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...

12 comments:

  1. When it comes to Joan Crawford, I've always had a hard time getting past "Mommie Dearest", which came out when I was in high school and established her in my mind as the Wicked Witch of Hollywood, before I had even seen a single one of her movies. I have seen plenty of her films since then, and she was a very good actress. Of course, being a good actress doesn't mean she didn't use a coat hanger as a billy club. Still, she never got a chance to defend herself against such charges, and I should keep that in mind. Also, I just now perused her Wikipedia page and see that we were on the same page politically (far too many stars whose work I'm a fan of tend to vote differently than me.)

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    1. I have the same problem with her - and don't ever want to belittle anyone's account of their childhood just to avoid spoiling a famous person's image. though you look at the love people have for her and you just have to think that her presence in the world did a lot of good. If you add up all the confidence and assurance people get from her films... You would not want to take that away. I think she may have inadvertently made the world a less sexist and homophobic place.

      TheresT plenty of other democratic divas - bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, (yay!) Lauren Bacall, Tallulah Bankhead, Constance Bennett, Katherine Hepburn... Grace Kelly even.

      Think Peggy Lee and Doris Day shifted to the right as things went on, I don't know.

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    2. PS sorry for a slightly rambling post - I know what I wanted to say!

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  2. Look at her left leg. She's may be in John's embrace, but that leg, like a jaws of a trap, intends to hold him there. No doubt that well used Crawford knish was moist.

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    Replies
    1. There's a bulge under his jacket I think... You're all gonna tell me he was gay now.

      She'd looked after her bum though. Look at that shadow! I'm just applauding Joan Crawford's bum.

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    2. I know she did, but superior foundation garments help also.

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    3. Are you saying she had some sort of bum bra? That doesn't exist!

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  3. Joan appeared regularly on the Saturday afternoon movie when I was a kid. She was OK. Then one Saturday they showed “Mildred Pierce”. I saw the movie title in the paper and laughed about it. Had no idea what it was about. After seeing it my appreciation of what she could do given the right material rose. She never was as good again but that part was more than enough.

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  4. Jean Negulesco directed Miss Crawford again 23 years later in one of my all-time faves, The Best of Everything. Just felt compelled to throw that little factoid into the mix!

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