Whatever happened to Joan Crawford, one of the most accessible and enduring faces of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer pantheon? With the publication of Mommie Dearest, the 1978 sensational memoir-exposé penned by Crawford’s eldest daughter Christina, the star’s posthumous legend was tainted by allegations of child abuse – statements so brutal, so shocking that even Crawford’s vicious rival Bette Davis publicly dismissed them.
Mommie Dearest may have tasked the public with vilifying or, at the very least, seeing through the “perfect” veneer of a once beloved Hollywood star, but it begs an important question regarding the condemnation of public art in light of the artist’s personal shortcomings. This is the note that biographer Robert Dance ends on in Ferocious Ambition: Joan Crawford’s March to Stardom, the latest biography of Crawford published by the University Press of Mississippi. “Is it enough to say that she was a terrible mother, but that she was also a magnificent performer who left a rich professional legacy?… How can these contradictions be reconciled?” the author asks us.
No matter the narcissism that may have driven Crawford to adopt five children as a largely single parent with a rotating cast of husbands and lovers, Dance asks us to take a step back to consider how the Texas-born Lucile Le Sueur became Joan Crawford, “Hollywood’s Cinderella, on-screen and off”. Becoming Joan Crawford was not a directive by studio executives she blindly followed; Crawford remains remarkable for being an agent of self-fashioning, precisely navigating and adapting within an industry she was not trained for, only to rise to the top as one of the biggest box office stars of the 1930s and ’40s. Crawford’s work ethic is central to Dance’s narrative.
For readers seeking insight into a world of female rivalries that simultaneously shaped and were shaped by MGM from its birth in 1924 through the transition to talking pictures, into the Great Depression and beyond, Dance’s biography provides much insight into what differentiated Crawford, an amateur dancer turned actor, from the studio’s leading ladies Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, in addition to contextualizing Crawford’s infamous feud with Bette Davis, the Queen of Warner Brothers.
What quickly becomes clear are the various ways that Crawford – unlike Garbo, who led a famously reclusive life – differentiated herself by seeking identification with a working public. Not only did Crawford make herself accessible to her fans through relationships she initiated with the press, including an advice column she penned for two years for the publication Movieland, but she was also frequently typecast as a persistent, working woman who could find love and climb the social ladder. And it’s because of her smart, Adrian-designed costumes that continually inspired department store knockoffs that Crawford could become a (if not the, as Dance suggests) top fashion influencer of the 1930s.
As Crawford’s reliance on the costume designer Adrian suggests, she benefited greatly from close artistic partnerships with designers and photographers who aided the burgeoning actor in her transition from chorus girl to full-fledged movie star. One of the most notable threads of Dance’s biography is how he stresses Crawford as a premiere portrait subject, for photography played a massive role in shaping her star image. Dance uses this text to celebrate not just the talent of George Hurrell, the iconic glamour photographer whose “images continue to define her even to a generation that might have never seen one of her films” – he also introduces readers to Ruth Harriet Louise, Hurrell’s predecessor at MGM and sole female Hollywood studio photographer. Louise taught Crawford how to move beyond physical posing and into the revelation of interiority before the camera. Dance’s text aside, through the dozens of reproduced photographs alone, readers can watch Crawford evolve into an “ideal” photographic subject.
As Ferocious Ambition attests, Joan Crawford is one of those Old Hollywood stars who remains a fixture in our cultural memory, due in part to Mommie Dearest and its 1981 cult film adaptation starring Faye Dunaway as a caricature of Crawford, but also to Feud, the 2017 Ryan Murphy-led docudrama chronicling the Crawford-Davis rivalry during the production of the 1962 hagsploitation film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Crawford’s later career may have suffered from her alcoholism and a turn (not unlike that of Miriam Hopkins in Savage Intruder (1970)) to cheap slasher and horror films, including Strait-Jacket (1964) and Trog (1970). The star’s professional and personal difficulties aside, not to mention the disease she protected with Garbo-like secrecy and from which she passed at the age of 69 (or 73) in 1977, Crawford’s legacy persists.
So, what comes to light when we, as Dance encourages, put Joan Crawford at the center? On the one hand, we are granted a closer glimpse into the lives and motivations of a camp of artists and producers from Louise, Hurrell, and Adrian to producers Harry Rapf and Joseph Mankiewicz, who saw something special in Lucile Le Sueur and could similarly capitalize on her drive for success and perfection in the public eye. On the other, we might take inspiration from one woman’s breakthrough and commitment to self-study and professional evolution in a notoriously difficult industry.