monstrous figure in the movies, she’s truly terrifying because she is a human villain, and she plays on human insecurities. The threat of domestic abuse is obvious, but more generally, she also represents the fear that we could be betrayed by any person upon whom we depend and trust. It’s a scary feeling to be completely helpless, and even more so if the social support network of our friends and family is removed. Jane breaks this fundamental bond by betraying her sister, even if she herself was denied the social skills needed to develop as a functional adult.

Towards the end of the film, Blanche reveals a secret fundamental to the destruction of their relationship, and Jane asks, “You mean all this time we could have been friends?” But while the deception may have contributed to their rocky interactions, there was too much else at play—varying psychoses, jealousies, and insecurities—for everything to be wrapped up so simply. Friendship was not in the cards for these two, and considering everything else… even a simple détente was probably a stretch as well.

This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy  — see all the movie baddies at any of these three blogs.

14 thoughts on “Great Villains: Baby Jane Hudson”

  1. This is a disturbing, unsettling film, and every time it’s on TCM I drop EVERYTHING to watch it. Brilliant casting and a great screenplay.

    I loved your analysis of the film and Davis’ character, and how her evil nature picks at the vulnerabilities in all of us.

    Thanks for participating in the blogathon. It would not have been a party without Baby Jane.

    1. Totally disturbing yet totally captivating! The imagery is so strong, it’s kind of a modern-day fairy tale… and Bette and Joan are perfect!

  2. Great post and great pick! Although I totally feel sorry for Baby Jane at the end (which usually doesn’t happen with villains), she was definitely pretty darn villainous up to then!

    1. Yeah, I think they do a good job of portraying Baby Jane’s actions as totally evil, but leaving wiggle-room in regards to whether she was born like that, or if the years of being spoiled as a child star just completely messed her up! A lot of nuance there for such a campy flick :)

  3. When you see this film at an impressionable age it stays with you. Creepy and when you learn later of the FEUD and the behind the scenes stuff it just adds to the legend. The fact that the film is a classic from one of the only directors that could handle these two just makes it better. Nicely done!

  4. Creepy, upsetting, disturbing, and evil. That’s how I feel about this film and Baby Jane in general. What a great part, and one that I would never want! This movie really does stick with you because it is just that out there. What a role. What a performance.

    1. I was kind of shocked when I saw Bette was only 54 in this movie, until I looked at the behind the scenes photos and realized how much the makeup team had worked so extensively to transform her into this terrifying, grizzled old thing. It’s a great role to be remembered for, though perhaps not the best to be equated with!

  5. yes that feud certainly helped them find their “motivations” shall we say. This one is amazing, I was so curious about it as a kid and thought it was a straight horror movie, when it was probably way over my head at the age I watched it. Definitely a grown up horror, one that you never forget and understand a lot better with age. “But ya AHH, Blanche! Ya AHH in that chair”

  6. This villain is AMAZING. And WEHTBJ is easily the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen, with human characters. Bette Davis does a great job, the makeup was spot on, and the camera/light work is haunting. I’ll certainly never forget the scene where Jane performs the Letter to Daddy song in the house.

    PS: Your blog is really beautiful, love the vintage header!

  7. Great post about one of my favourite films! Bette Davis’ Baby Jane wasn’t a character that immediately came to mind as a villain, but she’s obviously an incredible one. This is psychological manipulation at its finest, I guess I always forgive Jane because she’s clearly a troubled woman whose issues go right back ti her own childhood.

  8. It’s not hard to understand why this one has become a camp favorite. It’s so cartoonishly disturbing. That makeup! The over-the-top performances! Interesting insights on the film (and Davis) in Sikov’s Dark Victory. I highly recommend it. Thanks for the great review-

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