Books April 2008

‘I Am Joan Crawford’

Through sheer force of will, Hollywood’s most infamous single mother constructed a persona seductive, repellent, and almost impossible not to watch.

Like many of her awful but absorbing movies, this new biography of Joan Crawford (1908?–1977) begins at the end of the story, before flashing back to Reveal All. Not the Girl Next Door opens with an interview that Charlotte Chandler, the author, once conducted in Crawford’s New York apartment (“I sat on the sofa after she removed its plastic cover”) with the retired and aging star. The actress speaks in the noble Photo­play tones (“I wouldn’t change anything for fear of changing it all”) that were always a large part of Crawford’s stiff public image, until it was toppled like a dictator’s statue by her adopted daughter’s poisonous memoir, Mommie Dearest.

No matter how many eponymous films she made (Mildred Pierce, Daisy Kenyon, Harriet Craig), Crawford never seemed to be anyone but Joan Crawford, and no matter how often she was Chained, Paid, Possessed, or Berserk, she always appeared grotesquely in control of herself and her onscreen circumstances. Crawford’s was a life less lived than produced, a joint venture undertaken by herself and MGM, and though it’s been much better recounted in previous biographies (one by Bob Thomas, another by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell), the chance to gawk at its sad closing and then work backward, peeling off the layers of metallic maquillage, remains a sordid thrill.

So let’s cue the Franz Waxman score and fade back to Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1908 (maybe), where we’ll find Crawford’s mother, Anna Bell Johnson LeSueur, tearfully enduring abandonment by the father of her infant daughter, Lucille. As the girl grows up, she will often get hit for misbehavior committed by her more favored brother, but a stepfather, Henry “Billy” Cassin, will come along and prove to be, according to Chandler, a “caring, attentive” parent to “little Lucille.” Cassin owns a local opera house and encourages his stepdaughter in her dreams of dancing. But he’s put on trial for embezzlement—if only Lucille hadn’t found those gold coins in the basement!—and, though acquitted, has to move his family to Kansas City. Soon after, he too disappears, leaving Anna to operate a laundry whose terrible smells will cling to Lucille’s memory for years. The young woman waits tables and makes beds to earn her keep at two different boarding schools and then briefly at Stephens College, from which she runs away when her work-study status leads to rejection by a sorority. “I was not a Method actress,” the screen goddess explained, with rare understatement, decades later. But she would admit that when filming a painful scene, she did occasionally tap into memories of her own hard early life.

Dance contests, chorus jobs, and a screen test brought her to Hollywood and silent films, most notably Our Dancing Daughters (1928). MGM, a latecomer to sound, liked her deep voice and put her in nearly a dozen talkies before Grand Hotel (1932) made “Joan Crawford” a star. Preparation and discipline were her watchwords. She had no great gifts, but was smart enough to learn anything that directors like Clarence Brown and Howard Hawks and George Cukor could teach her. When she wanted to buy a house, she borrowed not from the bank but from the studio: “As long as I owe them money,” Crawford reasoned to her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., “they can’t very well let me go.” She never wasted anyone’s time on the sets, which she asked be kept at a concentration-producing 55 degrees. Louis B. Mayer loaned her out just three times in 18 years.

Onscreen, Crawford’s face was an Art Deco masterpiece—jutting chromium cheekbones, gargoyle eyebrows—as fabulous as the Chrysler Building and scarcely more human. It was a construction designed for the lens, not life. Of all the great stars, she is the one whose mature visage is least imaginable from her early photographs and films. Like that later Hollywood striver, Nancy Davis Reagan, her head was too large for her body—except for the shoulders, which Gilbert Adrian had the wit to pad instead of disguise when he dressed her for Letty Lynton (1932). Fantastically strong-willed, Crawford would shed weight, drop mannerisms, even change her natural laugh: “It grew softer, more modulated, less spontaneous,” Fairbanks remembered. “It became a finishing-school laugh.”

George Cukor, who directed Crawford in The Women (1939), understood that the “camera saw a side of her that no flesh-and-blood lover ever saw.” It’s a truism that every film star knows how to make love to the camera; in Crawford’s case, it was more like an insistence on pene­tration. “As the camera came in closer,” Cukor explained, “she had an expression on her face of wanting it intensely. She glowed from within. Her skin came to life. Her head fell back. Her lips parted. Her eyes were glistening. It was utterly sensual, erotic. Her close-up was ecstasy.” Vincent Sherman, who directed her three times at the beginning of the 1950s, tells how she came on to him in a screening room when the two of them were running Humoresque (1946) to get hairstyle ideas for The Damned Don’t Cry: “I came to believe that she had been aroused by her own eroticized image on the screen … that she had been more excited by herself than by me.” Some of Crawford’s most intense love scenes feel like libidinal nightmares. It’s difficult to think of a more sexually repellent star, of any other actress creating such feelings of guilt and inadequacy in the male viewer—who remained helplessly aware of a thought he couldn’t voice in the darkened theater: I am not a camera!

Crawford’s overstated performances, often intelligent but almost never instinctive, remain garishly earthbound. In Possessed (1947), she plays schizophrenia with flaring eyes and fists to the temples, as if it were an Excedrin headache, and in Humoresque she listens to John Garfield’s violin-playing as if she were trying to show off her cultivation to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. during another uneasy dinner party at Pickfair. There is something different about her in Mildred Pierce (1945), for which she won and maybe even deserved her single Oscar; something understated, felt—a premonition, perhaps, that her nasty real-life daughter would one day assault her with far worse stuff than Ann Blyth ever dished out onscreen.

Presented by

Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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