The Review/Short Read/

Ten Questions about Joan Crawford

(And no answers)

by James Quandt
Sep 29, 2018

1. How was it that Joan Crawford scrambled the genre of so many films she appeared in, turning romance, comedy, western, musical, and melodrama into something heavily tinged with noir?

2. Why does the word “mask” (in some extreme cases, “kabuki mask”) recur so frequently in descriptions of her?

3. Why, unlike her obsession and nemesis Bette Davis, did she work with so many great Hollywood auteurs (George Cukor, Otto Preminger, Robert Aldrich, Michael Curtiz, Nicholas Ray, Frank Borzage) while Davis confined herself to mostly B-list directors (William Wyler being the major exception)?

4. Why did her late career concentrate almost exclusively on horror, culminating in the British Guignol of Trog?

5. How did the viperous domestic monster portrayed in her adoptive daughter Christina’s scandalous memoir, Mommie Dearest, project such fraught neediness and vulnerability on screen?

Crawford and John Garfield in Humoresque

6. Why did James Agee admire Crawford so much, sometimes to the distress of her arch-rival Bette Davis? (e.g., Agee claimed that Crawford gave “the best performance of her career” in Mildred Pierce, a role that Davis had turned down, while he criticized Bette’s playing of the schoolmistress heroine in the contemporaneous The Corn is Green as too prim and self-limiting — leading a miffed Davis to snarl in reply, “That shit doesn’t know anything about acting, and furthermore he’s illiterate.”)

7. Why did Depression-era audiences first love her in “working girl” roles, then come to spurn her, leading to her inclusion on a list of stars considered “Box-Office Poison”? (At least she was in some very good company: Astaire, Garbo, Hepburn, etc.)

8. Why did her line readings often smack of elocutionary lessons?

9. Did the recurring narrative in which her character feuds with another woman reflect the real-life rivalry or conflict she had with other actresses (Norma Shearer, Mary Pickford, Mercedes McCambridge, and of course Bette Davis)?

Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (left); Jessica Lange in Feud (right)

10. Who played her better: Faye Dunaway (Mommie Dearest) or Jessica Lange (Feud: Bette and Joan)?

Those are the questions — you may (or may not) find the answers in the films below, screening in the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective A Woman Possessed: The Films of Joan Crawford from October 7 to December 16.

Mildred Pierce

Crawford won her long-coveted Oscar for what is perhaps her greatest performance, playing a character very much like herself: a hardscrabble worker who climbs the ladder of success through sheer will and determination. Every trope of noir, from the flashback structure to the femme fatale, finds its essential expression in this cynical tale of obsession, betrayal, and revenge.

Johnny Guitar

Beyond butch in jut jaw and lean jeans, Crawford plays a saloon owner whose gunslinging ex-lover Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) arrives from the past to protect her from lynching locals, in Nicholas Ray’s “hallucinatory” western.

The Women

Crawford plays a Manhattan salesgirl who has her hooks in the wealthy husband of a cheerfully contented high-society spouse and mother, in MGM’s all-star, all-female blockbuster drama.

Grand Hotel

Some critics contended that Crawford’s performance in MGM’s all-star Oscar winner made her co-star and headliner Greta Garbo superfluous.

Our Dancing Daughters

Crawford became a star in this late silent set in the Jazz Age, playing a glamorous flapper in beaded dress and bobbed hair who Charlestons until dawn at the Yacht Club.

Flamingo Road

Crawford plays it to the hilt and then some as a carnival dancer turned high-society wife in director Michael Curtiz’s deliciously sordid tale of the Deep South.

Possessed

Crawford is “possessed by the maddest love a woman ever knew!” in this moody film noir that won the star her second Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Humoresque

Crawford exudes glamour and sexual voracity as a society doyenne who becomes increasingly possessive of her violinist protégé (John Garfield).

Harriet Craig

Crawford anticipates her own posthumous myth as a domestic tyrant in her performance as a manipulative, control-freak housewife whose veins run with ice water.

Autumn Leaves

Crawford plays a lonely middle-aged typist whose whirlwind romance with and marriage to a considerably younger man (Cliff Robertson) turns deadly when she discovers that her new husband’s past is a tissue of lies.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford tear into their roles as the bitterest of sisters — former child star “Baby Jane” Hudson and paraplegic, one-time up-and-comer Blanche, respectively — in director Robert Aldrich’s Grand Guignol, high-camp jamboree.

Daisy Kenyon

Crawford plays a strong-willed magazine illustrator who, tired of her tormented affair with a married Park Avenue lawyer (Dana Andrews), is courted by a charming but slightly unhinged ex–army officer (Henry Fonda).

Sudden Fear

Crawford received her third and final Best Actress Oscar nomination for this twisty mystery, about a Broadway playwright who discovers that her new husband (Jack Palance) is planning to kill her for her money.

Strange Cargo

They don’t come any stranger than this: director Frank Borzage’s jaw-dropper brings together two of MGM’s biggest stars, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, for a film that is equal parts romantic drama, prison-break thriller, and religious parable.