Sunday, February 25, 2018
Living in the Moment
I came upon this arresting image at some point this week, and I can't get it out of my mind. Somehow, it explains Joan Crawford to me in a way I'd never considered so clearly.
She's filming Humoresque, and is at the moment in a clinch with her leading man, John Garfield. Director Jean Negulesco and crew look on. Presented as a "candid," the image probably took as much staging as any that actually ended up in the film. Even so, it catches something: the way that the star, in the actual process of filming, is - possibly for the only time in her long and often troubled life - utterly at home. In a moment of total artifice, she is totally fulfilled. What, after all, could be further away from a laundry in Kansas City than a glamorous balcony in Movie Manhattan? What could present fewer complications than a perfect lover who sticks to the script and goes away as soon as the director cries "Cut!"?
The more I look at this image, the more Crawford's legendary tenacity in regard to her career makes sense. It suggests to me that she didn't see it, necessarily, in terms of how, say, I Say What You Did would be received. That's not why she kept at it, churning out anthology-series episodes and Castle pictures and, God help us, Trog. Maybe what she was after was the pure adrenaline rush of what we see here: all eyes trained on her, all the hot lights and the dangling mic and the fake backdrop creating what was for her a sensation, catnip for one so desperately insecure, of being not just at the center of the world, but, for this moment, entirely safe. Removed from the importuning children, the no-good suitors, the dark memories of her Dickensian childhood and hardscrabble existence (not quite right, somehow, to call it a girlhood). She was like - no, in this sense, she was - an addict. And nothing in what passes for real life could give her what even the worst of her professional experiences could. At least until the end; perhaps one reason she stopped after Trog was that she finally encountered rock bottom: a film set, the place that to her was the Holy of Holies, that offered no respite from age, decline, and what she, I think, came to fear worst, ridicule.
Only four years separate that last moment on film from her very last moment in the spotlight, when, after a disastrous night out at the Rainbow Room, she decided more or less to disappear. Creating a self where there is no fundamental core is hard work, and for her it had at last gotten to be too great a struggle to be worth the effort.
She must have wondered, more than once, if it had all been worth while. But all you have to do is see her here, in Garfield's arms and under the tender lights of Warner Bros, to know that, at that moment, she would not have traded places with any woman in the world. She was home, in make believe. And it made all the rest a sacrifice she had no choice but to make, and make again, and again. She was destroyed, I think, not by ambition, or by vanity, or even by her admittedly formidable ego. Her life was shaped by deprivation and rejection from its earliest days, and that leaves it mark on even the most beautiful, the most talented, the highest flyer. What drove her from the beginning in the end drove her, after a fashion, mad. When even being Joan Crawford can't make you secure in your sense of self, what else is left? Trog, and a closed apartment door on the Upper East Side.
But we'll always have Humoresque...