Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce

Joan Crawford: The Hollywood Star as Fetish Object

Joan Crawford embodies the universal cipher: a flat, empty surface that reflects anything but reveals nothing. There was never a more perfect actress.

There’s something rather repellent about Joan Crawford. This has nothing (at least directly) to do with the abusive manner in which she allegedly raised her children, but rather something deeply engrained in her screen persona. Perhaps that’s part of her power as an actress — this ability to push back against the viewer. While many actors attempt to draw audiences in, to bring them close, Crawford keeps them at arm’s length or further away. An idol maintains its sway over us by never allowing us to approach, by never granting proximity — for proximity, after all, reveals imperfections that an idol cannot acknowledge. In this sense, there was never a more perfect actress than Crawford.

I recognize that there are those celebrated moments (deriving exclusively from her youth) when the camera comes in close, and the light falls upon her face with a gentle lambency. Crawford had a preternatural, intuitive ability to sense the position of the camera and to play to it without overtly acknowledging its presence. These are the moments that Crawford fans adore, that they commemorate, that they extol with the blandishments of admiration, the images before which they genuflect in reverie.

By 1945 those moments are largely gone. After she left her MGM contract and signed on with Warner Bros., Crawford was a different figure altogether, although I suppose glimpses of that figure, that idol, were already inherent in her earlier incarnations, her appearances prior to Mildred Pierce. With Mildred Pierce, Crawford moved into what we might term the stern period of her career, a phase that would last until her final films. Her face set against hardship, her eyes seething with defiance, her lips frozen in a grimace that dared the world to confront her, to defy her: this is the image of Crawford from 1945 until the end of her career. Whatever charm she might’ve had in The Women (Dir. George Cukor, 1939) and it was a sinister and dubious charm even then, had vanished by 1945.

I will never truly understand why Crawford won the Academy award for Mildred Pierce. She is far superior in other films. I honestly think she won for all the wrong reasons. Clearly, we are supposed to believe that Crawford somehow perfectly embodied the long-suffering mother, the driven workaholic, bent only on success in order to placate her inexplicably malevolent daughter Veda (Anne Bligh). But I don’t buy it and I have a hard time believing that anyone ever did. There’s a cool calculation forever imprinted on that face with those unnaturally broadened eyebrows raised superciliously in a perpetually confrontational glare. Even at her most beguiling, Crawford never approximates the image of a caring mother.

But perhaps there’s another way in which Crawford’s alienating persona, her utter lack of nurturing motherhood, works for the film. Her imperious attitude, her Gorgon stare, and her lack of redeeming qualities lend her a certain hardness that makes Mildred more believable than she might otherwise be. In this sense, Crawford’s lack of human warmth, and thus her resistance to seamlessly move into the maternal world of the film, works rather well with the oddball nature of the film itself. Mildred Pierce is a mixture of cinematic genres that don’t properly go together at all. It’s framed as a film noir and yet in the middle, it’s some combination of a woman’s film and a weepy. Yet there’s a certain sense in which noir elements infiltrate the center of the film in a rather twisted way.

The film noir as a genre depends on an unstable, dangerous, and debilitating love affair. In general, the affair involves a man obsessed with a femme fatale. The man attempts to seduce the femme but is seduced (that is “led astray”) by her instead. In his attempts to embrace her, he finds that he is held in her thrall, succumbs to her allure, and carries out her bidding (which typically involves murder). There is a femme fatale to center Mildred Pierce as well, but here it is the daughter — the daughter seducing her own mother. Of course, this is not overt, not to be taken literally, and yet there are several scenes that drive the point home.

Veda knows how to manipulate Mildred, to prod and cajole her into doing things she wants. When she feels she is losing her grip on Mildred, Veda turns coquettish. She practices the same game of seduction she will later attempt on Mildred’s husband — but she is far more successful at seducing her mother than she is at taming any man. And just like the male at the center of any film noir, Mildred is laid low by the femme fatale, is brought to her ruin, and then forgotten, wasted and forlorn.

Yet a difference remains — perhaps a difference more in degree than in kind — between the male “victim” of the film noir and Crawford as Mildred. When the man in film noir succumbs to temptation, the audience follows him straight down the rabbit hole of his own demise. We sympathize with him even though we, perhaps, feel we ought not to do so. We find his actions reprehensible but understandable.

Crawford’s Mildred operates quite otherwise. We feel we ought to sympathize with her but cannot; her actions are mostly laudable but incomprehensible — because we know that these are the actions of maternal care taken to extremes coming from a performance in which maternal care seems totally alien. Crawford has an amazing capacity for seeming totally removed from her own performance without having that performance become wooden or amateurish. She is the consummate professional and does not seem to become overly involved in her characters.

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno claim that the movie star finds him or herself in a rather peculiar position. The film star has to somehow be both a person of the people and someone totally above the average person. In a wonderful turn of phrase, they call such stars the “ideal types of the new dependent average” [Translation by John Cumming (New York: Continuum Press, 2001), 145]. We have to believe that the person up on the screen could be us, if only we had drawn the lucky ticket. And yet at the same time we are meant to realize the great gulf that separates us from the stars. This extends, naturally, to the wardrobe as well as the basic attitude of the actor. As they write: “the starlet is meant to symbolize the typist in such a way that the splendid evening dress seems meant for the actress is distinct from the real girl” (ibid.).

