Villain and vixen. And a seductive femme fatale
As Joan Crawford's infamous feud with Bette Davis is set to be the subject of a new TV series starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, Julia Molony remembers the Hollywood grande dame.
Published 15/08/2016 | 02:30
As the Jazz Age drew to a close in Hollywood, Joan Crawford, once the most celebrated ingenue in town, found her stock at rock bottom after a run of flops.
In public, she had been branded as "box office poison" by the industry press. In private, her second marriage, to actor Franchot Tone, had descended into calamity.
Crawford was no stranger to struggle - she'd escaped poverty and abuse to become a global star. But her "middle years" in tinsel-town, characterised by heavy drinking, domestic disharmony and a low watermark in her career, were as much of a challenge as anything she'd experienced before.
By 1945 she'd been given a lifeline; the title role in Mildred Pierce. But early interactions with the director Michael Curtiz didn't seem promising. "She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads …why should I waste my time directing a has-been?" said Curtiz, who had wanted to cast Crawford's arch-rival Bette Davis in the role instead. Perhaps guessing that Crawford was a handful and wishing to put her in her place, he insisted that she go through the humiliating ritual of a screen test before he'd agree to cast her.
But Crawford was hungry. She badly needed a new vehicle with which to refresh her reputation. And what Curtiz underestimated was her grit and her innate understanding of Mildred Pierce's predicament. Like Pierce, Crawford had pulled herself out of poverty by sheer force of will, and now found herself wealthy, but unsatisfied. She turned in a career-defining performance and the film was a critical and commercial triumph. "Joan Crawford reaches a peak of her acting career in this pic," Variety said. The Academy Award panel apparently agreed. Crawford won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal. Her comeback was, for a while at least, secured.
Pugnacious and acid-tongued, Crawford had been shaped by her early life into a classic tough broad of the post-war era.
She was born Lucille Fay LeSueur, around 1908 (her exact birth date is unknown). Soon after her birth, her father, a small-time contractor, left the family home where she lived with her mother and brother and never came back. Desperate to secure some stability for her children, Lucille's mother Anna moved to a new state and quickly remarried Harry Cassin, who owned and ran a vaudeville opera house. It was backstage here that Lucille's taste for show-business was born. But Henry's interest in and encouragement of the pre-teen Lucille's performance ambitions allegedly had a sinister motivation. According to at least one biographer, the marriage between Anna and Harry eventually ruptured when the former discovered that he had started a sexual relationship with her 11-year-old daughter.
With Anna a single mother again, the family endured another devastating change of circumstances. Anna took in laundry to survive. Crawford's legendary intolerance of mess, which now would likely be characterised as obsessive compulsive disorder, apparently had its roots in this period. "I used to wash my hands every ten minutes," she later admitted. "I couldn't step out of the house unless I had gloves on. I wouldn't smoke a cigarette unless I opened the pack myself, and I would never use another cigarette out of that pack if someone else had touched it."
Her mother found the teenaged Lucille difficult, which is perhaps why she sent her to boarding school, despite not being able to afford it. Lucille was forced to work as a maid for the other students to pay the tuition. With her shabby clothes and part-time job, she didn't fit in well at Rockingham School. "I wanted to be famous, just to make the kids who'd laughed at me feel foolish. I wanted to be rich, so I'd never have to do the awful work my mother did and live at the bottom of the barrel - ever. And I wanted to be a dancer because I loved to dance ... Maybe the illusions, the daydreams, made life more tolerable, but I always knew, whether I was in school or working in some damned dime store, that I'd make it," she once said.
An urgent need to achieve had been fired up in the young Crawford. She began winning dance competitions and quit education to pursue dance full time. Even from her earliest days as a chorus girl, she was a consummate striver, constantly on the look-out for opportunities for advancement, which she would go to great lengths to pursue. Starting out on stage, she ended up dancing on Broadway, from where she grafted and networked her way to a screen-test in Hollywood. She was signed on the spot to MGM.
It was from this moment that she began meticulously and exhaustively constructing the phenomenon of Joan Crawford the star. It was an endeavour that subsumed all others in her life. One MGM screenwriter, Frederica Sagor, once observed of her that, "No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star."
A 2008 profile of Crawford in The Atlantic provides further insight and analysis into her approach to her career. "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," writes journalist Thomas Mallon. "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."
She was sexually forthright, and known for having strings of affairs with both men and women, even when married, including a one-night-stand with Marilyn Monroe, above. This femme-fatale sensuality was something she openly traded upon. "I need sex for a clear complexion, but I'd rather do it for love," she once quipped.
Biographer Donald Spoto has claimed that she was not above harnessing her "free-wheeling sex life," to get what she wanted, too. He gives an account of how she once seduced married film director Vincent Sherman in a studio screening room. "Never had I encountered such female boldness," Sherman says. "I was confronted with a woman who went after what she wanted with a masculine approach to sex." According to Spoto, however, Crawford's motivation was based on a more complex motivation than simple desire.
