24 April 2017

Sympathy for the Diva, or Joan Crawford


Mildred Pierce: The key that unlocks Joan Crawford?

The writer Shaun Considine was a tremendous help to me while I researched Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life. Shaun conducted the two most important magazine interviews Madeline ever gave: her first in a national publication, After Dark, and her only public statement after her departure from On the Twentieth Century. He was a good if not always close friend to Madeline, too, and he generously shared with me his exhaustive notes from the interviews, unpublished photos of Madeline, and copious advice. As an additional, indirect way of thanking him, I bought a copy of his most famous book, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, and found it so utterly engrossing that I bought James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and devoured that, too.

Naturally, my thoughts turned to Shaun while I watched the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette & Joan. So much of Murphy’s series seemed to come directly from the pages of Shaun’s book that I wondered whether Shaun was getting any money out of the project. Then another writer, Dan Callahan (who’s written incisive analyses of Bette & Joan for Nylon every week), broke the sad news that Shaun died shortly before my book came out. Now I know why Shaun stopped answering my e-mails, and why he couldn’t join us for the book party. Without knowing it, I’d lost a mentor.


Shaun Considine.

But the process that Shaun set in motion continued, as Jessica Lange’s performance enhanced my growing understanding and appreciation of Joan Crawford. I never expected to feel anything at all for her: she struck me as a good but not great actor, whose offscreen life didn’t interest me. I did (and still do) admire Bette Davis passionately, and even wrote a fan letter to her (and received a lovely reply), so there was never a question whose side I was on. Thanks to Shaun Considine and Jessica Lange, that’s changed.


Sarandon and Lange as Davis and Crawford.

Shaun suggests that Mildred Pierce is essential to understanding Joan Crawford: if an actor can be an auteur, then Crawford’s Mildred is an autobiographical portrait. Both the character and the actor were driven by ambition to rise above their lower-class origins. For Crawford, this ambition became an obsession. Born poor, abandoned by her father, unwanted by her mother, abused by her stepfather, Crawford endured a childhood like Charles Dickens’ telling of Cinderella. Young Joan was able to attend private boarding school only because she worked, scrubbing, washing, cooking for the other girls — so busy that she could seldom attend classes.

As an adult, Joan was proud of her willingness to work hard, and even she marveled that, rather than developing a horror of housework, she enthused in it. The rest of us may look at her neat-freak tendencies and see an obsessive-compulsive, and Joan admitted that she was a perfectionist: an impeccably clean home was part of her need for control over her environment and a symbol of her aspiration to something better.


As a showgirl and then as an actress, Crawford escaped poverty primarily through her good looks and sex appeal, her talent as an actor, and her growing skills as an actor. In these areas, too, she was a perfectionist, constantly striving to improve herself. Marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., marked the next crucial step in her evolution. Fairbanks was Hollywood royalty, highly educated and cultivated, and the stepson of Mary Pickford — who disapproved of the working-class Crawford. Joan set about compensating for her lack of formal education, reading widely, studying languages, etiquette, elocution, and (later) voice. Pickford grudgingly permitted her daughter-in-law to take a seat at the table, while Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford, once and for all.


The star who could not go to the supermarket without flawless makeup, hair, hat and gloves was a kind of female Jay Gatsby in Hollywood, self-created at great cost — and for Joan as for Gatsby, sex was one means to get ahead. She lost her Texas accent, she personified glamour, and she didn’t stop striving for more. Reading Shaun’s book, I got the sense of Crawford continually yearning for her own version of Gatsby’s green light, staring through the window at a life she wanted. Even at the end of her life, she spoke of getting a formal education, and it’s easy to believe she might crave respect from Bette Davis, whose gifts as an actor, as a fighter, and as an intellect the world seemed to accept without questioning.


By the time What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? began filming, both women had reached an age when Hollywood’s interest in them had waned. There was no Ryan Murphy building elaborate showcases for older actresses. Today Murphy wants to tell a story of Crawford’s looks versus Davis’ talent, and the manipulations of male-dominated Hollywood. There’s truth in this perspective, as far as it goes, and television necessarily requires simplification and condensation. But Shaun’s book makes clear that the reality was a good deal more complex, and arguably more illuminating about the very topics Murphy aimed to address.

Shaun goes so far as to question whether there really was a feud at all, whether it was cooked up by Davis and Crawford themselves to promote the movie. (The book’s title gives you a fair idea what his conclusion is, but he does raise the question.) Again, Murphy’s take is that others imposed the feud on the women, to manipulate the performances they gave and to promote the picture; soon enough, the feud was bitterly heartfelt and authentic. In the final episode, Susan Sarandon as Davis makes clear that the feud is responsible at least in part for the public’s interest in her and for the talk-show appearances that afforded her the largest audiences of her later career: she can’t afford to let it go.


What is an image when people no longer see it?
Lange as Crawford.
(In the background, the peerless Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita.)

At times, Murphy’s pretty-vs.-smart dynamic risked becoming as cartoonish as a catfight between Daphne and Velma from Scooby Doo. But Lange’s performance consistently rose above the hit-or-miss material in the scripts, it enhanced my sympathy for Crawford, and it made me want to revisit the Crawford pictures I’ve seen and seek out others I’ve thus far missed. I’ve also caught up with some of Lange’s work with Murphy in American Horror Story, at once over-the-top and subtle. What struck me here was her ability to ground in realism yet another character who is, in her way, supernatural. Her Crawford is the grandest of grandes dames, a movie star, and yet very human indeed.

What seemed clear as I read Shaun’s book was that Crawford realized too late that she was in over her head. Yes, she tried to assert herself over Davis — particularly during the lead-up to the 1963 Oscars — but she was no match for Davis. By then, it was too late to repair the damage Crawford had done, and her own later career represented a truly pathetic decline, making only a few terrible movies while descending into alcoholism, illness, and solitude. Listening to her audiobook, My Way of Life (which can be heard on YouTube), she blithely describes days spent reading scripts and fielding movie offers — when we know she was putting on a brave face.


She had just made her final feature film, TROG, which really is as bad as everyone says it is. Bette Davis may have become her own caricature, her mannerisms overwhelming her later performances. Joan Crawford never really got the chance to do that — Faye Dunaway did it for her, after Joan died.*

Some lucky ones among you may never have felt inadequate, may never have seen your inadequacies confirmed and shoved in your faces. I envy you. Joan Crawford — who spent so much of her life battling her inadequacies and the insecurities they generated — would envy you, too.


*NOTE: The great Joan Crawford caricaturist is of course Carol Burnett, whose loving spoofs amused Joan herself. “You put more production into that sketch than Jack Warner put into our entire picture,” Joan told Carol after seeing “Mildred Fierce.”

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