Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ode to Joan Crawford

As some of you know, I'm writing a play about Joan Crawford, not particularly to dislodge all of the 'wire hangers' rumors or discredit her daughter Christina's novel 'Mommie Dearest' which for all of it's sincerity was highly and almost comically sensationalized. 
I want (for some reason) to help people know and appreciate Crawford for who she was, and that was the 'ultimate movie star'. I'm sure that when the term was being coined, she was whom they thought of first. Not only was she a consummate professional studying constantly, taking allocation lessons, losing and gaining weight for roles before it was a thing, and even know which eye to cry out of when she needed to for a scene, but as an iconic figure head of old Hollywood, she's one of the most recognizable. She only won one Oscar, but had always stuck to her guns. She played the game until she could play it by her own rules and that's what makes her unique. 
Joan Crawford the flapper under contract at MGM
Aside from the alcoholism, obsessive behavior, abusiveness, chronic infidelities and other personal bullshit, Joan was a true professional, and completely focused, which is exactly how she became what she became. All that other stuff lead to her eventual downfall, but if anyone had a good run and fought the good fight it was her. 
Although she was married four times, she said that the love of her life was ultimately someone she never exchanged vows with; the very Catholic-bound to his marriage Clark Gable. They were too much alike, both from poor obscure families who came to Hollywood when no one would take them seriously and people had to fish their headshots out of the extras pile. They never gave up and before they knew it they were Hollywood gods, having quickies in dressing rooms between takes. They did 5 films together, but the relationship unfortunately dissolved. Gable's wife wouldn't give him a divorce and Joan was too obsessed with herself to care. 
Joan and Gable always had great chemistry on film. Wasn't hard when the two were in love behind the cameras as well.
Here's another thing you might not have known, Joan was bisexual. One of her most famous conquests was Marilyn Monroe, 22 years her junior, whom she incessantly hit on usually in a drunken stupor when Marilyn would spend the night at her Brentwood mansion, and for some reason Marilyn eventually decided to reject her advances, perhaps because she was not her type, or perhaps because Joan was kind of scary at that point, who knows. Anyway, can you only imagine how hot that would be? 
I love Joan because she adapted to every single thing asked of her. She started in Hollywood as a contracted dancer, not an actress, and appeared as a chorus extra in mid-level films where she was nearly unrecognizable. But with limitless drive and determination she learned everything about the business and made friends with the right people until she was number one on her studio boss' L.B. Mayer's list for his next projects. By the time she had achieved that, she had come into what people like to refer to as her 'face' that very recognizable look of the giant eyes, exaggerated eye-brows, and those crazy lips which Max Factor invented calling it 'the smear'. By the time she was declared box-office poison from playing too many shop girls who make good but still manage to wear designer gowns, she decided to keep fighting and told her boss L.B. 'no more goddamn shopgirls'. After that they fought over parts and she was one of the first to move out of her studio and fly solo. Back then, a hugely risky move, but it payed off because rival to MGM (where she got her start), Warner Bros. was inclined to hire her for a little project sitting on the shelf for two years called Mildred Pierce (1945) which one her her first and only Academy Award. 
Joan Crawford still gorgeous in her 40's in Mildred Pierce (1945)
At that point, she was close to mid-40's herself, a battle year for any actress, but she decided to reinvent herself again; had her teeth recapped, cut her hair short, and wore mannish clothing, making herself into some kind of warrior identity which worked perfectly for Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954).
Basically after that, it was a slow decline, but the legacy was cemented. That is of course until her adopted daughter Christina wrote a scathing tell-all called 'Mommie Dearest' and tarnished Joan's reputation forever. No one would give you an argument if you said that Joan was not mother of the year, but the book is not exactly fully accurate. Books need to make money too, and I'm not saying I'm agreeing with it one way or the other. As Joan historian William Schoell said 'it's a great tragedy that when people hear the name Joan Crawford the first thing they think is 'no more wire hangers', because there is another Joan Crawford that people should remember.' Which is just exactly what I'm trying to do. Wish me luck!

Here are some clips. 

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