Friday, August 01, 2008




“I love playing bitches. There’s a lot of bitch in every woman…a lot in every man.”
- Joan Crawford

Had it not been for the maverick showmanship of rival studio head, Jack L. Warner, it is doubtful that Joan Crawford’s post war film career would have been successful or perhaps even resurrected.

However, Crawford’s dismissal from MGM had come at a particularly fortuitous crux in the volatile relationship between Warner and his own diva, Bette Davis. Always at odds with his most famous female star, Warner saw Crawford as a counterbalance to Davis’ – a way of keeping Davis’ ever increasing demands on the studio at bay and in check. If Davis refused to do a project, Warner reasoned that he could always threaten her with the prospect of casting Crawford in her stead.

Unfortunately for Jack Warner, he underestimated Crawford’s own resilience in refusing projects until she was absolutely satisfied with the material offered. Crawford’s personal satisfaction eventually settled on Mildred Pierce (1945) a film noir based on James M. Cain’s scathing novel of family incest and marital deceptions. Originally, the project had been offered to Davis, then Rosalind Russell – both turned it down.

Told of Crawford’s interest in the property, director Michael Curtiz was less than enthusiastic about casting her until she agreed to do a screen test. The test won Curtiz over and the resulting film became both a critical and financial success, winning Crawford her one and only Best Actress Academy Award.

For the next few years, Crawford continued to dominate with back to back hits – an achievement not lost on Davis, whose own box office and backstage clout continued to slip in proportion to Crawford’s success. Crawford’s next two movies Humoresque (1946) with John Garfield and Possessed (1947), a psychological melodrama costarring Van Heflin elevated her stature and popularity. She was suddenly a rival grand dame in the woman’s picture, a note of distinction once solely occupied by Davis on the Warner back lot.

Crawford’s next two films were almost as good. In Flamingo Road (1949) she plays a sideshow performer who refuses to be chased out of town by a corrupt city official, and in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Crawford ran the gamut of emotion and situations to deliver a high caliber performance. In between these films, she even found time to spoof her own image with a cameo in It’s A Great Feeling (1949) – slapping costars Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan. When asked why she struck them, Crawford coyly replies, “I do that in all my pictures!”

During Flamingo Road, Crawford had begun a behind the scenes affair with married director Vincent Sherman. The affair was fleeting and ended bitterly when Sherman refused to divorce his wife. By the time the two collaborated on The Damned Don’t Cry, director and star were at odds.

At one point during the shoot, Crawford was admonishing her son Christopher for a minor indiscretion made in public. When Sherman quietly suggested that perhaps there was both another time and place for such hysterics, Crawford redirected her anger at Sherman instead, attempting to trip him as he exited her trailer, whereupon Sherman turned around and severely struck his star in the face.
After the release of The Damned Don’t Cry, Warner Bros. chose to loan Crawford out to Columbia Pictures for Harriet Craig (1950) a rather semi-autobiographical tale about a woman who was obsessed with maintaining a perfect home. Upon completion of the film, Crawford took an overdose of sleeping pills – perhaps accidentally - and had to be rushed to hospital to have her stomach pumped.

Next, Warner Bros. acquired the Broadway hit Goodbye My Fancy (1951). But its lackluster performance at the box office convinced Jack Warner that Crawford’s appeal had at last begun to wane. 1952’s This Woman is Dangerous was a B-movie that effectively terminated Crawford’s association with the studio. Her first freelance film, Sudden Fear (1952) became a colossal box office hit, proving once more that in the right film vehicle she was still a star to be reckoned with. Evidently, MGM agreed, wooing Crawford for a comeback in the lugubrious clunker, Torch Song (1953) – a musical so absurd and inanely painful to watch, that today one wonders why Crawford accepted it in the first place.


