Film History / Film Theory / Gender Studies / Uncategorized

The Crawford Myth: Notes on Joan Crawford Part One

Joan Crawford is by all accounts, an American Ghost. As the years pass, Her androgyny glares demonically from those Vulcan eyebrows, pale face and quarter back shoulder pads, giving her the look of a monstrous phantom, that we are assured, was considered beautiful a century ago. But she is not a creature of looks alone. No, she is a person, or as we should call her, a creation with a long and ever changing story that does not necessarily give her beauty, but power. But these are accolades that resemble a romance by Paglia, no matter what intellectuals praise her endlessly, it is undeniable that the Crawford so meticulously invented by the American public, has negatively redefined her, changed her narrative, becoming frightened by her, a Frankenstein story and we are, unwillingly, her doctor.

Once Joan’s adopted Daughter, Christina Crawford penned the game-changing memoir Mommie Dearest in 1978 and the 1980 cult classic film of the same name appear in the public eye, Crawford changed from the Comeback Queen to the Queen of Mean. But keep in mind; this transformation is not one of failure. While one would be quick to assume Christina wrote Mommie Dearest as revenge in hopes of forever tarnishing Joan’s reputation, the opposite is the case. Poor dim-witted Tina, no stake hammered through Crawford’s coffin or crucifix over that powdered neck could destroy Joan, not really. Joan knew this as her dutiful little nurse prayed by her death bed, Joan’s last hiss proclaiming ‘Don’t you DARE pray for me!’

 Mommie Dearest, wire hangers, the sacrifice of Faye Dunaway’s career, are really even more offerings to the mighty altar that is Joan. One must remember Joan’s insistence to change, her utter refusal to leave the main stage of American film and culture, reinventing herself into each era. If anything, ‘Dearest’ was the only next possible move, considering Joan’s last years were spent floundering in horror movies such as Strait Jacket (1964), going unnoticed but paid for, by horny teenagers too busy making out at the drive in to notice. Mommie Dearest, her final role, though played by Christina’s memory and Faye Dunaway, is her masterpiece, her black magnum opus. Here, she truly survives. No viewer can escape the magnitude and allure of her persona, though channeled by others. The very name, ‘Joan Crawford’ becomes tattooed to the brain in crimson ink, leaving you curious to her past and the vast career she left behind. Even more curious, is the truth that unravels about her relationship to the very book that changed her image. While the story goes that Christina wrote her book under Joan’s nose as secret arsenal, waiting until  ‘she was not only really dead, but really most sincerely dead.’ Celebrity biographer, Charlotte Chandler, who wrote Not The Girl Next Door about her, remembers differently in a 2009 interview for ABC News, speaking of her friendship with Joan in her dying days.

‘John (Joan’s Assistant) was saying to her, ‘You know the book is coming…. she did feel it was going to be a negative book.’ further adding, ‘John Springer, who knew people involved…knew it was not going to be a nice book.’ Here is a fascinating parable to the psychology of the Crawford Myth. Here, we have a woman who is hounded constantly by the press, detractors, snide critics all her career, but thrives from the attention it gives her. She even confides to a friend in her later years who asks her about the negative press, ‘But darling, what if they didn’t talk about me at all?’

Crawford’s fear is not like others, that her reputation will be tarnished in her death, which those who remember will not remember fondly. No, it is the fear that she will be forgotten forever, left to rot in those studio vaults on flammable celluloid, her dutiful fans dying with only memories, flickering on midnight television for all eternity. It was the fear that permeated her entire existence, giving her the arsenal she needed to work, no matter how dismal the work became. At the bottom of Crawford is a powerful myth, The Crawford Myth. Here is the composite of a woman who will do anything to find fame and fortune, but thrive until the end. She transforms from stark poverty to fame and fortune. To call her a rags to riches Cinderella story is too easy, the Cinderella myth implies docile patience and quiet martyrdom. The Crawford Myth is Cinderella channeled through a hard, American reality. To find fame and fortune in a capitalist society, great and powerful evil is inevitable, acts of cruelty the norm. The only way The Crawford Myth, an utterly American myth, can truly end is in superficiality, darkness, and agony.

But time has passed and the stories have changed, the icons lack a transcendence that was once what made them darlings of the media. Lady Gaga is a girl from a rich New York family, sequestered to a life of private high school and modest little music internships (as her critics such as Paglia are all too quick to point out.) Katy Perry is the niece of a famous film director (Frank Perry of Mommie Dearest fame no less.) Many, if not more and more of the worlds most famous movie stars descend from long established Hollywood dynasties and well off families.

The myth from tough obscurity to fame and fortune has survived only partially, as a half thought, bastard plot device in too many reality TV shows such as The Voice or America’s Got Talent. Sure, impoverished African American teens or unlikely haggard cat ladies can sing pop arias, wowing the judges to promised paths of glory, but where it leads has proved ambiguous and dismal.  Fitzgerald becomes correct for the first time in many decades when he writes ‘There is no second act in American life.’ Our attention spans of the 21st century do not require them.

Where and how has the Crawford myth changed?

