Joan Crawford (1905-1977) 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).
Yet, 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.
Happy Birthday, Lucille!