Far past its prime, how a perfect slice of American Gothic defined the “Grande Dame Guignol.”

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · October 31, 2022, 4:50 PM EDT

“Then, you mean, all this time we could’ve been friends?” ― Jane Hudson

Bette ‘n’ Joan were the last two women I was with the night before my marriage ended. COVIDivorce. Suffice it to say, it was my “whatever happened…?” moment. After a decade of classic “who’s afraid of…?” clashes, there was no room left for arguments. Just acceptance. There it was; the wreckage of a relationship followed by a car crash a year later. Few movies act as painful reminders, but aside from Andrzej Żuławski’s masterpiece Possession too close for [dis]comfort watching the Hudson sisters dismantle each other has more resonance now than ever. Obviously, it’s not the movie stars I’m relating to here but a very human story about deeply flawed and damaged characters…

Sister act

Welcome to a more Machiavellian marriage of movie stars who are brought crashing down to earth in tortured domesticity. Based on Henry Farrell’s novel from 1960, Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) [1] was fueled by a lifetime hatred between leads Bette Davis (1908-1989) and Joan Crawford (19??-1977) [2]. Inevitably their feud one of the most well-known in Hollywood history injected even more venom into their unforgettable performances. So what sparked this feud? Short story: men. The longer version goes; during the early ’30s Davis, jealous of Crawford’s “abilities” in climbing to the top, resented Crawford all the more due to her affair with Clark Gable, whom she had also become infatuated with. Things worsened when they fell out over Franchot Tone, whom Davis had fallen in love with while dating Crawford, who he went on to marry. Crawford sent flowers as an apology, apparently rebuked and called a lesbian. And so it went on… When Davis received her tenth (and final) Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in Baby Jane, Crawford was snubbed for her performance. Rather than sit back and sulk, she openly campaigned against her co-star in the most devious maneuvers, convincing Anne Bancroft to let her accept the award on her behalf; she did, and Crawford bathed in Davis’ potential limelight. The rest is Hollywood history. [3]

Ultimately an American Gothic tale, the story of Baby Jane is also a veritable silver platter of black comedy, domestic thriller, suburban horror, and family melodrama of how former stars the Hudson Sisters fell into obscurity. In a beautifully illustrated prologue, we are introduced to “Baby Jane,” a former vaudeville child prodigy who never makes it in the movies and now clutches onto a simmering resentment for her sister Blanche’s success as a leading lady. It all leads to tragedy when the two are involved in a fatal car accident, for which Jane is held accountable. With Blanche left paralyzed, the two are stuck with each other over the waning years as further bitterness takes hold. Now middle-aged, the sisters are shadowy caricatures of their former selves; forgotten and trapped in an old dark house, closer to a mausoleum; Blanche isolated ― “not fit to receive visitors” ― a prisoner behind the ornate bars of her bedroom. Jane has become a desperate alcoholic caked in layers of makeup (Davis’ design) as she slouches around the house to the beck and call of her sister. There is a pathetic quality to both of them. While Blanche (for the most part) remains sympathetic, masking a pang of underlining guilt, it is through the fleeting moments of Jane’s cringe-worthy performances she reverts to the child star she once was. If only for a moment, her wicked nature briefly subdued.


Just before the accident and the credits, we witness a broken doll motif ― a macabre promotional image ― that displays a gaping hole in the head of a Baby Jane replica. This is a potent symbol; one that foreshadows both the mental illness and abuse we are about to witness. If Jane is the broken doll, then Blanche is a literal car wreck; one damaged physically, the other mentally. No longer the stars of the show, there is nowhere left other than becoming a prisoner of guilt, of fleeting wealth and mental health. Here the cartoonish Witches of Oz ― though terrifying in their own way ― are replaced by cruelties much closer to home, such as social anxieties and abusive relationships that, by Jane’s vaudeville origin, are often downplayed with a sinister sass ‘n’ brass that simmers under the surface.

