Whatever happened to Joan Crawford?

LIKE MANY an impressionable young gay boy, I've lately become fascinated by Joan Crawford, "the ultimate movie star".

It started with the film Mommie Dearest (the 1981 biopic, of sorts, in which Joan is played with scenery-chewing relish by Faye Dunaway), and progressed with Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962), Joan's last great picture, in which she starred alongside her nemesis, Bette Davis.

I've seen (or should that be "endured"?) Mommie Dearest several times now, and as entertaining as it is, it always leaves me feeling like I've heard just a Chinese whisper of the truth. From a great distance. With a motorcycle revving in the background. Who was Joan Crawford, really? How did this huge movie star become the laughing stock she is today? Is it all the fault of Mommie Dearest?

Much of the damage to Joan's reputation occurred towards the end of her career, beginning, perhaps, with some of the cheesy, B-movie publicity for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, and subsequent pictures like Berserk (1967). That her final appearance on the big screen was Trog (1970) doesn't help. But perhaps the greatest blow to the woman who was once Hollywood's biggest star is adopted daughter Christina's damning book Mommie Dearest, and worse, the film version of that book; Christina accuses Joan of mental and physical child abuse. Even those who don't know who Joan Crawford is can recite, "No more wire hangers!"

No one can really know for sure what went on in Joan Crawford's house - Christina and Christopher both hate her, whilst the other two flatly deny the allegations their older sibling has made - but the bottom line is there's no dignity or honour in Christina's bitter, lifelong campaign to destroy her mother. I wonder if she's ever really wondered what life would have been like had Joan not adopted her? I suspect it's the lack of material remuneration that lies at the heart of Christina's mission (Joan left nothing for her, or Christopher, in her will, writing "It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son Christopher or my daughter Christina for reasons which are well known to them.")

It's said that the Paramount film Mommie Dearest finished Faye Dunaway's hitherto stellar career. If that's true, then there's a certain justice there. Call it just deserts for her involvement in that devastating assault.

My fascination with Joan has extended to tracking down - YouTube, thank you! - those now-poignant dying gasps of Miss Crawford's career. There can be found what purports to be the last footage of her before she withdrew from the public eye, and her performance in The Sixth Sense, an execrable TV show. These clips are there for us to jeer and giggle at, or at least pity the poor cow. But here is a woman - more than that, the ultimate movie star - swallowing her pride and getting on with it, still giving her best despite the reduced circumstances she has found herself in, and working to the bitter end. That's not something to pity, or laugh at. That's strength.

So why is Joan Crawford so ridiculed now? Yes, Mommie Dearest plays a big part, but more so, I think, is the ageism our society is steeped in, and Hollywood revels in. Even more than that, is the unabashed, naked misogyny in jeering at a beautiful woman who dared to get older, who did swallow her pride and take the scraps the industry threw to her.

There's nothing shameful about her last appearances in awful TV shows and movies like Trog. What is shameful is the industry's treatment of her, and the public's talent for delighting in humiliation. And we should all be ashamed of the manner in which women are treated - from cradle to grave - and in Joan Crawford's case, those close to her who still seek to punish her ought to be especially ashamed.

In a recent interview, Christina Crawford was asked if she ever watched any of her mother's movies. "No," she replied. The irony is that Mommie Dearest has launched me - and no doubt many others - on a journey of discovery, one that takes in all of Joan Crawford's long career. It is her films that cinephiles will remember, long after Mommie Dearest is forgotten.


Muscato said...

Thanks for a thoughtful take on your reaction to Crawford. For someone who is still in many ways such a Very Big Star, she's oddly underappreciated for a large part of her body of work - all those spunky shopgirls made good in the early talkies, the heiresses and dancers and women on the make. She was a creditable comedienne and, albeit in a dated way, an accomplished dancer very much of her era.

People are more familiar with her work from The Women in '39 on, her '40s strong ladies and her '50s strident women (Harriet Craig and all), but you're right that Baby Jane and what followed weighs heavily in how she's remembered.

Whatever can be said about Christina and her increasingly tired crusade, I can attest that everyone I've ever met who knew Crawford (and having lived in New York and worked in the business, it's more than a couple) have been unanimous that while she was a tough lady, she was a funny, warm, and loyal friend. And that says a lot about a person, I think - just as much as spending thirty years tearing apart the memory of someone who, for better or worse, raised you...

kaos said...

Thank you Muscato!

