PlotThe movie opens in 1917. Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred) is a vaudevillian child star. She performs to adoring crowds, and there’s even a–rather expensive–“Baby Jane” doll. Jane is also a spoiled brat, and her doting stage father Ray (Dave Willock), gives in to her every whim. Her jealous sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie) watches from the wings.
The movie then jumps to 1935, and the sisters' roles are now reversed. Both are movie stars, but Blanche is the successful and glamorous one, while Jane’s films have flopped. Unable to establish her talent as an adult actress, Jane has taken to drinking. One night after a party, one of them is at the gate of her mansion while the other one, in her car, steps on the gas and smashes into the gate. It is intentionally unclear to the viewer which sister is driving at this point.
In the present, both Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis) are now retired from their acting careers and living in their decrepit old mansion. Blanche is crippled from the automobile accident and is usually holed up in her bedroom watching her old movies on television. Jane is a shadow of her former self, still drinking and wearing caked on make-up. She is abusive towards her sister, who now depends on her. There are not many visitors at the house, except for their cleaning woman Elvira (Maidie Norman). Elvira fears for Blanche’s safety because of Jane’s erratic behaviour. She even tells Blanche that her sister has been opening her mail and dumping it in the trash. Later, when Jane finds out that Blanche intends to sell the house and put her in a sanatorium, she responds by increasing her abuse. Blanche’s beloved parakeet even disappears.
Meanwhile, Jane gets the urge to go back into show business. In the living room, she sings her signature song from when she was a little girl, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.” But when she gets a look at herself in the mirror and sees what time and age has done to her, she screams. Hearing this, Blanche presses a buzzer in her room to see what has happened. Jane responds by cursing and ripping the phone out of the wall in Blanche’s bedroom. She brings Blanche her lunch, and Blanche finds out what happened to her parakeet in a shocking manner. Jane serves the dead bird to her in a covered dish. Blanche is so frightened she refuses to eat the food Jane brings her.
Jane is now planning a comeback. She drives out to the local newspaper to place an ad for a pianist. While she’s out, Blanche makes an attempt to get help. She writes a note on a piece of paper and throws it out of her window. A neighbour, Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee) is outside, but she doesn’t see it. Nor can Mrs. Bates hear Blanche, because her daughter Liza (played by Bette Davis’s daughter Barbara Merrill) is playing loud music. Jane arrives back at the house, and while she is talking to Mrs. Bates, she sees the note near her foot. She picks it up, and goes up to Blanche’s room where she mocks her by telling her that she will never leave the house. Then she drops the note in Blanche’s lap. Jane gets a response to her ad. An overweight man named Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) makes an appointment to see her that afternoon. Jane gives Elvira the day off and brings Blanche her lunch.
Jane arrives back and finds Blanche talking to him. Blanche abruptly gets off the phone, and Jane beats her senseless, kicking her in the head and stomach. Disguising her voice as her sister’s, Jane picks up the phone and calls the doctor back. She tells him not to come because “Jane” has found another doctor. Then Jane drags her sister to her room, ties her up by her arms, gags her and leaves her there.
The next day, Elvira arrives to work. Jane tells her that her services are no longer needed and dismisses her. Jane then drives off to the bank to withdraw her sister’s money. Elvira pretends to get on a bus to go home. But instead she goes back to the house and finds that Blanche’s door has been locked. When Jane comes back, Elvira confronts her and demands the key to the room, and Jane gives it to her. As the maid enters the room and finds Blanche bound and gagged, Jane hits her on the head with a hammer and kills her. Then she puts the body in her car and disposes of it.
The police call the house and tell Jane that a relative of her maid has reported her missing. She tells them that she hasn’t seen her for a week. Jane prepares to leave with her sister, fearing the police will discover what she’s done.
Suddenly Edwin shows up to receive his first payment. Blanche is able to knock something down in her room and Edwin goes up and sees the condition she’s in. She begs for help, and Edwin runs out of the house to get the police. Desperate, Jane puts her sister in the car and drives to the beach. The next morning, the search is on for them. Elvira’s body has been found and there are bulletins on the radio. Blanche, starved and dehydrated, is lying on the sand with Jane sitting beside her.