"She was trying to take control of me and the film," he quotes Sherman as saying, adding that he was just "one of many who suspected Crawford of turning her sexual wiles to professional advantage. If by doing so she could persuade directors to favour her with more close-ups shots, and render her male co-stars less likely to upstage her, Crawford saw this as all to the good."
Her first marriage, to Hollywood royalty Francis Fairbanks Jnr, was arguably a strategic one. But he was not faithful, and a few years later she met Clark Gable, above, on the set of the movie Possessed, igniting an affair that would endure for many years, and later, a friendship that lasted until he died in 1960.
Though a fan of marriage, she had little respect for fidelity. During her marriage to Tone, she started an ill-fated liaison with Spencer Tracy in 1937 while filming Mannequin. "We whooped it up off the set, but he turned out to be a real b*****d,' she said. "He did cute things like stepping on my toes when we were doing a love scene - after he chewed on some garlic."
These anecdotes add colour to her biography, but with an image so manufactured and meticulously maintained, it's near impossible to distinguish Crawford the construct from Crawford the woman. This is most especially the case regarding her relationship with her four adopted children. The issue of who she really was; a scrappy survivor or a deranged and abusive Cruella de Vil, as her eldest daughter, Christina recalls, remains the most contested thing about her.
Certainly, she had less talent for maintaining personal relationships than she did for self-promotion. She was married four times, and died a widow. "I worked too hard, and a lot of my relationships failed because of that," she admitted towards the end of her life. "I needn't have spent so much time on the image thing."
In any case that carefully constructed image was savaged soon after her death. The year that she passed away from a heart attack, Christina published Mommie Dearest, an excoriating memoir about her childhood in which she describes in great detail the emotional and physical abuse she alleges she suffered at the hands of a mother who was, by her account, both sadistic and alcoholic.
It was during those troubled middle years, during which, according to Spoto, she was suffering from "intermittent depression" that Crawford became determined to have a family. By her own admission, she was starting to drink heavily during this time. "I used to have a few before I had to meet the press, but at that time I handled liquor well. We all drank. The film community drinks more than its share - there were parties at home and lunches on and off the set. But I think the problem really began when I had to meet people - it was all because of fright, a type of fright worse than stage fright. Vodka relaxed me, chased away the butterflies, put a certain safe distance between me and everybody else. I didn't cross the line until much later."
Despite the fact that her marriage to Franchot Tone was characterised by violence and volcanic rows (she once turned up on set with two black eyes) she had hoped to start a family with him. During the course of their time together she had several miscarriages. But by 1940 the marriage was over and she was determined to pursue motherhood alone. Her status as single and divorced, however, disqualified her from seeking adoptive children through the usual state channels. So she consulted a private adoption broker instead.
Christina was adopted first, followed by another boy whom she named Christopher. After he was reclaimed by his birth mother, a second boy, also named Christopher by Crawford, joined the family. The two older adoptive siblings were joined several years later by twins.
In Christina's account Crawford was regularly violent (she remembers being attacked with a hairbrush which broke in two under the force of the beatings). Her brother Christopher, she says, was strapped into his bed with a harness. In magazine spreads, Crawford showcased her lavish and apparently happy life with her new family, but the reality as Christina remembers it was much darker. "It was complete and total hypocrisy between the public and the private. She adopted us for the publicity," Christina has said. . . "I think she wasn't a healthy person. If a lot of what she did had happened today, that woman would be arrested and taken to jail."
Before her death, Joan was aware that the book was planned and that scandal was brewing which would likely topple the reputation she had spend years working on. "I think this book will be full of lies and twisted truths," Crawford told Vanity Fair shortly before her death. "I don't think my adopted daughter is writing this book just to hurt me. If her purpose was to hurt me, she has already accomplished it without going to the trouble of writing a book. She is her own person, and that person brought me a lot of pain . . . the problem was I adopted her but she didn't adopt me."
Mommie Dearest became a runaway best-seller, and was later turned into a film starring Faye Dunaway as Crawford in full shrieking banshee mode. The veracity of the account however, has been contested, most notably by another of Crawford's children, Cathy.
Crawford had always been a divisive figure - and one who in her personal and professional life seemed to thrive on conflict. Posthumously she remains as famous for being a pantomime bad-mother and for her legendary, life-long and bitter feud with tinsel-town contemporary Bette Davis as she is for her work in film. It was a dynamic which was exploited, to high camp effect, during the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Crawford and Davis co-starred, the antagonism between them reaching a dramatic apotheosis during a scene where their characters descend into a full on cat-fight that, according to legend, left real scrapes and bruises. "Why am I so good at playing bitches?" Davis once said. "I think it's because I'm not a bitch. Maybe that's why [Joan Crawford] always plays ladies."
The issue of whether Crawford was more victim or villain continues to be a rich seam for further narrative, now to be explored again in a new drama series from FX, titled Feud and starring Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis. Perhaps it should be F Scott Fitzgerald, who is allowed the last word.
"Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper," he wrote of Crawford. "The girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living."
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