March 23, 1905– Lucille Fay LeSueur:
“I love playing bitches. There’s a lot of bitch in every woman… a lot in every man.”
Well, she has never been more on my mind, as I have been absorbed in Ryan Murphy’s fresh, funny, fiercely feminist FX series Feud: Bette And Joan, where she is played to perfection by a fearless Jessica Lange, opposite Susan Sarandon who was born to play Bette Davis. Lange:
“When she was Joan Crawford, she was Joan Crawford and that was a creation. But, I think, as time went by, what became more and more evident was that she was always Lucille LeSueur.”
Lange also has stated that she thinks that there was a sadness in Crawford that came from being underappreciated as an actor, so she tried to add that nuance to her depiction:
“She was a great beauty, but she really worked hard. I don’t know anybody that worked harder than Joan Crawford. To be Joan Crawford and to sustain this career and to create this kind of iconic mythology? There’s a lot to admire about her, especially when you think about what she had to overcome, where she came from.”
To gay men of a certain age, she is an important Gay Icon, very possibly the most important. Most of the young gays of my acquaintance have no idea who she is. This leaves me feeling as if my date on my “Best If Used By” sticker is due.
Crawford had caustic relationships with her own children, film studio executives, and fellow actors, earning a reputation as a tough-skinned bitch who valued her career above everything else. She was a relentless self-promoter. She was dubbed box-office poison just as quickly as she was “Queen Of The Movies”.
Crawford was known for playing the determined working-girls in most of her films, playing women who had a rough start in life, but eventually found love, respect, and success. Her image was inspirational to women film-goers, and Crawford became one of the highest paid and most popular movie stars of the Golden Era Of Hollywood. By her own admission, Crawford loved playing the role of bitch on film.
I have always appreciated her considerable talents and the glamour she brought to films like Grand Hotel (1931), Mildred Pierce (1945), and The Women (1939). I also have snickered at the camp value of her over-the-top acting in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962), Johnny Guitar (1954), and Straight-Jacket (1964). I have marveled at the sheer queerness of Female On The Beach (1955), Queen Bee (1955), and Autumn Leaves (1957).
But, I came to appreciate Crawford as a complex, cryptic, contradictory product of a certain era and her own rough circumstances and difficult life. Just as she devoted herself to her fans, she doubtlessly inspired the downtrodden movie-goers to want more out of life and to go out and get it. She relied on men as her own doorway into a man’s world. Crawford was required to suffer for her ambition but she was also living in an age when she was actually allowed, even expected to carry and dominate a film. She was up to the task.
Crawford was a convincing creative force; an underdog who embraced good taste, glamour, and fantasy. She defied the class consciousness of the studio system that tried to marginalize and deprive her. She always held her head high. In her films, as in her life, she demanded to be counted as a woman and as an outsider. Her struggle was the same struggle of all marginalized human beings, but it was especially resonant to gay people of a certain age. She was ridiculed for her excesses, but her emotion was raw and real and she smartly underplayed it just slightly. Beneath her toughness lived a frightened woman.
Gay men recognized this and embraced her vulnerability. Beneath her flamboyance was reticence. Her promiscuity mirrored the perceived idea of gay male sexuality. We older gay guys can appreciate why Crawford would hide her insecurities and grim past behind a facade of Hollywood perfection. We loved it that she did it all for her fans. She always showed that she was grateful to those fans. One of her directors and lovers, Vincent Sherman, said her personal life was terrible and that it would take hours to bring her down from performing crying scenes.
As a bad girl myself, I appreciate that her bad behavior seemed to stem from her fears, although, just like me, she was known as a consummate professional on the set.
Crawford was on a lifelong search for love and acceptance. She certainly had affairs with other women. She married five times, including to actors Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Franchot Tone, and Phillip Terry, but never seemed to have found that true love.
Growing up in San Antonio, by the time Crawford was 14 years old, she had been raped by her stepfather and endured taunts for having entertained the boys on the high school football team. A few years later, she launched her film career via the “casting couch” at MGM. She even quipped: “It sure beat the cold, hard floor”.
Crawford’s acting career spanned more than five decades and 80 films, all while enjoying an unabashed busy sex life. Glenn Ford, John Wayne, Yul Brenner, Jeff Chandler, Dana Andrews, Kirk Douglas and even 17 year old Jackie Cooper shared her bed. Her female conquests included Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe, and pioneering female director Dorothy Arzer.
It seems that the longtime, very real feud depicted in Murphy’s television series between Davis and Crawford was the result of declaration of unrequited love rebuffed by Davis.
Crawford had a thing for bisexual men, including three of her five husbands. She even tried to seduce Rock Hudson, sneaking into a shower with him and saying: “Close your eyes and pretend I’m Clark Gable.”
Gable was probably the closest Crawford had to a great love. Gable, like Crawford, before hitting it big was known to flirt with guys and was willing to do whatever it took to make some money. Their passionate affair lasted on-and-off for 28 years despite the fact that she later claimed that Gable was “a closet bisexual with halitosis”.
Supposedly MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer had to pay-off blackmailers to hide Crawford’s appearance in stag films and an arrest for prostitution from her first days in Hollywood. A Show Biz insider once told me that he knew that Crawford made her lovers get on their knees and beg for sex.
She remains a forthright, fierce Feminist Icon, a fabulous Gay Icon, and yet Crawford is still remains very human. She was a Diva, but she never forgot her fans. Crawford could play heartache and hope on screen, the same complex contradictions she had to play in her own life. The flawed person beneath her stunning glamour should continue to resonate to gay people, even the baby gays.
In 1971, I remember reading her book, My Way Of Life. I sat on my blanket at the beach, ready to devour Joan Crawford’s racy tell-all bio, instead I got Crawford’s meticulous advice on grooming, wardrobe, exercise, house cleaning, and food storage. Her advice came in handy through the years.
“I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”