Joan Crawford in 1959, by Eve Arnold.
I wrote about FX’s “Feud: Bette And Joan” during my Lenten series of blog posts. I just watched the finale, “You Mean All This Time We Could’ve Been Friends?”, and I’ll admit, I may just have shed a tear or two at Jessica Lange’s heartbreaking portrayal of the last days of Joan Crawford.
To be clear, I was far less impressed with “Feud” in it’s entirety. While the casting was on point (how fun was Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper?), and the settings were great, the pacing on a whole was off. Some episodes zoomed by (“And The Winner Is…”), while others seemed like slow-moving, unnecessary filler (“More, Or Less”). Also unnecessary was all of the MANY times the audience was explicitly told just how sexist Hollywood was. Hopefully, there will be less telling and more showing, for the next “Feud”.
My friend Brittany passes on this excellent piece on Crawford by Angelica Jade Bastien at Roger Ebert.com, published last year:
“No wire hangers!”
That’s what comes to mind when most people think of Joan Crawford, more so than the professionalism and remarkable performances that mark her four decades long career.
Shortly after her death in 1977, Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina published “Mommie Dearest,” a memoir detailing her mother’s alleged abusive nature, alcoholism and neuroses. Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy, her first husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr., her two youngest daughters and others close to her denounced the book. But with Frank Perry’s 1981 film adaptation, featuring Faye Dunaway’s shrieking, hollow, larger-than-life performance, the damage was done. In just 129 minutes the film unravels what Crawford had been building for herself since first gracing the screen in the late 1920s. It turned the image of Crawford in the cultural imagination into a monstress, a soulless camp icon to be mocked and reviled but rarely respected, and a cautionary tale of what happens when women put their careers first.
This misses how layered and beguiling Crawford could be—she’s a woman who embodies all the dreams every young girl has when she looks at the glimmer of Hollywood and thinks “I want to be a star!” and the cold pangs of yearning when the spotlight leaves. The image I hold of Crawford is one crafted from her various roles and interviews that have far more complexity than “Mommie Dearest” and her current legacy do. She’s one of the finest examples of how stardom works and is a powerhouse of an actress, despite the sexism and obstacles she faced from the same industry that made her a starlet.
Although many stars from classic Hollywood struggled as they aged and the studio system that shaped them went to rot, actresses carried a heavier burden. Towards the end of Marlon Brando’s life he was an absolute embarrassment professionally and personally, but that hasn’t stopped new generations of actors from exalting him, as if screen acting didn’t matter until he showed up.
The 1962 Robert Aldrich film “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” reinvigorated Crawford’s career, along with that of Davis, her co-star. It also spawned the dubious “hagsploitation” genre, which is exactly what the word conjures. There is a visceral thrill in watching these aged divas and older cinematic titans hash it out in horror rather than be regulated to playing bloodless, supporting roles far beneath their talents. Films like “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964), starring Davis and Olivia de Havilland (in a role originally meant for Crawford) let these actresses form fascinating roles, and often disregard the rigorous expectations of beauty in order to deconstruct their own images in a metatextual manner. But the films in this genre often look down upon the leading characters rather than empathizing with them. In the last few years of Crawford’s career we see this strain of pure Grand Guignol. In films like 1964’s “Strait-Jacket” and 1970’s “Trog” (her final screen appearance), Crawford is positioned as a punchline.
Crawford took a dim view of her later career after “Baby Jane” saying, “They were all terrible, even the few I thought might be good. I made them because I needed money or because I was bored or both. I hope they have been exhibited and withdrawn and never heard from again.” She stayed in the public eye thanks to her later film work and a prolific television career that included guest spots on “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (1967) and “Night Gallery” (1969). Her later career is spotty at best, rarely living up to what she was still capable of as an actress. These failures aren’t enough to undo her many accolades and amazing dramatic performances. They have nothing to do with Crawford as an actress. They are a byproduct of an industry that fails to see the rich interior lives of older women and fails to offer roles worthy of their skills.
