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.
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.
Physically, 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.)
Another 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.
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.