What Ever Became of Baby Jane? older women were vilified

The Bette Davis/Joan Crawford film spawned a sub-genre of “Hagsploitation” horror starring seasoned female stars as villains – but did this help or hurt them, wonders Thomas Hobbs.


“I wouldn’t give you a dime for those two washed-up old…” yelled Warner Bros. president Jack Warner to the director, who sat on the other side of his marble desk. But Robert Aldrich persisted, eventually luring the studio shark into agreeing to a low-budget production of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

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Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, both in their mid-50s at the time, would star in Aldrich’s 1962 Hollywood adaptation of Henry Farrell’s gothic novel as quarrelling sisters confined to the living tomb of a Los Angeles mansion filled with skeletons and a noxious resentment that lingers in the air. On paper, it was an obvious risk for Warner, especially in an era when ageism and sexism had rendered most women in Hollywood unfit for the scrap heap by the age of 45.


However, Gloria Swanson’s starring performance as Norma Desmond in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard proved that the story of a scorned, delusional older woman could be powerful. And, in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock’s hugely successful Psycho (1960), Warner knew that low-budget films would be successful. Budget horrors centred on reclusive eccentrics harbouring heinous secrets could still shock audiences. According to Ryan Murphy’s 2017 television drama Feud, which explored Davis and Crawford’s love-hate relationship, Warner (played by Stanley Tucci in this limited series) was just excited about the prospect of being able to watch the dailies over a morning coffee, howling with laughter as the friction between his two leads burned on to the projector.

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? defied all of Warner’s low expectations when it was released on Halloween 60 years ago. Although it did not immediately connect with critics (“This isn’t a movie, it’s a caricature!” wrote the Chicago Tribune in a scathing review), it received five Oscar nominations and drew in diverse audiences who were deeply moved by the depiction of a toxic sibling rivalry and two women desperately trying to escape self-imposed cages. It cost $900,000 to make and grossed $9 million at the box office (which, adjusted for inflation, would amount to $90 million today). 

Davis plays Baby Jane Hudson, a former child star who went from smugly tap dancing on sold-out stages and demanding ice cream as a screaming schoolgirl diva to becoming a washed-up loner. Despite Father Time’s passing, Jane still dresses like a nine-year-old, complete with pigtails and a face full of white powder that struggles to hide the wrinkles. Davis walks the fine line between misplaced childhood innocence and scornful anarchy, her split personalities the result of a once glamorous but now desolate life.


Crawford portrays Blanche, Jane’s less intimidating sister, who escapes Jane’s oppressive shadow to become a successful (and much more graceful) Hollywood star in her own right, before a mysterious car accident devastates a once promising future. Crawford, as a shivery has-been in a wheelchair, anchors the film, setting off Davis’s high theatrics and serving as a constant target for her character’s insane jealousy. When Crawford and Davis appear on screen together, it’s explosive, emotional, and impossible to look away.

Much of the film’s enduring fascination (which was preserved by the US Library of Congress in 2021 as “historically significant”) stems from the drama of these actresses’ infamous off-screen rivalry. According to reports at the time, a scene in which Jane viciously assaults Blanche with a series of devastating kicks wasn’t really acting at all. Meanwhile, according to Davis, Crawford, perhaps enraged that she had been passed over for a best actress Oscar nomination in favour of her co-star for a film she had championed long before Davis joined the cast, allegedly used her Hollywood connections to ensure Davis missed out on the award at the 1963 Oscars; Crawford denied the charge. “Joan didn’t want me to win that Oscar!” an elderly Davis exclaimed in an interview with Barbara Walters years later.

The Baby Jane-a-likes that followed


Beyond the gossip and speculation, What Ever Happened To Baby Janemost ?’s significant legacy can be found in the films it inspired. Following its release, Hollywood began producing a slew of so-called “Hagsploitation” films, which, like Baby Jane, provided veteran actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Shelley Winters, and Debbie Reynolds with villainous, yet deliriously camp roles within horror that ensured their careers could continue. (Other names for this sub-genre include “psycho-biddy horror,” “hag horror,” and “Grande Dame Guignol,” all of which celebrate the idea of women developing a lunacy as they age.)

From the name onwards, it’s a deeply troublesome sub-genre. “Hagsploitation is a “It’s a misogynist and ageist term for fading female movie stars who were reinvented as these grotesque spectres,” says Dr Christopher Pullen, a media and inclusivity professor at Bournemouth University. “I recognise that these films provided excellent opportunities for older women to find new roles, but in many ways, they were demeaning roles that conveyed problematic stereotypes about ageing female bodies and the life opportunities available to older women.”

It’s difficult to disagree in many ways. The Hagsploitation genre was built around the dubious idea of ageing women whose inability to keep a man or properly raise a child had left them dishevelled, with murder or screaming into the ether being among the only things from which they could still derive pleasure. Consider the 1964 film Dead Ringer, in which Bette Davis plays twin sisters Margaret and Edith Phillips. The latter is wealthy and glamorous, while the former is weathered and impoverished, running an obvious dive bar. Edith murders her twin, assuming her identity and wealth in a Machiavellian chess move. The film promotes the harmful stereotype that an elderly woman who is unable to obtain the security of marriage is practically worthless, and she will develop an uncontrollable rage that will define her life.

Lady in a Cage, released the same year, follows Olivia de Havilland’s Mrs Hilyard, a soft-spoken single mother who has coddled the life out of her grown-up son, leading him to flee and leave behind a letter confirming his suicidal feelings as a result of her domineering nature.

At its core, the hag represents how, in many cultures, older women are regarded as disgusting – Jermyn, Deborah


When de Havilland’s character, who has a broken hip, becomes dangerously trapped inside the home elevator she has installed, a gang of miscreants decides to take advantage of her situation and ransack her home, treating her with complete disregard. Mrs Hilyard’s desperate screams of “I’m a human being, a thinking, feeling creature!” are mocked, and she gradually loses her mind, which was a convention in the Hagsploitation genre. In this film’s cold, survival-of-the-fittest vision of society, de Havilland’s character is deemed completely worthless, an obvious metaphor for how menopausal or post-menopausal women were perceived in the United States.

Hammer Horror’s Die! Die! My Darling!, released in 1965, is another seminal Hagsploitation film. Tallulah Bankhead plays Mrs Trefoile, a joyless older woman who becomes enraged when her dead son’s girlfriend pays her a visit. Mrs Trefoile, a snarling woman, calls red dresses “satanic” and forbids all condiments from the dinner table. She fully embodies the misogynist notion that once a woman reaches a certain age, her life must become dry and sexless, devoted solely to God, motherhood, and reliving past glories.

“At its core, the concept of the hag speaks to how, in many cultures at least, older women are figures of disgust,” explains Deborah Jermyn, a film studies researcher at the University of Roehampton, of these films. “In a society where women’s capital is most overtly linked to beauty and fertility, and beauty and fertility are the province of youth, older women’s presence becomes troublesome, repugnant, and irksome. This is why older women have historically been overrepresented among those accused of witchcraft; Hagsploitation cinema crystallises all of these ideas.”

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