Monday, September 28, 2009

Joan Structure

Yes, we know that Miss Joan Crawford was more of a “Movie Star” than an actress and, yes, we know that she was reputed to be a monster of a mother if you believe her adopted daughter Christina and the select people who have sided with her. Nonetheless, she is still the female star of old Hollywood who I worship the most.

There’s something about the rags to riches journey, the self-invention, the self-education and the amazing artifice that captivates me, regardless of how much or how little actual acting talent was there. (And, to me, her greatest performance – a lifelong acting feat – was managing to play “Joan Crawford” all those decades!) It’s the presence onscreen that mesmerizes and that FACE!

Joan came from a very ratty background. Her mother worked in a laundry in return for piddling wages and a small room for her and Joan (then Lucille LeSeuer) to sleep in. She hoofed her way through chorus dancing on the stage to silent movies, where she finally found her niche (though not without a ton of perseverance and determination on her part.) When a Name that Star contest resulted in “Joan Crawford” (following a previous winning name, Joan Arden, which was ultimately discarded, due to it being taken already), the actress balked, thinking it was too akin to “crawfish.” Little did she know at the time the lasting, legendary impression that the name Joan Crawford would have on the cinematic world.

As the sound era approached, Crawford went all out to make sure she had a voice that would read well and fail to give evidence of her humble background. Not only did she practice pronunciation, projection and elocution, but she also educated herself on the meaning of words, so that she would possess a wide vocabulary. This practice lent her an amazingly studied and affected speech pattern that was every bit as fascinating and, in some cases and to some people, annoying, as it was effective.

She loved to sit for still photography sessions and developed a particularly fruitful and rewarding relationship with George Hurrell. While she was certainly no slouch in person, she was also not quite the stunning goddess that he and his retouching wand created in their many shots, though there was no denying her incredible bone structure and amazing eyes. Because she was such a patient and willing subject and did possess extraordinary attributes, he experimented a great deal with her face and figure, resulting in many tremendous photos.

Joan was like the Madonna of her day, only in movies (which is a field Madonna has had only middling success in at best!) She shifted her looks and her approach in order to keep up with what was desired and required from audiences with each passing period. She went from flapper to working girl to fur-draped sufferer to self-supporting career woman to put upon victim and everything in between. Only near the end, when she clung to some garish makeup applications, which included thick, heavy eyebrows and almost scary false eyelashes with practically Sharpie marker liner, did she become rather stuck in one spot completely. Oddly enough, this is just about when I worship her the most!

Crawford was a tireless letter writer whose blue stationary was famous as she personally answered thousands of fan letters and sent ones of her own to stars she admired, especially up and coming talents that she saw on TV in her later years. It’s been said, perhaps apocryphally, perhaps not, that Joan sometimes even sent thank you cards in response to thank you cards!

Though Joan did play quite a few vulnerable characters in her long career, she was always able to put forth a very convincing tough persona on screen whether it be the gold-digging man-stealer in The Women, the obsessive housewife in Harriet Craig, the destructive control freak in Queen Bee, the concrete-hard Broadway diva in Torch Song or the fire-breathing book editor in The Best of Everything, to name only a few. These bitch goddess types are the ones that tend to attract a gay following. It certainly worked for me! Among my personal favorites are her strap ‘em down and shackle ‘em mental hospital nurse trainer in The Caretakers and her drunken, lovesick neighbor in I Saw What You Did.

One of the great sadnesses of my life is that she and Bette Davis couldn’t manage to get along long enough to complete the follow-up to their runaway hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? During the filming of Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, tensions ran so high that Crawford only worked four days before retreating to the hospital with (real or imagined, depending on who’s asked) pneumonia. Davis’s friend Olivia de Havilland filled the role and did it quite well, actually. It’s just that the JC of this period is the one I enjoy the greatest.

Perhaps because I was introduced to a lot of the great old female stars of Hollywood when they were old and had to work backwards or perhaps just because I like decaying old battle axes, I have a great fondness for films that feature actresses just beyond their prime. Maybe it could be because with age comes seasoning, experience and weariness that result in a more three-dimensional performance than those that were given in youth? Maybe I’m fascinated with the cosmetic attempts to stave off Father Time? Who knows…?

It’s also of particular interest to me that Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway are my favorite female stars of all time and not only did Dunaway play Crawford (to my mind not really all that convincingly, but that’s for another post), but Dunaway was the sole actress of her generation who Crawford felt really had what it took to make it. Ironically, it was when Dunaway played Crawford in the character-maligning Mommie Dearest, her career began heading off the tracks and really never fully rebounded. And now, just like Joan, Faye seems to have begun to cling to things that she really ought to give up such as the long, octopus-like hair and the protruding lips! Has Joan had the last word after all?


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