Davis and Crawford chew the scenery. As the title character, Davis is abhorrent; one moment venomous and the next gleeful, a tormented witch-like cackle serving up a ghastly tray of dead delights. Crawford delivers a somewhat cowardly yet sympathetic performance as Blanche; her monstrous side more subdued. Tortured throughout, eventually, she breaks and goes stir crazy, deliriously spinning in her wheelchair of despair ― emphasized by Aldrich’s bird’s-eye view ― before Jane trusses her up after she delivers a final (violent) kicking. And all the while, the dark shadow of “responsibility” looms over the entire film. Despite Jane’s toxicity and cruelty, it is during the final moments that we are given an entirely different perspective. For the most part, Jane is in complete control of her actions until the inevitable breakdown and reversion back to her childhood persona. Reduced to nothing more than building sandcastles and playing ball, it is here on the beach her final audience awaits.

babyjane beach

Aside from the redundant mummy’s boy Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) ― a character who serves little purpose ― there is barely anything at fault with Baby Jane. Contrary to what some may have thought at the time about Davis and Crawford’s exploitative roles, there is no doubt in how much the actresses reveled in an even more twisted variation of themselves. And all the better for it. In an early scene, studio heads grow frustrated over Jane’s failure as a movie star, dismissing her as a bad actress; the film lifting scenes from Davis’ actual work; Parachute Jumper and Ex-Lady, both from 1933. Far from a “bad actress,” it is as much Davis poking fun at her obvious talent as it is Crawford “enjoying herself” as she watches one of her old films, Sadie McKee, on the small screen. This is another sign of the times; the television becoming a powerful reminder of not only where their films have ended up filler for a dog food commercial but also the death of the studio system.

Comedy. Tragedy. Masterpiece. In the wake of Baby Jane’s success and the birth of the Grande Dame Guignol, Davis and Crawford’s careers entered a revival period through this newly burgeoning subgenre; Davis following up with Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte [4], and Crawford starring in William Castle’s Strait-Jacket. Although they had somehow morphed into the female equivalent of Lugosi and Karloff, both actresses were in a league of their own throughout their careers. On top of their individual talents, they both remained powerhouses with fierce reputations ― Davis relying on her versatility, Crawford her physical presence and demeanor ― some of the very qualities that added to the stars’ resentment of each other. It would be worth noting that when it comes to their age Davis, 54 at the time, and Crawford, 56 they are no older than some of the most cherished middle-aged female movie stars of today. Julia Roberts [5] is the same age as Davis was, while Helen Mirren is over 20 years older, neither of whom wicked stepmother and Queen aside has defined their careers playing hags.


Stage fright

More commonly referred to as “hagsploitation” or Hitchcock-inspired “psycho-biddy” cinema, the subgenre of the “Grande Dame Guignol” began, unwittingly, in 1962 upon the release of Aldrich’s psychological horror. But the more degrading roots of such colloquialisms can be found as far back as the late 19th century, the Grande Dame Guignol explicitly referencing the many grotesque caricatures found in fin de siècle (“end of the century”) literature. Eventually performed for the first time in 1897 in plays for the Parisian Théâtre du Grand Guignol (“The Theatre of the Great Puppet”) the acts were similar to other sadist French origins such as works of the Marquis de Sade; the theatre specializing in grotesque and grisly horror shows that focused on realistic depictions of pain and violence. Purely exploitative, they were designed to repulse and fuel (even arouse) latent attitudes within their audiences. One such play Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous (Crime in a Madhouse) by André de Lorde, tells the story of a young girl trapped in an asylum. Despite her insistence that she is sane, she eventually becomes the victim of three jealous hags who blind her with a pair of scissors.