It’s ultimately “Mommie Dearest” that cemented Crawford’s legacy as a campy joke. The very end of her career highlights a grotesque femininity that Christina Crawford’s book and Perry’s film expand on.
Joan Crawford in 1959, by Eve Arnold.
Read the whole thing. I actually got the link to the Eve Arnold photos of Joan Crawford from a later paragraph, and you can check out the whole collection here. So here’s the thing: my knowledge of Joan Crawford, having been born post- Mommie Dearest, was pretty much all scary Faye Dunaway with overly-arched eyebrows and severe shoulder pads. I didn’t even see the whole movie when it was continuously played on Channel 11 and USA (just a quick reminer, I have lived my whole like in the northeastern part of New Jersey that exists in the shadow of NYC, and if Channel 11 means nothing to you, too bad… okay, that’s mean… here). Joan Crawford, was, unfortunately, reduced to this:
Karina Longworth, host of my very favorite podcast, “You Must Remember This”, discussed Crawford’s mangled legacy last year during her series titled, “Six Degrees of Joan Crawford”. You can listen to it here.
On the topic of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, Longworth, in an article published by Slate (it’s actually taken from the Crawford series, or episode 91), dives into Joan and Bette’s famous feud in a way that manages to uphold the strength and dignity of both ladies:
Crawford and Davis lived parallel lives with many similarities and some significant differences. Both had their brightest and most uncomplicated years of stardom in the mid-1930s. Both took four husbands and adopted children who they later disowned. And both actresses became known for playing what historian Jeanine Basinger called “exaggerated women,” stars who specialized in playing women who were larger than life in a literal sense, in that their characters’ lives could not accommodate the size or intensity of their ambitions, emotions, neuroses, or desires. This was perfect for films of the 1930s, but as time marched on and Davis and Crawford both gradually got older, and audiences began going into their movies with a calcified idea of what a Crawford or Davis performance would give them, their very presence could only overwhelm whatever dramatic situation the film tried to put them into.
There’s a really reductive, but not entirely inaccurate, way of explaining why older actresses have historically been sidelined in Hollywood while a constant stream of young, fresh women are cycled in. And for most of its history, Hollywood has been run by men, and movies are, as a work of both art and commerce, a medium that plays on fantasies, and the men who run things fantasize about having sex with young, unspoiled women, not women who are the age and have the maturity and life experience of their own wives. This is part of the story, but if it was the whole story, stars such as Crawford, Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck, would never have survived on screens for as long as they did—and both Davis and Stanwyck were able to work even longer than Crawford, because in the 1970s and ’80s, they successfully transitioned to television. These female stars stuck around because they didn’t just appeal to the male gaze: They inspired fantasies in women, and they were able to continue to do so long after male producers and male viewers had moved on to fetishizing the new crop. They did this by modeling to women a way of being that many viewers could not have pulled off in their real lives, because it would involve not giving a shit what the men in their lives were to say or think.
When all was said and done, Crawford insisted that she respected Davis more than she hated her. “She can be such a bitch,” Crawford said late in life, “but she’s so talented and dedicated and honest.”
Joan Crawford in 1959, by Eve Arnold.
I don’t know if what Christina Crawford alleges in “Mommie Dearest” is true, but I know now that between Ryan Murphy’s docudrama, and Karina Longworth’s podcast, my view of Joan Crawford is far richer than just a Saturday afternoon replay of what Dunway considers a ruinous darkspot on her career. Joan was tough, a fighter, a social climber and striver. She admitted to having a drinking problem and having living years in the glare of Hollywood, not quite knowing who she even was. Actually, I like the way Murphy’s “Feud” summed it up:
The girl who F. Scott Fitzgerald called “doubtless the best example of a flapper” would not have lasted as long as she did had she not been a good and sometimes great actress.
And an even greater star.
Brittany passes on a wealth of Joan-bilia which I have included below. Also, if you’re a fan of retro pop culture (film, photography, music, advertisements, fashion, beauty and more), do follow her wonderful Instagram page Rhettrophilia here!
Link here for: The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia