Do you recognize this beauty from Hollywood’s Golden Age? She is one of the biggest stars tinseltown ever produced and won her fair share of Oscars. She was able to survive in a man’s business and become as successful in the high-stakes world of business even after her movie star began to fade.
She is none other than Joan Crawford.
Joan was a force of movie-nature for decades. She permeated the silver screen with indelible performances as a strong, often-wronged but always able to take a punch movie heroines. Coming into prominence in the early talkies, Joan had a smoldering screen persona, often pursued by leading men who thought they were up to the challenge but more often unable to hold a candle to this femme fatale’s blow-torch performances.
Joan started out as so many other movie goddesses did – as a vamp. That seductress who got whatever she wanted from men for free, only to pay a huge price in the end. But Joan carved a unique “vamp” performance, first as a dancer, then a home-wrecker, a pioneer businesswoman, then finally and grimly as a foil to her on-and-off screen diva nemesis – Bette Davis. But let’s start at her coronation: the black and white classic Grand Hotel.
Grand Hotel (1932) is an important movie because it was the first to feature numerous super-stars from several studios (back when studios owned their talent) in one story. The reaction to having Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, John and Lionel Barrymore co-existing in one story was cinematic gold and Joan was the gold-digger that came out on top. Then came The Women (1939), where Joan was joined by the likes of Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and a young and gorgeous Joan Fontaine. Of course, Joan is the homewrecker, stealing dear Norma’s husband away only to lose him to Norma in the end – with much hijinks and hilarity in-between. The in-joke was that Joan didn’t play well with others and it comes out in spades in this movie where her co-stars show open-contempt for her (her movie role if not herself) in a film that was a send-up to women’s pictures that dominated the twenties and much of the thirties, until World War II came in and everything changed. Of course, Joan changed with it.
Mildred Pierce (1945) is one of my favorite Crawford vehicles. In this one, Joan’s cheating husband nearly destroys her, only for Joan to come back and prove success is the best form of revenge – only to then have her spoiled brat of a daughter destroy her. Wow, what a tour de force for our heroine. But the real acting was yet to come, when Joan feigned sickness and diva-like, didn’t attend the Academy Awards. Instead, she listened to them at home, and when she won – invited the press into her immaculately clean bedroom to accept the golden one. How fitting, because Oscar was the man she had always dreamed of possessing and now she finally had him.
The last Joan movie I’ll mention is the intensely dark Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Joan plays a movie queen forced into retirement after a crippling accident opposite her completely-insane, former-child-star sister, played by a terrifying Bette Davis. The movie worked to generate sympathy for Joan because she was cast against-type as a victim opposite the only actress with big enough balls to pull such a role reversal off – good ole’ scarier than hell Bette Davis. What raises the material above exploitation flick, D-grade fluff is the performances of both, former heavyweight Hollywood royalty. Seeing Joan and Bette beat the shit out of each other is about as entertaining as you can get – short of Garbo and Marlene Dietrich making out – which I believe was never caught on film but I’d still like to see. This would return Joan (and Bette) to the screen in a black and white decaying mansion a la Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. The sheer guts of showing their faces in less than glamorous light is something I’ve always admired about these actresses – Joan in particular. She wasn’t just a sex-symbol, Joan was a damn good actress – so the transition into her later roles was a turning point for all women who fight to remain relevant in Hollywood past their 30th birthday, or 40th or 50th for that matter.
Joan was a hottie in my book. Not least because she could hold her own, gave as good as she got and then some. Luckily, I can admire such a strong and forceful woman from afar – preferably on my couch with a bucket of popcorn and junior mints. And that’s the way it should be with some stars, especially the ones who can do you bodily harm with just a look – like lovely, don’t mess-with-me Joan Crawford.