She was the perfect image of the movie star and, as such, largely the creation of her own indomitable will.
George Cukor

In her youth and at her zenith at MGM, Joan Crawford had always been on the cusp of setting new fashion and style trends. What eventually became known as ‘the Crawford look’ was largely a collaborative effort between Crawford, Adrian and MGM’s makeup artist extraordinaire, William Tuttle. However, beginning in 1951, and partly because she was nearly the age of fifty, Crawford’s look steadily grew more harsh and unappealing.

Although Crawford’s body remained as toned and solid as ever, thanks to her relentless regime of physical exercise, Crawford’s face became almost warrior-like in appearance. Her eyes were now cold and bulging; her hair cropped and died a reddish brown; her overdrawn lips seeming to swallow the lower half of her face while her once rounded jaw line had turned square and heavy. Hence, in review of Crawford’s next movie, a bizarre western melodrama entitled, Johnny Guitar (1954) one critic aptly nicknamed the film ‘Beauty and the Beast with (costar) Sterling Hayden as beauty.’
The film also sparked a painful rivalry between Crawford and costar Mercedes McCambridge. Both were closet alcoholics off camera while maintaining an air of perfection on set. When one of McCambridge’s scenes solicited applause from the crew, Crawford responded by tossing all of her costar’s costumes into the street. This scandalous incident eventually found its way into the new gossip tabloids that had replaced the once glowing studio PR sanctioned publications of old.

Even so, Crawford’s galvanic reputation at the box office continued to cling together over the course of her next two movies; Female on the Beach and Queen Bee (both in 1955) – perhaps because she fought so readily to maintain an impossible façade of Teflon-coated perfectionism. Cliff Robertson, Crawford’s costar in Autumn Leaves (1956) - a perfunctory bit of melodramatic nonsense - recalls a moment in the shoot when Crawford asked their director Robert Aldrich whether or not the pending scene to be shot would require tears. When Aldrich suggested to Crawford that she might consider that option, she was quick to reply, “Fine. Which eye?”

The last memorable role in Crawford’s cinematic canon would be The Story of Esther Costello (1957); a film in which she played a woman who discovers that her husband has been sexually abusing their adopted deaf mute daughter. From this high point, Crawford’s time would increasingly be spent on the most unlikely of endeavors; especially for a resilient movie queen – that of public spokeswoman for Pepsi-Cola.


“Recently I heard a wise guy story that I had a party at my home for twenty-five men. It’s an interesting story, but I don’t know twenty-five men I’d want to invite to a party.”
- Joan Crawford

While filming Queen Bee, Crawford had indulged in an affair with costar John Ireland. However, almost overnight, she also began a more lasting romance with Alfred Steele – the President of Pepsi-Cola. In hindsight, Crawford’s marriage to Steele on January 14, 1956 could be easily misconstrued as opportunistic. Crawford probably realized that she was no longer the most desirable commodity sought after by film producers. Even more over, perhaps she had finally grown tired of the media spotlight and had arrived at the realization that there was more to life than being a flickering personality.

Whatever the reason for her decision to quit the screen, over the next three years, Crawford became a fixture synonymous with the Pepsi brand. She toured the country with Steele and took an active membership on the company’s board of directors – becoming a savvy businesswoman in the process. Home now became a $300,000 New York apartment overlooking Central Park – lavishly appointed with seemingly endless closet space housing all of her dresses, shoes and other accoutrements.

Unfortunately for the couple, their marital bliss ended abruptly when Steele died of a heart attack on April 6, 1959. At her husband’s funeral, a genuinely heartbroken Crawford was approached by a rabid fan who demanded an autograph. When Crawford quietly turned away to hide her grief and tears, the fan abruptly tore off her mourning veil. It was a symbolic gesture reflecting a definite change in the ‘relationships’ between stars and their fans.