The expectations of so many millennials could be a potential finger on the pulse. In a culture, a media that assures us through childhood that every child is special, that people are filled with an inherent talent that will set them above the rest, while one is bound for failure, the myth of perseverance becomes lost. Harry Potter, Anakin Skywalker, Fantasia, Kelly Preston, the X Men Franchise assure all that they are the inner sparks to lead the world, that fame and fortune are only a clearly paved way if they only look hard enough. These new myths leave no room for perseverance. Joan Crawford and the characters she portrayed are successful because they were told they are NOT special. Neither was Madonna, Ava Gardner, Jayne Mansfield or Gypsy Rose Lee. Even characters of fiction, Becky Sharp and Neely O’Hara thrive and survive off the assurance that they are trash and that their climbs to success, wealth and fame are futile. What makes them powerful is their ability to prove wrong. How can a generation, fed from dreams of secret entitlements and presumed prodigal abilities, begin to survive the realistic assertions from society that they are indeed, not special, not individual or dare we say it, talented? In the spectrum of the Crawford Myth, to be talented is not enough, but to be talented is to certainly be an outcast. The outside world and its expectations will always predate your own will and actions, but you always know you will never be apart of it again.

The poverty of which Joan Crawford came from is hard to give a frame of reference without a concept of capitalist America’s social hierarchy. In the time  looming toward the First World War, The Progressive Era struggled to right the seemingly endless wrongs of American Society, the division of Higher and Lower Classes unbearably wide. Born Lucille Le Sueur in San Antonio, Texas, her childhood was a common one. Joan’s, like many children’s, was spent in successive rows of hash houses, tenements, town after town filled with malnourishment, poverty and grueling work. Not Joan Crawford, but gangly little Lucille Le Sueur was one of so many children that remain the ghosts of Americas constant poverty, lingering in grainy photographs, lost to census accounts, death and disease like her sister before her. Joan was by all means, pure trash, trash no other decent child was allowed to be around, as she was ‘not suitable and her mother was fast’ a childhood acquaintance informed Gore Vidal so many years later. But Joan always knew she was different, that somehow she would manage to escape that cycle of childhood hell, even if it killed her.

Crawford seals herself as myth because she herself becomes a walking breathing work of American folklore. Like a folk hero, she is an invented woman in every sense of the word. What makes her such an especially audacious character is her ever-present reality in even the most glamorous of narratives; even by the time she signs a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1924.

Less than sixteen years before, Hollywood, California, was but a lush strip of land so small its water supply had to be consolidated with Los Angeles. Briefly the utopian dream of a religious zealot, then the acquisition of a savvy real estate developer by the turn of the century, there was no turning back once the film companies moved in, the giants being born in successive multitude. The dreams of immigrant tycoons, boys with cameras becoming mighty artists, but most endearing to the American public, reared only on fairy tales, was that any young girl from Anywhere, U.S.A could make her wildest dreams come true. Crawford describes it best in Roy Newquist’s irreplaceable book Conversations with Joan Crawford: ‘They were willing to do damned near anything to “make it” in Hollywood not to go back to St. Paul, Minnesota, to spend the rest of their lives up to the ass in kids and snow. God only knows how many times the casting couch was used…. how many tears were shed…when that didn’t turn into anything.’

Yet the reality is that those many girls were lucky enough to get to as far as a casting couch in the first place. Who could account for so many young ladies running from the mid-west with look-a-like contest clippings and boxes of cheap make-up? What becomes of them when the dreams of California sun and air turned to smog? How many young ladies never came back, never to be heard from again? The land of Hollywood is built on the dirt of orange groves, gin, blood and failure. Joan is one of so many; a girl not born with innate talents, a spark of magic individuality, but a girl plucked from the crowd who knows well, and damn well, that she is just lucky. That it could all vanish before her eyes in a matter of seconds.

A tough show girl with a slew of illegal abortions and big thighs, a knack for whiskey and winning Charleston contests by the 1920’s, Crawford is by all means one of the many unlikely who make their way to stardom in Hollywood. But her story is rare in that like, folklore itself, she is invented by the people, for the people. She becomes the product of a string of publicity contests to give miss Lucille LaSueur a movie star name (the legend states either the head of the publicity department or MGM head Louis B. Mayer) claimed it sounded too much like ‘sewer’ eventually coming up with Crawford, which to her, sounded like ‘crawfish.’

The studios guess, they prod and experiment with what will endear Joan to her crowds, for they have created her after all. At first she is a hot little jazz baby, dazzling a party with a Charleston dancing ‘like a wrestler’ as Louise Brooks would later quip in 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters. She is a hit, Fitzgerald, sequestered to a failing screenwriting career would later claim her as the greatest example of the flapper in film. But she is one of many, and Clara Bow currently has the flapper copyrighted in hits such as  The Plastic Age (1925) and It (1927). And like bubonic plague the talkies come, that Grim Reaper known as the microphone cuts the throats of so many gods and goddesses. Somehow, Crawford and her lush American accent are gleefully spared. And here, the public truly and utterly embraces her. In 1931, the tale begins with Possessed, when she shouts to Clark Gable bejeweled and in her latest finery, ‘Common! That’s what I am, common! And I like it!’ The audiences cheer, they congratulate themselves as though they had invented her story themselves, not knowing there are those paid to do the task. They watch her, and they know she is one of them, strong and resilient, the little shop-girl who makes good. She could be any one of them, and as we watch her, we know she will never forget.

Copyright Thomas Lampion 2012

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