Sunday, March 12, 2017
Like a great many people all of a sudden, I find myself these past few days thinking about Joan Crawford.
Of course, as is likely not the case for a great many of those great many people, for me this is not really all that out of the ordinary. I think about her a lot, in fact.
I haven't seen her latest, televised, incarnation, and without access to cable, am not sure when I'll do so. From all accounts, however, it's a far more nuanced portrayal than Miss Dunaway gave us all those years ago, back when the star's decades-long reputation for hard work, glamour, and all-around stardom curdled, for what seemed at the time likely to be a permanent basis.
That struck me as profoundly unfair. Whether or not one believes all her daughter's lurid accusations (and many who knew the family fairly well didn't and don't), the fact remains that few performers have had as profound an impact on the film industry as Crawford, and that few people have ever succeeded so wildly in creating for themselves a persona as ironclad, as durable, and - for decades - as wildly popular. And all of that from a start that Charles Dickens might have rejected as too extreme.
I've recently - and long after most of the rest of the world - discovered the podcast You Must Remember This, and I'm currently making my way through its magisterial six-part analysis of Crawford's life and work, but one line from its first episode caught my ear and has made me thoughtful. The author/narrator, Karina Longworth, is discussing Crawford's first inklings of success, when she was working as a dancer in New York. This period of the actress's life is often glossed over as merely a prelude to Hollywood (if it isn't reduced a series of sniggers about the possibility that the cash-strapped young performer may have made a stag film). Longworth doesn't do that. She explores what it meant for the young woman, after her nightmarish, often uprooted childhood and adolescence, at 20, to suddenly have a job - and a fairly good one - and what seemed like a shot at a profession.
"She loved," says Longworth, "being good at her job."
That caught me up short, both for the respect it pays young Lucille LeSueur's ambition, and because it so perfectly encapsulates, in a way I've never before heard articulated so clearly, what drove Joan Crawford, from those hardscrabble dancing days right to the bitter end: she loved, fiercely, being good at what she did. And she was humiliated, even terrified, if she thought she was less than absolutely the best she could be. It's why she's so dynamic, so electric, in her early films; Our Modern Maidens (a still from which we see above) rides on the high voltage thrown off by a young star first given the chance to really shine. It's what powered her through even the worst dreck that littered her last years. Who else could have gotten through Trog with a straight face? Everything was a challenge, and she was up for every one of them.
Of course, that's a great recipe for professional success - at a cost - but a fairly alarming one for anyone intent on having some shred of private life. And so Crawford's was often, predictably, disastrous. On the other hand, she lived her life on her own terms, and there are worse places than a comfortable apartment on the Upper East Side to end up in. Looked at dispassionately, tabloid headlines and nasty tittle-tattle aside, she seems, on a day-to-day basis, to have more or less exactly the life she wanted. Certainly the few people I've met who knew her - one or two rather well - remember a woman both far more intelligent and far less operatic in temperament than the termagent who shows up in so many penny-dreadful biographies. And, in the end, if Myrna Loy thinks well of you, how bad can you be?
I love, I've been thinking, listening to Joan speak. Her voice - so measured, so cultivated (more in the carefully-cared-for than cultured sense of the word) is both tense and soothing. She maintains - almost, almost - the flawless mid-Atlantic accent and intonation she worked so hard on at about the time that she first scaled Mount Pickfair. Even her lapses - when the girl from Texas breaks through, or the laundry maid from Kansas, or the chorine on the make - only make it all more charming. I think of Joan and her created voice (if this doesn't venture too close to Wayne Koestenbaum* territory, he with his fervid over-identification with Callas or Mrs. Onassis) when I speak, for I'm a small-town child like Joan, and at times I'm conscious of the layers - Manhattan, the movies, two decades living in odd places - that overlay the broad vowels and quaint usages of my hometown. I suppose I've picked up this voice, this affect, for many of the same reasons - if not quite at the same stakes - that Joan did: to fit in, to be admired, to seem more. And that she was.
So, as once again Joan Lucille Billie LeSeuer Cassin Fairbanks Tone Terry Steele takes center stage on television, she and her (to us - I suspect not to her) arch-rival. I'm glad that if nothing else this latest moment in the spotlight may restore to her tattered reputation a measure of respect, if only for the hard work that went into being Joan Crawford. In the end, I think she thought it was all worthwhile, and, up to a point, so do I.
* If you've not read Koestenbaum, you really ought. His writing is baroque, overwrought, sometimes flat out ridiculous, but frequently riveting. Now that I think of it, these are all qualities that might lend themselves brilliantly to writing about Joan. I rather hope he does.