The Hollywood Star as Fetish Object: Joan Crawford in 'Mildred Pierce'

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

Mildred Pierce

Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Year: 1945
US Release Date: 2017-02-21
This performance, like so many by Crawford, doesn’t inspire admiration so much as a sort of ghastly awe.
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.

Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) and Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth)

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.

(publicity photo)

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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