In a tale of grotesque sibling rivalry, Bette Davis plays Baby Jane Hudson, a popular (and horridly tempered) vaudevillian child star whose fame fades as she grows older. Joan Crawford plays her sister, Blanche; overshadowed as a child, she enjoys success as a serious actress in her adult life. Though Blanche was able to source work for her sister (in spite of her lack of talent), Baby Jane winds up an embittered and often volatile alcoholic. This supposed jealousy is the catalyst for a brutal car accident that leaves Blanche bound to a wheelchair. In their old age, with their careers a thing of the past, both sisters are confined to a decaying mansion: Baby Jane as the nurse/prison warden, Blanche as the dependent invalid/prisoner.

When discovering that her sister intends to sell the house and potentially have her committed to psychiatric care, Jane's mood swings develop into cruelty towards Blanche. Between incessant verbal put downs, Jane cuts Blanche off from the world by withholding her fan mail, then sets on a campaign of psychological torture. At the height of her mental degeneration, Jane's delusions of grandeur include an attempt to revive her child act by enlisting the help of crooked pianist Edwin (a wonderful Victor Buono) while becoming progressively more violent towards her declining sister.

Robert Aldrich supposedly invented the rivalry to inject some much needed hype (and money) into a project that, at first glance, inspired little more than cursory cynicism. Davis and Crawford were in their 50s, their careers recycled more times than a spare tire, with the dust long settled on their marquee days. The “washed up” undertone becomes a frequent thing of mockery, delivered with bitter irony. It's Davis' Baby Jane who is sent up as the faded novelty act while Crawford's Blanche is empowered as the once revered actress; early in her career Davis established her acting chops with a series of acclaimed, and Oscar nominated, roles while Crawford tirelessly fought to overturn the impression she was little more than a glamorous mannequin of the movies.

To her credit, Davis commits to the role of Baby Jane without a modicum of vanity. Beyond the demented shrieks and venomous drawls, her physical transformation is beyond ghastly: she adorns chalk-white foundation and a ridiculous blonde ringlet wig, with a slash of scarlet lipstick on her patented wide mouth. Davis turns Jane into a crusty, sullen-faced clown whose dialogue fires off with the rapidity and bite of a machine gun. Later, as the madness unfurls, the clown's infant mind comes to the core in jolts of panic and genuine fragility. Davis knew she had a meatier role than her arch-nemesis and she attacked it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Founded entirely on desperation, her performance is a success.

Against her usual style, Crawford's interestingly plays her hand with utmost subtlety. This sets up the festering guilt Blanche contains for eclipsing her sister's fame, not to mention the ironic finale. Her get-up is weird, too, with a hairstyle and wardrobe that can be best described as a kabuki warrior in retire. (Somewhere, a young Faye Dunaway was scribbling down character notes.) That the film exposes her face in the full throes of weathered age adds some sincerity to the scene where Blanche's eyes glisten while watching herself as a young actress on TV. (The clip provided is Sadie McKee; "It's still a good picture," Blanche poignantly mumbles.) Most of Crawford's best scenes are private, alone with the fear instilled by Jane's recurring torture.

Yet there's a plethora of other wonderful things about Baby Jane away from the two dynamic leads. It’s scored to chilling effect; the scene where Jane drunkenly loses herself in the memory of stardom and sings is tragic and fearsome both at once. Then, during an impromptu performance as Edwin plays the piano, the mansion suddenly converts into a theatre stage with accompanying footlights. Baby Jane is also peppered with neat and self-effacing exposition to convey the essential theme of narcissism: ironically, Bette Davis’s daughter plays a neighbour relishing clips of Crawford in the period of her cinematic peak; the sheer fact these stars belonged to a classic Hollywood that was now being sold to TV.

Aldrich has a blast directing his two leading women, in spite of the perpetual lore of on-set feuding. His true triumph, however, is how he creatively mines into his material, planting subversion at the heart of his aesthetic here. Hag horror at its utmost delicious, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane succeeds on gothic overtures but offers a more chilling portrayal of the aftermath for stars when their careers inevitably curdle.