Crawford was an American actress - an old school ‘movie star’ from Classic Hollywood Cinema. While some of
you may have seen her movies, her character is also currently on our screens every
Sunday night played by Jessica Lange in FX anthology TV series Feud.
Joan Crawford between takes on Torch Song (1953)
Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1904 (although her birth
year is disputed) in San Antonio, Texas. Rather than Lucille, she much
preferred being called ‘Billie,’ and dreamt of becoming a dancer. She lived
with her mother and stepfather, who was a minor impresario and ran the Ramsey
Opera House; but at 12, she went to St. Agnes Academy as a working student,
where she spent more time actually working (cooking and cleaning) than
studying, and briefly attended college afterwards.
started as a stage dancer and singer in the choruses of travelling revues, and
she was soon discovered and offered a contract by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in
1925. She was credited as Lucille LeSueur in her early movies, but her name sounded
too much like ‘sewer’ according to the MGM publicist. She was first supposed to
change her name to ‘Joan Arden,’ (and we’ll pass on the connotations of gender
crossing that come with that Shakespearian name ‘Arden’, and the reference to ‘Joan’
of Arc) but as it was already taken, she became Joan Crawford.
Joan Crawford, still from Today We Live (1933)
at the MGM rivalled that of MGM actresses Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, and
she made a smooth transition from silent movies to talkies – which was not
always the case for other actors. She often played the young, hard-working
woman who found love and success at the end of the movie, which was quite
popular with Depression-era audiences and especially women.
having a contract with studios also meant having an obligation to be in movies,
the quality of their script notwithstanding. Furthermore, her popularity
declined in the late 1930s. So, like many other actors of her time, she was
dubbed ‘Box Office Poison’ in 1938, a label designating actresses whose talent
was indisputable, but whose high salaries didn’t reflect their ticket sales.
Trailer of Mildred Pierce (1945)
the ending of her contract with the MGM, she signed with the Warner Brothers in
1943, and managed an Oscar-winning comeback with Mildred Pierce in 1945, which
revived her career for several years, and gave her a second Academy Award
nomination in 1952 for Sudden Fear.
But then again, passed 40, she had to struggle with ageism in Hollywood, as
roles became scarce for women her age. Garbo had left the industry, Shearer as
well… She starred alongside Bette Davis in horror movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? which garnered publicity mostly
for the rivalry between the two actresses, though their performances were
outstanding and earned Davis her tenth (and final) Oscar nomination. She
retired from the screen in 1970, and from the public scene in 1974.
Joan Crawford and Bette Davis discussing their script on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) From Bettmann/Getty Images.
Crawford’s private life is often depicted as chaotic. She was married four
times, first with actor and screenwriter Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1929-1933), then
with actor and director Franchot Tone (1935-1939), with actor Philipp Terry
(1942-1946), and finally with Pepsi-Cola CEO Alfred Steele (1955-1959). She
adopted her daughter Christina as a single mother in 1940, then her son
Christopher while married to Philip Terry. After the death of her last husband,
she adopted identical twins Cathy and Cynthia in 1947.
disowned her two eldest child, and Christina wrote an infamous book entitled Mommy Dearest one year after Crawford’s
death, in which she depicted a mother more worried about her career than her
children, obsessed with her look, who was often drunk, and physically and
psychologically abusive. It was denounced by many of some of Crawford’s
friends, co-workers, as well as her two youngest daughters and ex-husband, but
confirmed by others. The book became a bestseller, and made into a movie with
Faye Dunaway in the leading role.
Joan Crawford with her four adopted children, Christina, Christopher, and the twins, Cathy and Cynthia, in the early 50s. From Underwood & Underwood/Corbis.
she was famous for her numerous husbands and love affairs with men, she was
allegedly also attracted to women. But it was kept secret – as always, what was
publicised was what the public was willing to hear, and what would profit their
contractors: love affairs with men, and feuds with fellow actresses. For
example MGM paid $100000 in 1935 to prevent the release of a pornographic
lesbian movie Crawford had appeared in at the age of 19 – but on the contrary,
they fuelled the rumours of a feud with fellow actress Bette Davis on the
filming of What Ever Happened to Baby
Jane? (see the documentary or the FX series’ first season to know more about it!)
women having affairs with other women? Mum’s the word of course where the studios are concerned. This is why
there are far less clues about Crawford’s romances with women – but still, here
is what we know:
Garbo and Crawford met as co-stars for the filming of Grand Hotel(in which they didn’t have scenes together), Garbo famously
took Crawford’s face in her hands and said, “What a pity; our first picture
together and we don’t work with each other. I’m sorry. You have a marvellous
face.” Crawford later commented that, “if there was ever a time in my life when
I might have been a lesbian, that was it.”
Director Dorothy Arzner and Joan Crawford during the filming of The Bride Wore Red (1937). The filming drawing to an end, there were tensions between the two women who apparently only communicated through messages. There are only rumours about their romance, but Crawford said, reflecting on her film directors, that she liked to think that they had all fallen in love with her - and that she knew it had been the case with Arzner.
But then she also got on well with one of the first women directors in Hollywood, Dorothy Arzner, and according to the latter’s biographer, their relation went beyond mere
friendship. She was also rumoured to have had liaisons with actresses Martha
Raye, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, and Alice Delamar. But mind you, nothing
can be really confirmed.
So, cheers to this great woman and legendary actress who managed to have a long career in movies while surviving Hollywood sexism and ageism - on screen and behind the scenes - and, had a place amid the secretive - though not so secret now - Hollywood Sewing Circle!
Women in Suits Appreciation Post (Black & White) ↳Cate Blanchett “It’s hard to describe my own style. I think it’s probably quite eclectic. Even in high school, I wore men’s suits. I was always in men’s jackets, men’s pants, which I’d get my mother to adjust.
Ultimately, it’s about great tailoring, but I love the mix of masculine and feminine, playing with traditional men’s silhouettes.”
August 14, 1966 – Halle Berry gave an emotional acceptance speech after becoming the first African American actress to win the Oscar for Best Actress, 2002, for her performance in Monster’s Ball. She thanked Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Jada Pinkett Smithand a slew of other black actresses. The Oscar winner said the award was “for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”