Camp and ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’ (Lilja Valtonen)

As I began reading Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”, I was puzzled by exactly what the word ‘camp’ meant. I have only heard it previously in describing a person – usually a member of the LGBT+ – who is excessively flamboyant. I was further confused by the denotation of the term when Sontag listed examples of what she considers ‘camp’ – among them such dissimilar works as Swan Lake, the old Flash Gordon comics, women’s clothing of the 1920’s, King Kong, and the Art Nouveau movement. She goes on to clarify that ‘camp’ refers to an aesthetic style that is largely “bad art or kitsch… [but] not necessarily”.[1] Above everything, it is an affinity for the weird, theatrical, unnatural, unseemly, and/or exaggerated.[2]

I thought of the 1962 horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as an example of camp cinema. The film is outrageous, melodramatic, absurd (especially because of the demented Jane Hudson, played by Bette Davis), and at times funny in a disturbing way. Several scenes – indeed the film as a whole – are ‘camp’, especially when Jane Hudson is on-screen. A scene that comes to mind is when Jane hears singing from her doll and delivers a kooky, drunken monologue before getting scared by her own reflection, which is shot in a way that makes it look as though she is facing a duplicate of herself rather than looking in a mirror.

Jane wears an age-inappropriate, grotesque outfit and cakey make-up; all her lines are over-the-top and characteristic of a mental breakdown; and the scene displays a ‘camp sensibility’ in its construction of symbolic meaning,[3] as it serves as a commentary on the loneliness faced by the two nearly forgotten, past-their-prime film stars (the characters of Jane and Blanche, but also Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in real life to a lesser extent). The film has a lot of camp elements, but is simultaneously a masterpiece.

[1] Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” in Against interpretation and other essays (London: Penguin Classics, 2009), 278.

[2] Ibid., 279.

[3] Ibid., 281.

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