Few films of the pre-Stonewall era continue to influence contemporary drag culture with quite the persistent endurance of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Robert Aldrich’s 1962 masterpiece of psychological horror and female rivalry. While the mere premise—a demented former child star torments her crippled sister in a decaying Hollywood mansion—instantly sends up a number of camp-friendly flares, the film also boasts an uncommonly rich verisimilitude of bitchery. Its two stars, Bette Davis (Baby Jane Hudson) and Joan Crawford (Blanche Hudson), were not only two of the biggest movie stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age who’d now reached middle age, but also bitter lifelong rivals.
While Davis tortured Crawford onscreen, the offscreen abuse was mutual: the stories from the set are manifold and delightful, from Crawford wearing weights when Davis had to carry her, to Davis gleefully telling the press about Crawford’s falsies. So, not only is this a movie about a crazy old bag in little-girl drag doing everything in her power to make another woman’s life miserable, it’s also a timeless ode to two women who hated each other onscreen and off. Its performances are florid (Davis earned an Oscar nomination for her unprecedented grotesquery), its dialogue is iconic (“But’cha are, Blanche! Ya are in that chair!”), and its place in the drag canon is secure. Drag dowager Peaches Christ has wanted to pay tribute to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? ever since she first began her Midnight Mass movie series nearly 20 years ago, but it wasn’t until she met RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 6 champion Bianca Del Rio that she knew she’d found her perfect Baby Jane.
Below, we sit down with the in-demand insult comic and budding movie star (her starring debut, Hurricane Bianca, just wrapped production) to discuss the show, being a Bette girl, and who really killed Joan Rivers.
How did the idea of paying tribute to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane with Peaches Christ come about? <Bianca Del Rio> I had the pleasure of working with Peaches on Drag Queens of Comedy at the Castro Theatre, and we got along really well! She was very sweet and a lot of fun. She mentioned that she’s always wanted to do a show around What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, which is one of my favorite movies ever. So, we picked out a time to do it and worked it out. I’m excited! It’s going to be extra hateful.
This is one of the oldest titles Peaches has built a show around in a while. How would you explain it to the baby gays who learn their camp history from RuPaul’s Drag Race? [Laughs.] Well, I think the sad thing now is that we do live in a world where most queens only know drag from what they see on Drag Race, which is pretty sad. But it’s definitely one of my favorite movies — it’s a campy cult classic with two amazing stars that were huge rivals in real life. There’s no modern equivalent of two actresses who hate each other as much as these two did. It’s very funny, and Peaches’ adaptation is extra gruesome, so I’m looking forward to that. I’d suggest that the young gays do their research and find out more about the movie. Sadly most people don’t know even who Peaches Christ is, or Jackie Beat or Lady Bunny, any of the older drag queens. It’s important to do your research in general.
Are you personally Team Bette or Team Joan? Oh my god, I’m Bette. I mean, I love Joan for obvious reasons — I love Mommie Dearest and all of that — but definitely Bette. And of course now that I have nodes on my vocal cords, her Baby Jane voice is right in my range. Peaches said, “I’m going to sit in a wheelchair and let you do all the work pushing me around.” I said, “I see a theme here. You do Grey Gardens with Jinkx and just sit in a bed, and now I’m pushing you around the stage, you lazy bitch!”
Speaking of shade, what do you think the feuding stars of today can learn from the decades of shade between Bette and Joan? I don’t think anybody nowadays is even worthy. Everybody is too PC now, trying to be happy and pleasant and not offend anyone. It’s so silly. Back then it was really good and dirty. There are so many great stories about what went down behind the scenes on that shoot. For example, Joan Crawford’s husband was the head of Pepsi-Cola, so Bette had a Coca-Cola machine installed on set. Stuff like that was genius! I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s far more scandalous and entertaining than things today. Everyone’s just lame. Every now and then Rihanna will say something hateful on Twitter, but other from that it’s not on the same level at all. And of course Rihanna’s not talented, so I shouldn’t even put her in the same category. But that’s the equivalent in the world we live in today — everyone’s too afraid to say anything. Bette and Joan were brilliant women with amazing careers and balls.
