Friday, October 1, 2010

Joan Crawford; Camp, Androgyny, and Teeth.

Nicholas Ray should be noted for being just as iconic of old hollywood as Cecil B. Demille, Billy Wilder, and King Vidor. He was in my opinion, the most significant in his bridging of genres as well as cinematic bylines of production. One such film that I believe is the best example of Ray's uncanny disdain and disregard and simultaneous satirization of the material is in the Western "Johnny Guitar" (1954), starring Sterling Hayden, Joan Crawford, and Mercedes McCambridge.
Crawford, at 49 was cast as the protagonist Vienna, a hardened, mannish, volatile sort of woman with too much common sense, and contempt for those without it.
Since she did take a long break after her 'come back' with Warner Bros in "Mildred Pierce" in 1945 (for which she won an Oscar), there were certain changes not only physically but mentally that could not be denied. Joan had somehow made herself into this hardened character, and thus, made herself even more camp than she already had been. It would appear that most of camp culture that takes influence from this particular era of hollywood focuses primarily on Joan Crawford as a beacon of style, rhetoric, and mode. 
One such example would be Crawford's infamous lips, which had been an inside joke in Hollywood since her Letty Lynton incarnation back in the mid 1930's. 
When we look at the 'Crawford Face', it is one that has changed the most significantly in film history. When she started out as a chorus dancer back in 1921 when she was 19, she as little more than a floosy, whom you wouldn't be able to pick out of a line up. 
In her silent film days, she acted opposite many cinema greats, and yet, she really wasn't too recognizable. 
Crawford is in the middle. 

In the 1930's Louis B. Mayer was grooming stars to fit a certain image, and what was in fashion was McDonald's type eye-brow arches, thick bright lips, and petite, boy-ish frames. Joan adapted quickly. 
The reason that she is one of the most significant gay icons is because of her many collaborations with gay men in her early years that shaped the look that later paved the way for camp culture, the most significant of which was with MGM costume designer; Adrien (no last name required). Picture a younger, more arrogant Tim Gunn. He not only designed most of her gowns in almost every film she did in the 1930's, but also designed the make-up that would later become her trademark. Before Edith Head's designs made Grace Kelly an icon of fashion, there was the marriage between Adrien and Crawford. 
Crawford in her Letty Lynton dress, designed by Adrien. One of the most significant outfits that influenced that era

As she aged, and was fired from MGM for being 'box office poison', worked for Warner Bros. for a while, and eventually became a free agent, her look became more and more severe. 
This is most evident in 'Johnny Guitar' (1954). 
She had her teeth recapped, cropped her hair very short, and started wearing pants (gasp!). It was as if she was building a 'warrior' concept. It was quite frightening. 
It was not attractive at all, but perhaps that was the purpose. Her character in the film is a woman who owns a saloon, wields a gun, and certainly takes no bullshit. 
In this film, she is the ultimate Mulvey wet dream. A woman who not just by looks, but by attitude threatens everyone else's masculinity. 
'Down here, you get whiskey and cards...up here, all you'll get is two bullets from my gun' she quips to an ornery crowd of angry men that try to invade her territory. 
In the tradition of Katherine Hepburn, Crawford strives to maintain control not just by smart dialogue, but by physical attributes. 
At this point, she is not really someone you'd want to fuck, but you definitely don't want to fuck with her. 
Nicholas Ray was an aesthetic genius. He understood iconography in ways that were instantly noticeable. He took all of the emotional strength of Crawford circa 1935 as a headstrong shopgirl, and coupled it with Crawford as Mildred Pierce, adding a masculinity, arrogance, and intimidation to the equation; all of them being characteristics that Crawford already had in spades. 
In a way, he just gave her a platform to expose all of the contradictions of gentile feminism that she possessed, but didn't articulate in her film roles. 
This ain't your mother's independent woman, and it ain't Elinor Dashwood. This is Lady Macbeth on crack. 
This is Crawford finally expressing herself without Thalberg, Mayer, or Warner breathing down her neck. 
Yes, it is a bit too obvious in the Mulveyian 'threatening woman' complex, but it is profoundly significant. Crawford's greatest antagonist is not Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), to whom she can't help but yield. It is macho, closet lesbian, androgynous (but not in a sexy way) Emma, played by Mercedes McCambridge. 
The best exchange between the two, which is also the simplest goes: 
Emma: I'm going to kill you. 
Vienna: Maybe...not if I kill you first. 
Crawford in 'Johnny Guitar' How the times had changed.

It's like John Wayne vs. James Cagney in a dick measuring contest but with chicks. 
At a time where the Western genre was in limbo between John Ford and Sergio Leone (The classic vs. the 'spaghetti western'), there was a very awkward atmosphere of unknowing and becoming. 
The John Wayne era had passed, and the genre was slowly becoming a novelty, devoid of significance. Nicholas Ray decided to transform the genre from being all about the men, to being all about the women...who acted like men. 
It is really one of those pivotal and overlooked films, which exists within that lost period in which a genre is either disappearing or transforming. And yet, it manages to be loyal to every aesthetic; theme, structure, and ideology. 
What is so unique about 'Johnny Guitar', is that it is not actually about Johnny Guitar. It's very much Vienna's movie; her needs, her plots, and her actions. I would say it is the precursor to 'Bonnie and Clyde' (1967). There are two main characters, but as is tradition since the latter, it is the woman's picture. 'Bonnie and Clyde' is a no brainer. It is of course Bonnie's film, and should be re-titled, 'Bonnie and Some Other Guy'. 
What is so significant in the casting of Joan Crawford to represent this shift in the genre's essence, is that she formats herself into the quintessential male role of the Western while maintaining her presence as a woman.  
This is why, one could say that Vienna in 'Johnny Guitar' is a huge deviant. She doesn't wash dishes, try on dresses, or comb her hair. She's an angry broad with ideas. And she'll put a bullet in your head if you dare to disagree with her. She is one to be genuinely frightened of. Usually in the Western, that was personified by a giant mass of flesh, with thick chaps, a big horse, and a ridiculous hat. 
The only thing Vienna sports is a funny looking turquoise ribbon that ties tightly around her neck. 
Before Adrien Brody lost 40 pounds for 'The Pianist' (2002), or Tom Cruise went gray in 'Collateral' (2004), our Joan was willing to take her appearance to the utmost of androgynous and displeasing extremes. 
Perhaps I'm wrong about this, and she actually thought this was a good look for her, but that's irrelevant. She embodies not so much a feminine power that threatens not only the masculinity within the film, but also the masculine sensibility of the audience, but a complete transformation of acceptable feminine culture. I think that in 'Johnny Guitar', she is both man and woman; a hybrid, unrecognizable, and completely unique. 
She managed to make the 6'3 butch Sterling Hayden look like a carnival monkey. Clad in high fastening pants, leather boots, and a tight jehovah's witness-type button up, she made everyone feel simultaneously aroused and frightened. It is a performance as well as a statement. It doesn't seem to make sense, and yet it does. 

1 comment:

Marty Robinson said...

Crawford was not "fired" from MGM ... he asked to be let out of her contract and L.B. Mayer consented. As for "box office poison", that term was used regarding Crawford and several other stars in a 1938 article in the "Independent Film Journal." You tied "box office poison" (1938) to the reason MGM "fired" her ... but that was in 1943. During that period Crawford had a box office smash with "The Women" ... so your "facts" about why she left MGM and her success between the article and her departure are a bit off.