Saving Crawford from ‘Mommie Dearest,’ and herself
First you’re another Sloe-eyed vamp, Then someone’s mother, Then you’re camp.
The career arc of the Hollywood actress was neatly traced by Stephen Sondheim in the song “I’m Still Here” from the musical “Follies.” Joan Crawford perfectly fits that paradigm: The flapper of “Our Dancing Daughters” became the suffering mother of “Mildred Pierce” and, finally, the faded star of the over-the-top “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Donald Spoto fleshes out the pattern a little more in his new biography. “For half a century, she assessed what the public wanted in each era: the jazz baby during the 1920s; the independent thinker of the 1930s; the troubled postwar woman of the 1940s; the romantically starved woman of the 1950s; the horror queen of the 1960s and 1970s.”
It was her own sheer ambition and determination that transformed Lucille Le Sueur, the former laundress and chorus girl, into Joan Crawford, the embodiment of Hollywood glamour. Born and raised in poverty, she was barely educated, admitting late in life that she “never went beyond the fifth grade.” But when she married the sophisticated Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Spoto tells us, she set about “with her usual single-minded energy” to turn herself into a “society doyenne”: “She studied French, engaged a vocal coach and learned opera arias, she learned to dress with better taste, and . . . read voraciously, picking up a book whenever she had a quarter hour to herself at home: the Romantic poets, the classics, history, the nineteenth century novelists, Shakespeare, H.G. Wells and more.” The intensity of her efforts at self-improvement can by gauged by a claim she made: “I became a pretty good polo player in order to get over my fear of horses.” Which is a little like swimmingthe EnglishChannel to get over a fear of water.
Spoto’s biography gives you the sense that it must have been terribly exhausting to be Crawford, always laboring to achieve and hold on to stardom. No wonder she hit the vodka bottle a little too much, and married too often and seldom well. It didn’t help, either, that iconoclasts were always ready to hack away at her image.
Even when she was still Lucille Le Sueur, there were rumors she had danced nude in nightclubs and made pornographic movies: One man approached MGM with a clip from a film that he claimed was of her, offering to sell it to the studio or he would take it to the papers. Though studio headLouis B. Mayer asserted that “ the girl in this picture could be anybody — anyone at all — except our Lucille,” Spoto also notes that the blackmailer’s “ house mysteriously burned to the ground the following month.”
But the greatest damage to Crawford’s reputation was done posthumously, by her adopted daughter, Christina, and by makers of the 1981 film version of Christina’s memoir, “Mommie Dearest,” which presented Joan as a cold, harshly demanding, excessively controlling mother. Spoto calls the book “a vituperative act of revenge after Joan excised her two oldest children from her will after many years of discord.” He is determined to repair the damage, even investigating the most famous moment in the book and movie, in which Joan attacks Christina for putting her clothes onthewrongkind of hangers:“No wire hangers, ever!” According to Spoto, launderers and dry cleaners “were under strict instructions to return all clothing on the richly covered hangers Joan provided.” He thinks Christina remembered these instructions and reworked them into “a mad scene worthy of Italian opera.”
Spoto is an unapologetic fan, beginning his book with Crawford’s response to a letter he wrote her as an 11-year-old in 1952. He has seen, and writes about, every extant Crawford film, and “Possessed” is larded with praise for her acting. But he is willing to admit that Crawford betrayed herself into that final stage of her career: camp. She “regarded the thickly arched eyebrows and over-the-lip gloss as an infallible sign of female desirability,” long after the fashion had faded. As a result, “ her appearance is something to get beyond, before the quality of the acting can be assessed. Alas, performers of drag quickly got to work and offered depressingly accurate parodies.”
A prolific biographer of almost everyone from Jesus to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Spoto has interviewed and written about so many of Crawford’s contemporaries that he seems to feel compelled to tell us everything even remotely related to his subject, and the book sometimes feels padded. His prose plods at best but sometimes stumbles, as when he writes about Crawford traveling with “a trunk full of furs and her millionaire husband.”
But we need a reassessment of Crawford, a star now eclipsed by such contemporaries as Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, even though she was probably as good an actress as any of them. Her lively, natural performance is the best thing in “Grand Hotel,” that display case full of ham, and she stole “ The Women” out from under the neatly powdered noses of Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine. Spoto has given us a useful start at rescuing Crawford not only from Christina, but also from herself.
STEP BY CAREER STEP: A new biography traces Joan Crawford from flapper to suffering mother and, finally, to faded star.
POSSESSED The Life of Joan Crawford