From (cruel) theatre to silent star: in Billy Wilder’s noir masterpiece Sunset Boulevard, we are introduced to the reclusive Norma Desmond (a 51-year-old Gloria Swanson), the natural predecessor to what would follow over a decade later. Femme fatale for sure, but Desmond is also the epitome of the Grande Dame — a once respected, highly accomplished, and influential woman who has become all the more self-absorbed in her older years. This is the classic tale of the fallen star a mix of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy their stage, slowly but surely, turned into a horror show, which is, most notably, where Aldrich would later take his fallen (and feuding) stars.


Based on such circumstances ―the desperation, the hope for revival some have argued that, as a source of entertainment, the subgenre humiliates the actresses involved as much as the characters they are playing. Therefore, as a derogatory term and it can be that the less subtle “hagsploitation” doesn’t just insinuate but carves and hangs the label around the neck of its characters and those who have often played such roles. “How are women ever going to come to terms with the inevitability of aging when the only representations of our older bodies are used to horrify?” [6] Having become associated with thrillers and horror movies over the years, the most common tropes have built on this plot point of the (formerly) glamorous older woman who is often a star of the stage or screen. Leaning further into the psychological aspects, the emotionally unstable antagonist then terrorizes and abuses those around them. As a narrative device, it not only emphasizes the loss of those fair looks the years carving an ugly façade ― but also becomes inseparable from their mental illness and hysteria. This is all intrinsically linked to psychotic behavior, the demonization and witch-hunt of women, often cursed by much more than just a lack of respect. “Historically the only remaining path was to play grotesque ― and even that took some selling.” [7]

The wider context surrounding such a production was a horror show in itself and one about to become far, far worse. The ’60s was one of the most tumultuous periods in US history, both in the real world and behind the doors of make-believe, whether concerning the Red Scare or the systemic abuse (and other witch hunts) actors and filmmakers had experienced during the McCarthy era. The Hudson sisters are characters who represent not only their own downfalls but also the demise of the entertainment industry in several incarnations; from the final years of vaudeville to the Golden Age of Hollywood stage star vs. movie star until the film itself becomes an explicit representation (or at least haggard metaphor) for the closure of the studio system and the eventual rise of “The New Hollywood.”

Of course, at the time, starring in such films was a drastic and polarizing move. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were Oscar-winning megastars the best there was, has been, and ever will be their earlier “superior” work always held in high regard. Of course ageist, sexist, and misogynistic attitudes rear their ugly heads, and in such a male-dominated industry, this can be seen in most movies, especially the further back you go. While exploring the abuse and pressure of the patriarch on women in the film industry, this is a subgenre that has often proved to be about more than just a couple of malevolent “menopausal maniacs” [8], therefore “Hag Horror” has proved to be far more intelligent than the term gives credit for.

Take the more satanic Starry Eyes; a bewitching and brutally honest stab at the Hollywood elite, and the price of fame as an aspiring actress literally begins to fall apart in front of our eyes. An overlooked gem that predates the fall of Weinstein, it succeeds in not only reminding us of such monsters but the desire (and desperation) to be “perfect”; a dark and devilish rise, rather than the golden fall. The story of Baby Jane may, at times, play as high camp especially compared to such recent efforts but it remains the original and sets the stage for two of the most iconic villains in cinema history.

the shining tub

Age and rage

There have been many heavily influenced works over the years that have borrowed directly from Baby Jane. These include Stephen King’s novel Misery and Rob Reiner’s subsequent adaptation along with the episode “Baby-Doll” from Batman: The Animated Series. Mary Dahl feels somewhat of a precursor to Esther from Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan. Although some are not explicitly hagsploitation, many interpretations have appeared with their own spin on mortality, from the shocking ending of Don’t Look Now to Room 237’s hag in The Shining, and even the unseen entity at the heart of The Blair Witch Project.