Simply put, a star like Crawford will not dress in the manner of a Mildred Pierce despite the legend concerning Crawford’s attire in this film — a favorite tale Crawford often told. Director Michael Curtiz, understandably, had doubts about casting the actress in this role. She lacked the softness one might expect of a cinematic portrayal of long-suffering motherhood. He went so far as to insist that Crawford appear for a screen test, which, for an actress of her standing, was considered something of an affront. But Crawford’s career was on a downward spiral and she saw in Mildred Pierce an opportunity to salvage it.

The story goes that she went to a department store, bought some house dresses off the rack, and then appeared on set for her reading. The anecdote appears in various versions throughout numerous later interviews. In one included in the Criterion Collection edition, Crawford claims that Curtiz came up to her after her reading, incensed that she was wearing another gown (however seemingly modest) by her designer Adrian, complete with Crawford’s characteristic shoulder pads. He then ripped the dress from her body, tearing it at the front, to reveal that the boxy shoulders were simply hers.

Such is the stuff of legend, I suppose, but a casual glance at the screen will demonstrate that Adrian’s shoulder pads were still in full force throughout the film and they served, as they always did, to create a figure that was not simply statuesque, but unapproachable. Many Hollywood actresses are fetishized in film and its surrounding publicity, but few actresses aside from Crawford so completely mimic the qualities of an actual fetish object — this mysterious, aloof, carved figure that seems forever at a remove from our attempts to grasp it fully, to bring it into the proximity of our experience. And yet the fetish object is handled, contemplated, and examined. It confronts us with the distance that lay between our understanding of the world as it is in appearance and our wishes for what it might secretly be.

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Thus, following Horkheimer and Adorno, Crawford has to be one of us and yet totally distinct from any of us. This may partly explain the psychology behind her efforts at answering all of her fan mail and befriending members of the crew on her film sets. She recognized that to maintain her allure as a fetish object, the public had to feel a desire toward her that could never be fully met, fully satisfied — and yet the possibility of fulfillment had to have a palpable reality. This sense of closeness via distance is the tightrope traversed by the fetish object made Hollywood star. Indeed, her canniness translated to her on-screen performances.

This is where things get tricky. We both identify and disidentify with Crawford. The problem for Horkheimer and Adorno is that it’s here that a real schism enters into play: “The lucky actors on the screen are copies of the same category as every member of the public, but such equality only demonstrates the insurmountable separation of the human elements. The perfect similarity is the absolute difference. Ironically, man as a member of the species has been made a reality by the culture industry” (ibid.). Here the authors play upon Karl Marx’s notion of the “species being”. But whereas in Marx the whole point of species being was that man transcended his individuality in order to approximate the universal, for Horkheimer and Adorno the culture industry created the ultimate leveling down of species being. In their account, we are all interchangeable not because of our universal and essential nature, but rather because exchange value has infiltrated our humanity. We are no longer individuals; we are copies, reproductions with no original. The universal in this sense is the worthless, not the ideal. The culture industry thus reduces us to a species that does not make us more than what we are but infinitely less.

And so, the film star has a rather peculiar role to play in the symbolic economy Horkheimer and Adorno laid bare as Hollywood’s contribution to the “dialectic of enlightenment” — a role executed to bitter perfection by Crawford. On the one hand, she is a representation of all of us — of what we could be if we were so lucky — while being a constant reminder that we were not and could not be so lucky. On the other hand, the manner of representation requires that we cannot identify with her as such but rather with this oddly transformed type of species being. The universal here is made into a cipher — a flat, empty surface that reflects anything but reveals nothing.

Let’s take the most celebrated scene of Mildred Pierce as an example. Veda confronts her mother on the staircase, Mildred just having learned that Veda has scammed some poor sucker out of $10k by pretending that she was pregnant. Mildred takes the check from her daughter and tears it to shreds. Veda rears back and lands a resounding blow on Mildred’s cheek. Mildred crumbles to the ground like a wooden puppet whose strings have been cut, horrified.

But attend, for a moment, to Crawford’s manner in this scene, her way of holding herself, her projection of emotional shock. For such a celebrated moment, it’s a rather strange one. Or perhaps it’s celebrated because it is so strange, so notable. On the one hand, we suffer the pain of the aggrieved and disappointed mother. That slap reverberates throughout the room and is etched onto the soundtrack like a seismograph registering the shock of its impact. When Crawford collapses onto the steps we are clearly meant to share in her feeling of betrayal, in the sting of her daughter’s rebuke.

On the other hand, we don’t believe in Mildred’s falling at all. We recognize throughout that this is Joan Crawford taking a fall. The way she falls is just a bit too theatrical, a bit too well-planned. She falls as though she anticipates both the cry of shock and the radiant applause that will follow. The moment is calculated and spontaneous at once. It strikes me as being not so much a demonstration of Crawford’s thespian insight as it is the declaration of the systematic drive and systemic rigor behind the film industry. The performance, like so many by Crawford, doesn’t inspire admiration so much as a sort of ghastly awe.

Criterion Collection now offers a Blu-ray edition of Mildred Pierce that presents the film in all its questionable glory. The edition includes several extras such as: interviews with critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito; an interview from 1970 with Crawford on The David Frost Show; a feature-length documentary from 2002 entitled Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star; an interview with Ann Blyth from 2002; and an interview with the novelist James M. Cain that appeared on the Today show in 1969.