I'm still getting to grips with her body of work - this article was written just after having seen Mildred Pierce for the first time, and the accompanying documentary The Ultimate Movie Star.

Over the last few nights I've watched The Damned Don't Cry, Possessed, and just now, This Woman Is Dangerous.

And just today the boxset comprising of A Woman's Face / Flamingo Road / Sadie McKee / Strange Cargo / Torch Song arrived. Working its way to me is another boxset, with Harriet Craig / Queen Bee / Autumn Leaves / The Story of Esther Costello on it. So I'm really immersing myself in Joan Crawford!

It's interesting that you say she's a credible comedienne. That doesn't come across much in her Warners Bros years and beyond (which is all I've sampled so far) and I've just watched the Crawford & Gable featurette on Strange Cargo, in which a historian claims Crawford and comedy "don't mix".

I don't buy that - I can't wait to see The Women; she's hilarious in some of the clips I've seen. And that brilliant scene in The Damned Don't Cry, where she drawls, "Aw, shuddup," whilst striding down the hall had me in stitches. She can do comedy!

With regards to Christina - she sure has a lot to say about Joan's career and her films on the extras on the first boxset I mentioned. And I wonder if people forget that she's actually a failed actress, who's hitched her wagon to Joan's star...?

I'm so glad to be going on this journey of discovery, and meeting other Joan Crawford fans along the way. Hopefully this little article will prompt someone, somewhere, to look beyond Baby Jane and Mommie Dearest...

Anonymous said...

Kaos, ahead of you, you have an enormous body of work to enjoy. For sophisticated comedy, check her out as Susan Trexel in "Susan and God". For a quick laugh from the gut, watch her reaction, in "Love on the Run", to Gable's criticism that she doesn't look like enough of a hayseed. Her reaction is worthy of Lucy. Give the early 30s films and the silents a chance. The career wasn't built solely on determination. There was "that little something extra" from the start.
Remember, too, people have had little interest in the defenses of Crawford offered by the twins. (I have a video tape of Cathy on GMA explaining Christina's motivation with the word "evil".) People being attracted to the tales of an obvious fraud like Christina tells you nothing about Crawford and much about them.
I hope you'll keep writing about this worthwhile artist in the perceptive way you've done so far. Thanks.

kaos said...

Thank you, Anon.! I'll definitely take up your suggestions. I actually have what I hope is a comprehensive list of all her films from IMDB, and I'm crossing them off as I buy them. But it's frustrating how hard some are to find, and many aren't available in the UK (Warner Archive doesn't ship here, for example)...

CAMERA obsessed MICHAEL said...

Definetly more than just a mean mom, Crawford's films and also her strength as a woman are awe inspiring! (Mildred Pierce is my favorite)

kaos said...

Mildred Pierce is brilliant - I'm ashamed I've only just now got around to watching it.

"I'm a bit drunk..."

I think The Damned Don't Cry (which is quite a similar story) is a much stronger picture, however, and Crawford is occasionally hilarious in it.

Anonymous said...

This story is just awesome!! Im only 28 but when I was growing up my mom introduced me to Joan crawford films and other legends Marlene dietrich judy garland bette Davis etc etc. by the time i was 10 id seen every crawford movie avai.at that time..Then I seen mommie dearest & even Then I didnt fully believe the whole mommy dearest story..I read mommy dearest book at 12 n read it as a fiction..as i grew up n learned more and found out more bout Joan ive come to respect Joan on so many levels.this is a woman who grew up in the back of a laundrymat pract.homeless and beat all odds against her n turned herself into a legend ..all theses mommy dearest rumora came out after she died ( even thoe Joan found out that christinr n Christopher joans kids were writing a book about joan n thats why she wrote them outta the will) a friend of joans told pple that they should know that Joan owned a room in a NYC hospital n she would anno.pay for surg.n ne thing pple needed n never told the press cause she wanted to stay annom.in border to keep helping pple..its and amazing thing that younger n younger pple r finding out about Joan n her body of work n the other legends instead of the pple out today joans carecer will always out abone mommie dearest..hopefully pple will b like u N not go from what they see in mommie dearest n pay attention to the real work of joans.u def do Joan crawford proud..

kaos said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Anon!

I hadn't heard the story about the hospital room before, that's wonderful.

Patrick3183 said...

Thanks for this. I'm a huge JC fan. She is majorly underrated. Her daughter is jealous because she wasn't beautiful like Joan was.

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