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.

Crawford craved appreciation of her talents, but she was less an actress than a kind of performance artist, an obsessive 24/7 movie star who took the job to an ethereal extreme where narcissism shades into something like humility. She was famous for answering every piece of fan mail, sometimes in one of the special “dresses I wear for doing my correspondence.” She would identify herself to telephone operators (“Hello, dear. This is Joan Crawford. What is the number for the Hollywood Roosevelt?”) and had to explain to Franchot Tone, her second husband, that fans and photographers were always present wherever the couple went because she tipped them off herself. Late in life, living at the Imperial House in Manhattan, she dressed up “even to throw out the garbage,” because she thought she owed it to the doorman to look like Joan Crawford. When at the end she began to photograph badly, she stopped going out.

Her long feud with Bette Davis, cherished by drag performers, was certainly camp (“Bette is a survivor,” said Crawford. “She survived herself”), but it was rooted in something more fundamental than their rumored competition for Tone back in the mid-1930s. The far less glamorous Davis, despite her own egomania and madness for recognition, found stardom essentially ridiculous. She preferred bouquets from critics to ones tossed by fans, and thought the whole offscreen Crawford persona humorless and phony. Crawford was sufficiently shrewd about box office to approach Davis with the idea of their doing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?—but only if she herself could play Blanche, the lovely forbearing invalid. Davis, happy to let go of vanity and take the more monstrous and much meatier part, wound up mocking her co-star in interviews: “I would never have accepted anything but Baby Jane … Miss Crawford was more concerned with the positioning of her falsies.”

Crawford’s relations with men were avidly physical but for the most part non-tempestuous, love being a small thing compared to career and image. Her move in 1943 from MGM to Warner Brothers was far more personally mo-mentous than any transition from one husband to another. The union with Fairbanks would collapse politely once her self-improvement efforts really took off (“He married a chorus girl, and I think that’s what he liked”). Their delayed European honeymoon had been paid for by MGM, but she couldn’t relax away from the studio. Back home, Crawford saw in Betty Barker, a teenage girl badly smitten with Fairbanks, not a threat but the prospect of hired help; she set Barker to work addressing envelopes. Her second divorce was as friendly as the first, and decades after it, when Franchot Tone was in a wheelchair and living nearby in New York, Crawford would help with his bills and sometimes cook him dinner.

During their marriage, Crawford had experienced a number of miscarriages, and when it was over, she felt a stronger desire for children than for husbands. So she had a lawyer make the arrangements that would eventually establish her as the most infamous single mother in history. There was a certain Neverland Ranch quality to the elaborate birthday parties she threw for little Christina and Christopher, whose good fortune was displayed to Crawford’s public in magazines and on the radio, but it’s impossible to know how hard and how often, if ever, the star’s wire hanger rained blows upon the children once the guests had gone home. Crawford didn’t live to see the publication—and, worse, the filming— of Mommie Dearest, but she has had numerous defenders in the years since, and her new biographer is firmly in the pro-Joan, anti-Christina camp. Chandler offers testimony from friends and family that the daughter had always been impossible, and her brother even worse. Myrna Loy, speaking of Christina, once told Lawrence J. Quirk: “Believe me, there were many times I wanted to smack her myself.”

Chandler’s idea of retributive justice is to overaccentuate anything positive about her subject. She creates a fanzine Saint Joan (“She felt it was selfish to have household help during World War II, when there was a labor shortage”), but that’s the least of this book’s flaws. Quotations are flung upon the page with no hint of a source or date, and long, inane plot summaries of Crawford’s films pad the text more outrageously than Adrian ever filled out the star’s shoulders. Almost everything else is underdeveloped, devoid of context, and badly located, as if the biographer were some incompetent prop mistress, misplacing all the glamorous clutter from the life of her subject, who, it’s fair to say, would have hated this book for its sloppiness.

In The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Crawford’s fierce character sets straight a timid accountant in the backseat of a cab: “Don’t talk to me about self-respect,” she orders. “That’s something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else.” In fact, Crawford had plenty of it herself, but that was no reason not to go after all the other things available. She got most of what she wanted and attained a kind of cheesy greatness through unrelenting effort and a whole lot of worry. She supposedly overcame the latter when, late in life, she embraced Christian Science. If she were arriving in Hollywood today, she’d probably be checking out Scientology’s Celebrity Centre as soon as she got off the plane, shedding all the negative energy and Suppressive Persons in the manner of TomKat and Travolta.

Movie-magazine readers chose her screen name in a 1925 contest; thus was she market-researched into existence. She disliked “Joan Crawford” at first, but as she grew herself into it changed her mind: “My fans write to ‘Dear Miss Crawford’ or ‘Dear Joan.’ These are wonderful words … I am Joan Crawford.” Rarely was she more affecting than in the Baby Jane scene requiring wheelchair-bound Blanche, a faded film star, to watch one of her old movies on television. The picture chosen for Crawford to look at was Sadie McKee, which she’d filmed in 1934; her rapt appreciation, 30 years later, made for the easiest take of the day.

Presented by

Thomas Mallon’s most recent novel, Fellow Travelers, will be published in paperback by Vintage in May.

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