In retrospect, it seems unlikely that Crawford would have contemplated such an extended leave of absence from her film career without at least having been determined to make her new life and marriage a success. By all accounts, at least on the latter score, she had succeeded. She and Steele were sublimely content in their private lives. With Steele’s passing, Crawford was to realize that she not only had an emotional deficit, but a financial one as well. Filling the void with modest television work and a trite cameo in 20th Century-Fox’s The Best Of Everything (1959), Crawford took whatever properties came her way, the best of these undoubtedly coming from Robert Aldrich’s invitation to costar in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962); the movie that put her in close proximity to arch rival Bette Davis.
From the start, the shoot proved to be a match made in hell. Jack Warner not only slashed the budget of the project, he also forbade Aldrich to produce the film on the Warner back lot, declaring “I wouldn’t give you a dime for those two old washed up broads!” As Aldrich commenced with his shoot, the rivalry between his costars flared to near epic proportions. During the scene where a paralyzed Crawford attempts to have her sister (Davis) committed to an institution only to be violently confronted, Davis ‘accidentally’ kicked Crawford in the head, necessitating two stitches.

In another scene, where Davis binds Crawford to a hook to keep her from leaving her bedroom, Crawford declared that the rope around her wrists was too tight, to which Davis simply replied “It has to look real” before applying a tape patch to Crawford’s mouth to stifle any further objections while she (Davis) and Aldrich discussed the scene.
However, Crawford had her own revenge during the scene where Davis drags Crawford’s lifeless body out of bed and down a flight of stairs. Informed earlier by Davis not to act as a dead weight while she was being carried (Davis had a bad back) Crawford did just the opposite, sending Davis to the hospital for nearly a week.

Despite these animosities, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? was a monstrous hit. Unfortunately, its grim ‘horror’ premise had a proportionate backlash on the sorts of projects both Crawford and Davis were to be offered in the resulting decades. For Crawford, the projects were distilled into mostly character roles in like-minded B-movies.

Meanwhile, Aldrich was planning his reunion picture for Crawford and Davis: Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). However, when Davis began to act up on the first few days of shooting – even going so far as to install a Coca-Cola machine on the set out of spite to Crawford’s allegiance to Pepsi – Crawford suffered a minor nervous breakdown, then quietly chose to bow out of the project. Her role was eventually filled by Olivia De Havilland.


“Send me flowers while I’m alive. They won’t do me a damn bit of good after I’m dead.”
- Joan Crawford

The last act of Crawford’s film career is hardly what she would have chosen for herself. Beginning with 1964’s Strait Jacket for William Castle and culminating with 1970’s abysmally inarticulate Trog, the Crawford canon in both film and television work degenerated into a macabre and bizarre blend of schlock B-horror movies and cameo appearances so perversely below par for her talents that even today it remains quite baffling as to how and why Crawford should have accepted these projects in the first place. After all, after Baby Jane’s success, Crawford was once again a solvent and popular actress. She could have bided her time.

Christina Crawford’s snap critique that has distilled her adopted mother’s persona into that of an unrepentant gargoyle with a rabid fascination to be perennial in the public spotlight seems, in hindsight, grossly unfair. While it is true that Crawford adored her fans, she was also not reserved in her condemnation of all that Hollywood had become by the early 1960s, telling guests during an interview with David Frost in 1968 that the industry had changed for the worst.

So why did Crawford remain in Hollywood after 1960?

Alfred Steele’s assets left to Crawford upon his death included shares in Pepsi that, when push came to shove, his fellow executives chose to ignore and thereafter shabbily buy off from Crawford, effectively disowning her from the company ledgers. Though Crawford was hard pressed for cash immediately after Steele’s death, she eventually showed a modest profit from the settling of his estate and that, coupled with the success of Baby Jane ought to have been enough to sustain her for the rest of her days.

Always proud and immaculate about her appearance in public, Crawford’s visage was eventually demonized in the tabloids. “If that’s the way I really look they’ll never see me again,” she commented to a close friend, and for all intensive purposes, Crawford held true to that promise. She became a recluse in her apartment and, in later years, kept secret her diagnosis of the cancer that would eventually claim her life.