Knowing that she is near death, Blanche tells Jane the truth about what happened years before. It was she, Blanche, who had tried to run over her drunken sister. Jane, however, had moved out of the way in time and Blanche had slammed into the gate and snapped her own spine, managing to drag herself out of the car. Because Jane was too drunk to realize what happened she has since believed she that was responsible for her sister’s condition. Jane pathetically asks, "You mean all this time we could have been friends?" With her mental condition completely deteriorated, Jane runs off to a beach-side concession booth to get ice-cream cones for the two of them.
The police arrive to find Jane as she dances on the sand, with a crowd surrounding her. Finally she again has the attention that she’s craved, and she dances, joyfully, happy at last in her decayed imagination. The police spot a motionless Blanche lying on the sand and hurry over to help her as the film ends. Whether Blanche has survived is not revealed.
Production notesHancock Park section of Los Angeles. The final scene on the beach was shot in Malibu, reportedly the same site where Aldrich filmed the final scene of Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
The small role of the neighbor's daughter was played by Davis' daughter B.D. Merrill who, following in the footsteps of Crawford's daughter Christina, later wrote a memoir that depicted her mother in a very unfavorable light.
Before, during and after the film's making and release, there was heavy fighting between Davis and Crawford, which included Davis actually kicking Crawford in the head (she went for small stitches) and Crawford putting weights in her clothes for the scene of Jane's dragging Blanche (Davis got muscular backache as a result). Not even director Aldrich could stop the fighting, which escalated in the coming months. At Oscar time, Crawford was infuriated when Davis was nominated for an Oscar and she was overlooked. She contacted the Best Actress nominees who were unable to attend the ceremonies and offered to accept the award on their behalf should they win. When Anne Bancroft was declared the winner for The Miracle Worker, Crawford triumphantly pushed her way past Davis saying "Step aside!", and swept onstage to pick up the trophy. Davis later commented, "It would have meant a million more dollars to our film if I had won. Joan was thrilled I hadn't."
The film's success led to the birth of the "psycho-biddy" sub-genre of horror/thriller films featuring psychotic older women. Among them Robert Aldrich's Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte and What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?.
The film was remade in 1991 as a television movie starring real-life sisters Vanessa and Lynn.
Critical receptionThe movie received good reviews and elicited mixed responses over the Davis/Crawford combination. In his review in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther observed, "[Davis and Crawford] do get off some amusing and eventually blood-chilling displays of screaming sororal hatred and general monstrousness ... The feeble attempts that Mr. Aldrich has made to suggest the irony of two once idolized and wealthy females living in such depravity, and the pathos of their deep-seated envy having brought them to this, wash out very quickly under the flood of sheer grotesquerie."
Variety stated, "Although the results heavily favor Davis (and she earns the credit), it should be recognized that the plot, of necessity, allows her to run unfettered through all the stages of oncoming insanity ... Crawford gives a quiet, remarkably fine interpretation of the crippled Blanche, held in emotionally by the nature and temperament of the role."
TV Guide awarded the film four stars, calling it "Star wars, trenchantly served" and adding, "If it sometimes looks like a poisonous senior citizen show with over-the-top spoiled ham, just try to look away ... As in the best Hitchcock movies, suspense, rather than actual mayhem, drives the film.
- The film was a massive success. With a budget of $980,000 it grossed $9 million at the worldwide box office and $5 million in rentals.
- In the United Kingdom, the film was originally given an X certificate by the BBFC in 1962 which later became an 18 certificate in 1988 which means no-one under 18 years of age could view the film. However in 2004, the film was re-released at the cinema, with the same version now becoming a 12A certificate, now meaning anyone under 12 years of age could view it, if accompanied by an adult.
- Joan Crawford ..... Blanche Hudson
- Bette Davis ..... Jane Hudson
- Victor Buono ..... Edwin Flagg
- Maidie Norman ..... Elvira Stitt
- Anna Lee ..... Mrs. Bates
- Marjorie Bennett .....Dehlia Flagg
- Dave Willock .....Ray Hudson
- Julie Allred ..... Young Baby Jane Hudson (1917)
- Gina Gillespie ..... Young Blanche Hudson (1917)
- Debbie Burton .... Singing voice of Young Baby Jane