Love is a many splendored-thing. Or so the cinema would lead us to believe. Over the years we as a people have been subjected to countless tales of loins-churning romance. In fact, it is well known that one could fill the Grand Canyon with the countless reels of film that have captured chiseled jaw lines colliding with pouty lips and still have plenty to boot.
The same could be said for unrequited love as well. Take a handful of your Fatal Attractions, some of your 500 Days of Summers, and throw in a dash of Casablanca, and you have the recipe for a rich history of films regarding forlorn love.
Yet, while passion has for so many years consumed celluloid, often the sultry reality behind the camera can be just as entertaining as what takes place on screen.
The examples of this are myriad: Brad & Jennifer, Ben & Jennifer, Whitney & Bobby (& Jennifer). These stars and their sordid love affairs have been splashed all over the tabloids, assuring readers of all kinds that just because celebrity closets may be filled with diamond encrusted footwear, their lives are just as empty as ours.
But there are still some stories so batty that no matter how starving the artist, one could never come close to concocting a story as satisfying as the twisted decadence of reality. One such example is the story of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
While both would share the distinct honor of being belles of the silver screen during their time, these women would detest each other for the better part of thirty years. The source of this scorn? Well it has recently come to light that Crawford, a rather licentious bisexual, was at one time spurned by Davis. To make matters undoubtedly worse, the love of Davis’ life was snatched up by Crawford in her second stroll down the aisle. Even ten years after Crawford’s death, still reeling from a recent stroke, Davis showed her capacity for grace when she stated, “She (Crawford) did it coldly, deliberately, and with complete ruthlessness. I have never forgiven her for that and never will.” Only barely upstaging her previous comment, “I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she was on fire.”
Although both would fight tooth and nail to be the ruling queen of Hollywood, subsequent decades would see these women fighting to merely stay afloat. Box-office disasters such as 1955’s Storm Center, 1956’s Autumn Leaves, & The Catered Affair, all left stains on their careers and psyches so large that no amount of bleach could wash them out. Both were in need of redemption. In need of roles that would finally show the world that in fact they were destined to reign supreme. What they got (and the world gratefully received) was the emotionally brutish fever dream Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Depicting the mental meltdown of former child star Baby Jane Hudson (Crawford) and the emotional and physical torture she inflicts on her invalid sister Blanche (Davis), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is the comeback film that nobody wanted. Director Robert Aldrich shopped this project around to various studios but was met with virulent opposition. Pitting these sour relics against each other seemed like a double dosage of box-office poison. Triggering studio head Jack Warner to retort, “I wouldn’t give you one dime for those two washed-up old bitches.”
Thankfully, somebody eventually relented and the results are nothing short of astounding. Like the congealed masses of makeup slathered on Crawford’s face, the film is heavy-handed, excessive, & to borrow a phrase from Robert Palmer, simply irresistible.
It opens in the early 1900’s as our future miscarriage of a human being Jane is at the peak of her fame. Following a polite curtsey, Baby Jane unleashes her brilliant smile before launching into her famous jingle “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” to rapturous applause. The audience shuffles out shortly after and in a shrewd bit of foreshadowing, aides are seen removing the sign with her name emblazoned on it; replacing it with the name of the next big thing. Her sister Blanche waits patiently behind the scenes for someone to kill the spotlight so they can finally go home.
Fast-forward roughly fifty years. Blanche has since drastically eclipsed Jane in the fame department, but was sadly the victim of a tragic automobile accident in which an “unknown” assailant left her confined to a wheelchair. Jane and Blanche spend their days decaying as rapidly as the gothic mansion in which they have sequestered themselves. Blanche watching reruns of her films on television, Jane drowning her sorrows in cheap gin. Nursing her handicapped sister, her own deteriorating mental state, long history of jealous rage, & daddy issues. (Possibly some childhood “consensual sex issues” as well.)
The situation worsens when Jane catches wind that Blanche has plans to sell their tomb of a house and live elsewhere. What ensues is a nightmare on par with the likes of anything Cronenberg or Tarantino could produce. Blanche tries desperately to call for help as her sister starves her, cooks up and serves their pet parakeet for lunch, delivers blow after blow to her cranium, and even drags her limp body to the beach to watch Jane play in the waves.
Mirroring reality, tensions were hot on set as the women did their best to outsmart each other. In one particularly infamous scene that has Jane delivering a rather devastating kick to her sister’s scalp, Davis’s foot actually made rather forceful contact with Crawford’s head. In a rather clever act of retaliation, Davis donned a lead weightlifter’s belt under her clothes for a scene in which Crawford would be forcefully pulling her out of the one place that she had been trying to get Davis for years: the bed. When she endeavored to try to lift Davis, Crawford shrieked “My back! Oh, God! My back” before hobbling off to her dressing room.
That the final product was so berserk should not have been a total surprise as Aldrich was also no stranger to crazy. His iconic 1957 noir Kiss Me Deadly was so nihilistically nutty that shooting these two women starve and claw at each other must have been akin to filming two kittens lightly bat around a ball of yarn for a couple of weeks.
Word of mouth spread like a virus and for the first time in a long time people came out in droves to see Crawford and Davis on the big screen. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was a monster hit and garnered massive amounts of praise and money for the duo. Although the hatchet may have temporarily been buried in a heap of greenbacks, it would quickly be unearthed when the Oscar nominations were released. Davis would recieve a Best Actress nod while Crawford would only walk away with more fuel for the inferno that blazed deep inside. Yet in a strange twist of fate, Crawford would be the only one clutching a statue at the end of the evening, accepting the award on behalf of Anne Bancroft.
Aldrich would later attempt to reteam the women for another film, but alas succumbed to their toxicity, eventually shutting production down. Both spent their remaining days on earth sucking down drinks & using their precious remaining interviews to further drag each other’s names through the muck. Death would prove the only way to truly cease the slander; at least for the slanderer. As stated before, Davis would continue to commit every last breathe to defaming the deceased. When one director begged her to stop since Crawford was no longer able to hear her remarks, Davis replied, “Just because a person is dead, doesn’t mean they’ve changed.”
So while love may be a many splendored-thing on screen, in the real world it is also vindictive, enduring, & yields strange fruit.