In light of a subsequent revelation from Crawford’s last will and testament, that left “no provision for my daughter Christina or son Christopher for reasons well known to them”, Christina Crawford chose to write the scathing ‘tell all’ memoir, Mommie Dearest – a brutal deconstruction of the Crawford myth and persona as pure evil. The book, a trendsetting first in the publishing industry that popularized the dismantling of iconic pop figures was eventually made into a movie in 1981 with actress Faye Dunaway delivering an eerie camp performance.

Ironically, in the years preceding her own death Crawford had praised Dunaway as the only actress of her generation likely to exhibit ‘star quality.’ Now, that very luminosity was being put to use in support of stripping bare the Crawford mystique. It is interesting to note that immediately following the film’s premiere, Dunaway quietly disowned both the film and her involvement in it for reasons she has yet to make entirely clear. So too, in more recent times, have many of the situations depicted in the book come under closer scrutiny from the other siblings Crawford adopted after Christina.
The undoubted reality is that Joan Crawford ought never to have considered becoming a mother. She was, after all, a driven creature of varying ambitions; all energies converged on attaining and maintaining her peerless screen image. “If you’ve earned a position be proud of it. Don’t hide it,” Crawford once told a reporter, “When I hear people say, ‘There’s Joan Crawford’ I turn around and say, ‘Hi! How are you?’”

Indeed, the public always came first in Crawford’s estimation. Perhaps, it is one of Hollywood’s small ironies that a similar code of career ethics belonged to Crawford’s arch rival - Bette Davis. In retrospect, both Crawford and Davis seem to have run parallel courses, converging as a train wreck on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Both Crawford and Davis were prone to extremes and personal obsessions. Each was driven to excel at their respective alma maters and both ended up with unrepentant children who wrote unflattering alternate truths to their lives from the skewed perspective of a parent’s shadow.
Yet, despite Mommie Dearest, Joan Crawford as ‘star’ is much more pervasive and everlasting today than Joan Crawford the woman reconstituted in bio fiction. Hence, when one stops to think of her now, a myriad of glamour floods the sensory capacities of the immediate memory. The reflections or even hints of that last act of decay are more distant somehow – not quite a part of the person most of us only knew from her movies – the shop girl desperate to make good; the sad-eyed girl with a penchant for dancing; the wily and self destructive vixen; the self-sacrificing maternal martyr.

“There’s that ‘you’re only as old as you feel business’”, Joan once suggested, “…which is fine to a point. But you can’t be Shirley Temple on the good ship lollipop forever! Sooner or later, damn it, you’re old!”

Yet, Crawford never quite took her own advice. In the 1960s and 70s she readily appeared in rather garish accoutrements, tempting the specter of youth with flashes of flirtation as she waxed affectionately about the good ol’ days in Hollywood while on the talk show circuit, all the while conscience of the fact that her own youth had passed her by. Her stardom was by then equally a relic of her past.

“I was born in front of a camera,” Crawford used to say, “I don’t know anything else.”

Yet, Crawford’s self perception of her own stardom is not entirely the truth either. Crawford was not a child star as Shirley Temple or Judy Garland had been. She did not perform in Vaudeville. She came into this career as a poor girl who first marveled customers as a hoofer at local dance halls. She was a teenager by then and before that limited popularity set in. She was well into her twenties by the time the camera even took notice of her for the first time. Yet, Joan Crawford remains a star.

The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of Joan Crawford’s stardom are perhaps two questions best resolved by viewing a retrospective of her films. Hence, today Joan Crawford remains strangely that ‘other.’ As an actress, she is undoubtedly a supernova – blistering bright and casting a wild beam of light in performance after performance that continues to inspire and entertain. Yet, and even despite the fact that her once invisible image is now largely tarnished, as a star par excellence, that light continues to generate its own third degree burns.
@Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved).