Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Few Thoughts on Miss Joan Crawford, Actress

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Robert Aldrich’s 1956 melodrama, “Autumn Leaves.”
by Denis Ferrara

“JUST the idea of your ‘help’ sickens me ... Will you shut up? ... Yes, you’d like me to commit him, so that he can never remind either one of you of your horrible guilt; how you and you committed the ugliest of all possible sins.  Even when he doesn’t know what he’s doing he’s a better man than you. He’s decent and proud.  Can you say the same for yourselves — where’s your decency, in what garbage can, Mr. Hanson?  And where’s yours, you tramp?  You, his loving, dotng fraud of a father, and you, you slut.  You’re both so consumed with evil — your filthy souls are too evil for hell itself!!”

That’s Joan Crawford passing righteously furious condemnation on Lorne Greene and Vera Miles in Robert Aldrich’s 1956 melodrama, “Autumn Leaves.”
The Museum of the Moving Image screened this film on May 6th, and I’d meant to alert those interested beforehand, but the moment — and the clipping from The New Yorker — escaped me. 

Richard Brody had written an excellent laudatory capsule review and I’d even hoped to see it again myself on the big screen. 

I’d discovered “Autumn Leaves” as a kid on TV, and was mesmerized by the power and physical strangeness of the middle-aged Crawford.
The above-quoted confrontation scene was thrilling, and years later, when I attended a revival of the film, the entire audience erupted into appreciative applause when Crawford got through with Greene and Miss Miles. This was years before a certain book about Joan’s parenting came out.  So the audience was applauding the artist, not the camp icon.

I was pleased by Brody’s review because it not only focused on Crawford the actress, but recognized that the movie, for all its molten lava emoting, was a rather daring thing for its time.  Crawford stars as a lonely spinster typist (really!) drawn into an affair with a considerably younger man (Clift Robertson) He turns out to be emotionally wrecked, pathetic, dangerous and abusive.  I’ll tell no more of the plot — I really suggest you seek it out.
ALTHOUGH Crawford’s “Autumn Leaves” role is sympathetic, she was at this point working with an unsympathetic — if oddly stirring — physiognomy. Blessed with enormous eyes and a striking bone structure, the girlish flesh of her youth had vanished. The startling face that had begun to show itself in the mid 1940’s was now in full slightly androgynous flower, accented by a cropped hairstyle, wildly assertive eyebrows and a mouth painted wider and fuller than the natural modest rosebud of her girlhood. 
Her body, always fit, was now taut and wiry; she loved showing it off, too.  In her films she increasing played women who were sexually adventurous (“Female on the Beach”), sexually voracious (“Queen Bee”) sexually calculating (“Harriet Craig”) or a blazing combination of all that (“Torch Song.”) And even as she browbeat her men, pulled guns out of mink coats, walked grandly into the ocean or went mad, she stayed in touch with the working class heroines of her earliest hits, tough girls who battled their way out of poverty one man at a time. Now she was a woman, harder, more disillusioned with life, men and the strictures of propriety (“Mildred Pierce,” “Possessed” “Flamingo Road,” “This Woman is Dangerous,” “The Dammed Don’t Cry,” “Johnny Guitar.”) 
Sexually adventurous in “Female on the Beach."
Sexually voracious in “Queen Bee."
Sexually calculating in “Harriet Craig."
Sexually adventurous, sexually voracious, and sexually calculating in “Torch Song.”
Yet the tougher her characters became, the more lacquered and fierce, Crawford still held onto the moist-eyed masochistic vulnerability that had won her legions of fans in the 1930’s, finally transitioning out of those “shop girl” as the manipulative Crystal Allen in 1939’s “The Women.”  
For every vicious tirade and bitter observation of 1950’s Crawford, she could revert instantly to torrents of regret or even panic (“Sudden Fear.”)  This hot and cold run of emotions — along with the dominatrix aspects of her on screen sexuality — placed her in a unique and curious (to critics of the time) position.  Long before Joan Collins and “Dynasty” made it “ok” for women of a certain age to be really sexy, Joan Crawford had paved the way, on the big screen. (That both Joans sometimes looked as if they also worked the occasional drag pageant, well — they were prescient in transgender fluidity?  I’ll go with that.)
One could make a case that Barbara Stanwyck followed a similar Crawford path — trim, tiny, rather butch, a perversely sexy challenge and an equal to her men.  But Stanwyck did not possess Crawford’s startling features, was less vain and a more versatile actress — certainly in her youth. Stanwyck was also an accomplished comedienne, when given the opportunity. (Crawford’s efforts to be lighthearted were, well — effortful.)  And Stanwyck was an independent star who never contracted for any length of time to a major studio.  Despite Stanwyck’s great talent, prodigious energy and professionalism, she was always on a lower burn in terms of popularity; she resisted the stellar trappings, publicity and fawning so dear to Crawford, “educated at MGM,” as she herself proudly admitted. (Stanwyck was worshipped by her directors and co-stars. Crawford was ... admired.)
Whether she knew it or not — and likely not — Crawford was presenting an entirely new and unsettling aspect of womanhood to her audiences — frankly sexual, frankly interested, bracingly matter-of-fact (As she declares to her startled lover in “The Damned Don’t Cry” — “Self respect is something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else!”)
Given the confines of her era, most of Crawford’s latter-day women ended up traditionally happy, forgiven, or dead.  But she always put up a hell of a fight before the end credits rolled.  (Although she was a total victim in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Crawford would revive aspects of her voracious 1950’s woman in lesser properties such as “Berserk,” “Straight-Jacket” “The Caretakers” and “I Saw What You Did” in which she wears a necklace dug up from an Aztec tomb.)
I think of her often now, in these days of super-heroines and villains — Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Storm, Mystique, Lady Deathstrike, Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde.  Crawford’s ladies were openly neurotic, bitter, powerful, weak, a mistress and a slave to sex. She was all things to some men, and many things to many women. I can see her now in tights, a cape, and the power to castrate those males who displease her. 

Of course she’d have a reversal on that power.  Because Joan, the real woman (as much as that woman existed!), and the image onscreen, liked sex.  She just liked to be in charge of it. 
Contact Denis here.