Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day, Mommie Dearest!

I loved Joan Crawford as a child. She had so much presence on the screen. I first saw her in the 1939 version of The Women. The accurate portrayal of social-climbing, catty, gossipy, backstabbing women; the obvious absence of men in any scene in the film; the real-life competition between Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford--everything about this film makes it a classic, but it is Joan Crawford's performance as the sly home-wrecker that moves the film into the realm of a true work of art.

Joan Crawford, one of the most ambitious women in Hollywood, was accurately cast in this role. She often played the aggressive, unfaithful friend. Perhaps this is why few found it surprising when her adopted daughter, Christina Crawford, released her scathing autobiography, Mommy Dearest in 1978. The book was made into a movie in 1981 starring Faye Dunaway and Diana Scarwid.

The movie received mixed to poor reviews, though it faired well at the box office. According to IMDb, they started with a budget of $5 million and ended with $19 million from box office sales, $8.6 million in video rentals and international sales of $6 million. The movie quickly gained cult film and camp fans, which Paramount capitalized upon by changing its advertising.

When I first saw Mommie Dearest, I was a little disappointed. At first, I thought my disappointment stemmed from the fact that Christina Crawford was clearly trashing a woman whose acting I had long admired. I also wondered if my disappointment was with the ending, when Diana Scarwid's character, Christina Crawford, makes it clear that she is going to seek revenge against her adoptive mother by destroying Joan Crawford's professional image.

Then I realized that my deepest disappointment came from my suspicions that it was all true, that Joan Crawford had, indeed, abused her daughter.

As I looked back at the many Joan Crawford movies I have seen over the years, truly great films, such as Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, I realized that it was easy to see the intensely driven actress who made these films as the same woman who ran into her daughter's room in the middle of the night shouting, "No more wire hangers!"

Joan Crawford wasn't always the star we remember. Lucille LeSueur was born in 1905 in San Antonio, Texas to parents who were already in the process of divorce. Her mother married at least three more times, and one of her husbands, a Vaudeville manager, changed Lucille's name to Billie Cassin. She started her career as a dancer, and was a stunning beauty in her younger years. She finally changed her name to Joan Crawford after a Photoplay contest. Acting was her life. It was a way that she could escape the mixed-up years of her childhood. She was an obsessive woman, and one of her obsessions was her career.

Joan Crawford was an exceptionally-talented actress, but she was also a bully, and although I do not admire bullies, in the time that she worked in Hollywood, I find it easy to believe that a mix of aggression, drive, talent, and yes, a bit of bully, was needed for a woman to be a success in her field. She was nominated for three Oscars, and won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her 1946 performance in Mildred Pierce, which was recently remade starring Kate Winslet. She was obviously not the greatest mother to little Christina, however, from 1925 to 1972, Joan Crawford made 102 movies--a remarkable career for any Hollywood star.

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