Creating the Character: Baby Jane

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Bette Davis gives a tour de force in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as the resentful and bitter Baby Jane. Behind her jaw-dropping performance was also a team working to create a complex character through her look.

It's said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that's where Baby Jane began.

Davis’ costumes were designed by Norma Koch. At the age of 12, Koch taught herself the craft by copying designs out of the newspaper, and eventually, she got a job with Hollywood design legend Edith Head, who costumed Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Bette Davis in All About Eve.

At the advice of Bing Crosby, Koch began freelancing, and her work eventually lead to Baby Jane, for which she won an Academy Award. Koch would also go on to work with Davis in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

For Baby Jane’s character, Koch had three distinct changes – sloppy Jane, out-about-town Jane, and grown-up Baby Jane – all of which demonstrated the character’s out-of-touch nature with the rest of world around her.

The cherry on top was, of course, Jane’s outfits which were essentially adult-sized versions of the vaudeville dresses she wore as a child.

Interestingly, Joan Crawford contributed something to Davis’ look as well. Bette tried on several different wigs, including one that was similar to Shirley Temple's curls, but none of them worked. Crawford's stylist Peggy Shannon was able to create the right look by tweaking an old wig from MGM. What Davis didn’t know was that the wig had actually been worn by Joan Crawford in her musical days.

Shannon also influenced Davis’ makeup design. Bette wanted her character to be extremely white with her eyes and mouth outlined dramatically and a little beauty mark on her cheek.

As Davis said, “I wanted to look outrageous, like Mary Pickford in decay.”

Shannon suggested that Davis apply makeup on top of other, older layers of makeup to make it seem as if her character never took any of it off, something Shannon had noticed some of the old musical stars did.

When Baby Jane’s look was finally completed, it was quite the shock to everyone on set – including Bette. When she saw herself in the mirror for the first time, she cried and even worried that she might actually look like her character in real life.

For her outstanding performance, Davis was nominated for an Oscar, and today, Baby Jane is considered one of her finest roles.