In addition to its lessons in bitchery, Baby Jane also seems like the ultimate cautionary tale against child stardom. I think it’s proven to be true. I mean, we’ve seen a lot of these child stars now who’ve gone to hell. That’s a fun angle to play, but I’m most excited because this is something I don’t usually get to do. Between all my traveling for Drag Race and my standup tours, acting parts have been far and few. As for my character, many people do Bette Davis impersonations, which I’m not intentionally trying to do. The turn of events that happened in this woman’s real life is fascinating. She was only 53 years old when she made this movie, but she looked like hell! There won’t be any glamour in this show, which excites me.
Would you say that you felt like more of a tormenting Jane or a tormented Blanche during the Drag Race shoot? I didn’t feel tormented at all! Drag Race was amazing. The shoot happens very quickly, which most people don’t realize, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Some people sink under pressure, but I thrive in it. I was enjoying it because you didn’t know what was going to happen every day. It moves rather rapidly and it’s intense, but that didn’t bother me in the least. Whether I’d won or not — and I didn’t think I was going to win — I was pleased with the process.
You’re playing the lead in this production with Peaches, and you just shot your starring role in Hurricane Bianca. Are you excited for your post-Drag Race fans to get to know you as an actor? Theater’s been a part of my life for quite some time, and that’s kind of how I got into drag. But Hurricane Bianca, this is my movie. A friend of mine wrote it for me so I didn’t have much say in the script, but of course I added some jokes. The Bianca Del Rio character is in the movie, but I also play someone else who turns into Bianca, which I hadn’t done in quite some time. Acting for a film is completely different than on a stage, but I was supported by some amazingly talented people: RuPaul makes a cameo, Alan Cumming is in it, and Rachel Dratch from Saturday Night Live, who was a dream to work with.
So you just wrapped your movie, you’re taking your Rolodex of Hate tour around the world, you have ongoing Drag Race tour appearances, you’ll be rehearsing for this Baby Jane show…how do you find the time? I don’t! [Laughs.] I like to keep busy. You’re only as good as your last show or your last moment. I like the business of it, and I’ve been very fortunate with the show to get to do all of these amazing things. It’s opened many doors for me, for which I’m eternally grateful. TV is a pretty powerful thing. I’ll have time to sleep when I’m dead. In the meantime, I’ve got to keep chugging along.
Finally, let’s talk about Joan Rivers. Your episode of her web series In Bed with Joan was far and away the best one. Oh, thank you! I adored her.
I can only imagine how good it felt to get her laughing that hard. Let me tell you, inside I was a six-year-old boy going, Oh my god, Joan Rivers is laughing at something I’m saying! I couldn’t wrap my brain around it, it was really surreal. I wish they’d just killed the whole Kardashian family and left Joan, for Christ’s sake. At least she was talented and worthy, you know? It’s sad. But I loved every minute of shooting with her, every minute of it.
As we mark the first anniversary of her passing, what would you say is the biggest lesson you learned from her? Just being kind. I didn’t know what to expect from that shoot and I didn’t want to fangirl in front of her, nor did I want to seem aloof and cunty. But she was very welcoming. I left there with far more respect for her than I’d gone in with, and I already idolized her — not just for her comedy, of course, but also for her work ethic. I mean, 80 years old and still trucking along. That particular day she’d already done Fashion Police in the morning, and I was the third In Bed with Joan that day! She was on top of it and with it the whole time. Then there was one more In Bed… taping after me, and the one after me is the one that killed her. It was that goddamn horrible, uh, what’s-her-name…LeAnn Rimes!
Oh my god! A homewrecker and a murderer? LeAnn Rimes killed her — because she was the last one. But Joan kept up that work ethic right to the end, which was amazing. That’s something that I’ve never forgotten, which is why I’m like, Keep going, keep doing it. If she could do it, I can do it.
For tickets and more information on ‘What Ever Happened to Bianca Del Rio’, check out PeachesChrist.com.
Get Tickets now! October 3rd at the Castro Theatre!