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!
I don’t know if you got my letter. I don’t know if your cheeks got redder. I don’t know if you feel better, but I know that I’m alright. I don’t know if your friends are there. I don’t know if they’d even care. I don’t know if you feel it in the air, but I know that I’m alright. I could be strong for you. I could be wrong for you. I could be anything you’d like. I’m not fine, but I’m alright. I don’t know if you’re crying still. I don’t know if you’ve had your fill. I don’t know yet, but I will, and I know that I’m alright.
The frontman of Years & Years is getting involved with Torch Songs, a
new campaign focused on music as a therapy for depression - something he
himself has suffered with
To coincide with International Men’s Day earlier this month, UK
charity CALM launched Torch Songs, a campaign celebrating the healing
power of music. Championed by BBC Radio 1’s Huw Stephens, the concept is
simple: bands including The Vaccines and Blaenavon have been asked to
cover their own Torch Song, the track that helps lift them out of dark
places. Also getting involved is Years & Years frontman Olly
Alexander, who’s recorded his version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides
Since the pop trio hit superstardom with last year’s Communion
album, Alexander has become one of music’s leading voices when
addressing mental health issues. The 26-year-old has been forthcoming
about his past, where he was bullied at school, and how things need to
change in reducing a stigma around the subject. As well as being clear
about his own struggles, he never hesitates in pointing out what still
needs to be done, whether through government action or simply allowing
everyone to be more open about their issues.
Torch Songs specifically centres around male mental health,
addressing how men can often find it hard to speak up, allowing problems
to fester. “It’s so important”, agrees Alexander. “The biggest killer
of men under 45 in the UK is suicide. That’s a mindblowing statistic.
And I just don’t know if people are aware of that. It needs to be
addressed. It’s difficult to talk about these things, it really is. But
verbalising things is part of the process of tackling something. I would
encourage people to talk”.
Within Years & Years, Alexander and his bandmates (Emre Turkmen
and Mikey Goldsworthy) used to find it hard to be open about mental
health issues. “We really try. We haven’t always been good at sharing
our feelings”, he admits. “We’re human beings and it’s not always easy.
But we do try and make it a priority. Because it’s easy to forget about
and not confront these things and let the issues fester. It can become
much worse. We have sit down chats where we talk about how we’re
feeling, and you always feel better afterwards”.
Despite CALM’s latest initiative - focusing on a certain song’s
therapeutic power - Alexander is keen to stress that music shouldn’t be
addressed as the only form of therapy. “It can be a helpful turn of
phrase to describe music as therapeutic, and in many ways it is. But the
issues surrounding mental health are so important, and the best thing
to do is to seek help and care from healthcare professionals”, he
states. At 19, he was given cognitive behavioural therapy to help deal
with anxiety, and he’s been taking medication for depression since he
was a teenager. “We shouldn’t ignore that it’s a real issue that people
need real help and support from. Go down the professional route first,
whatever that is - NHS, GP referral”.
For his own Torch Song, Alexander chose Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides
Now’ because it was the first song he learnt on piano, aged 13. “I was
in America when we were approached”, he remembers. “There was only a few
songs I could turn to without having to learn to play something from
scratch. I love that song. I’m a huge Joni Mitchell fan. It was an
him, the track’s closing lyric (‘I really don’t know life at all’) is a
comfort, a realisation that barely anyone has the world sussed out.
“When you hear a lyric that you identity with, it can verbalise
something you wouldn’t have been able to verbalise yourself. That’s the
magic of her songs”, he says. “When I was younger, my idols were Joni
Mitchell and Jeff Buckley. Their voices really informed so much of my
internal world. They were these beacons of hope to me because they were
artists using their experienced and the pained they’d felt, turning it
Alexander says he’s “happy” to see a wider, more far-reaching
conversation about mental health happening today. But he says we’re
witnessing a “continual process of breaking down stigmas”, and he notes
the stark contrast between greater dialogue and a decrease in financial
support. “There’s so much funding that’s been cut for organisations,
charities and support groups working in the mental health sector. That
needs to stop”.
The sun was coming up, and our friend was sound asleep But we saw through the window that the water ran so deep That you couldn’t make out the ocean floor Then I saw you in the light I couldn’t take it any more
Give me your hand Give me everything you’ve got And the light from window will fall on us burning hot Just like a torch
The air was humid; I will not forget When we stepped outside, I hear your footsteps Now in my mind, it’s a soft sound Almost imperceptible against the giving ground
Let me kiss your eyelids with my lips Let me feel the heat coming off your fingertips Just like a torch