21st Century horror has become abundant with further “witchiness,” including Drag Me to Hell, the aforementioned Starry Eyes, The Witch, Hagazussa, The Wretched and Saint Maude, and Gretel & Hansel. Ti West’s X and prequel Pearl both released this year went on to provide a twisted mash-up of The Wizard of Oz, Boogie Nights, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre while also exploring the pitfalls of fame and desire. Mia Goth plays the dual roles of Maxine and Pearl, the latter an aging monstrous version of her former self with a reignited libido. Along with her husband, Howard, these two old-timers are not just a horrific reminder for the hapless pornographers who have arrived on their doorstep but also a reminder for us all; that old age is only around the corner.

Courtesy of WETA WORKSHOP LTD Mia Goth Pearl X Makeup

With this wicked little subgenre in mind, a woman’s age (and rage) remains a major point of discussion concerning the roles they play, especially when it comes to their rejection, both sexually and professionally. They seem to go hand in hand. As for men, well, we all know how that game plays out. Truth; “men get older, women get old.” [9] Hardly Brad Pitt, back then leading men still worked well past their prime despite drug-addled and pickled alcoholics who often looked decades older than they were as “Baby James” or male hags. Male stars seemed unshackled from any concerns or commentary on a waning career. Back to Sunset Boulevard, William Holden ― brilliant all the same still played the stoic leader or father figure; Damien: Omen II seeing him (unbeknownst to his character and the audience) surrounded by a coven of actresses Sylvia Sidney, Elizabeth Shepherd, and Lee Grant who, although not all acolytes, still reveal hag-like traits.


Curtain call

Battling it out on and off screen, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford [10] were at the forefront of this crooked little corner of horror; their Golden Age of Hollywood bludgeoned to death and Frankensteined into a Punch and Judy show; nothing left but “othered” Grande Dames of Hollyweird. Here, they are the monsters stars created and discarded paying the ultimate price for being adored. At 60, this Warner Bros. freak show is a dissection of aging under the harsh lights of fame and fortune as two old bitches kick and claw and scream at each other while also reminding us of how people even family members and loved ones can bring out the worst in each other.

However, unlike these twisted sisters, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? refuses to be locked away and forgotten. It remains a shocking (and relatable) cautionary tale that should continue to remind us all how easily we may take a different path, one that is a little kinder and supportive of our strengths and weaknesses and, in turn, those closest to us. Forgive, forget… alas, for these two Hag Queens, despite their characters’ realization on that Californian beach, their feud was carried out to the bitter end; “I was taught that you shouldn’t speak of the dead unless you have something good to say.” Bette Davis announced on the death of her rival. “Therefore, I will only say this, ‘She’s dead at last, good!’” Bemoan Joan? It would seem the real Baby Jane never forgave… or forgot.

1.Critically acclaimed and a box office success Baby Jane received five Academy Award nominations in total, winning “Best Costume Design”.
2.Born Lucille Fay LeSueur, Crawford’s year of birth was thought to be between 1904 and 1908.
3.Bette Davis certainly never held back over the years commenting on Crawford. “The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” And that was tame.
4.Also directed by Robert Aldrich, Joan Crawford worked early on the film before she was replaced by Olivia de Havilland.
5.Even the punch line in Notting Hill (1999) eludes to what can happen to female stars, “And, one day not long from now, my looks will go, they will discover I can’t act and I will become some sad middle-aged woman who looks a bit like someone who was famous for a while.”
6.Billie Walker, Refinery29, “Hagsploitation: Horror’s Repulsion Of The Ageing Woman” (2022).
7.Even Jack Waner took some convincing to hire Batte Davis and Joan Crawford. Helen O’Hara, Women vs Hollywood: The Fall and Rise of Women in Film, (2021), p.265.
8.Don’t shoot the referee! Read Rocco T. Thompson’s, Rue Morgue piece: “Menopausal Maniacs: A Hag Horror Watchlist”.
9.Billie Walker, Refinery29, “Hagsploitation: Horror’s Repulsion Of The Ageing Woman” (2022).
10.Crawford herself would be played by Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981), an adaptation of Crawford’s adoptive daughter’s infamous celebrity memoir that documents her apparent abuse at the hands of the actress.