Possessed: The Life Of Joan Crawford – Donald Spoto (Hutchinson 2011)

Donald Spoto is a prolific American biographer who has written many Hollywood themed works, but also on the Royal Family and religious figures.  His first book, on Hitchcock, came out in 1976.  He is now in his eighties and living with his husband in Denmark.  There have only been a couple of works published since this biography, which is informed by his many years of experience of writing about the film industry.

Joan Crawford, known in her heyday as “The Movie Queen” has been much written about but views on her life and work took a different direction when disgruntled daughter Christina wrote “Mommie Dearest” (1978) which gained additional notoriety with the 1981 movie adaptation with such a sublimely over the top performance by Faye Dunaway (which she feels damaged her career) that it assured its place as one of the all-time cult films.

All this has not been good for Joan Crawford’s reputation.  It’s not been helped that her most remembered film now is the atypical Grand Guignol melodrama of “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” (1962) which pitched her against Bette Davis as battling siblings and which was not representative of her long career and prolific output.  Also, it was not helped by the only film roles available to her after this being mainly campy, low-budget efforts and not helped either by Shaun Considine’s 1989 “Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud” which looked at the relationship between the two stars in an unflattering light (incidentally one of my favourite biographies of all time).

Spoto believes we have it wrong.  He feels much of “Mommie Dearest” was invented and goes to some lengths to disprove the notorious “wire coat hanger” incident and believes there wasn’t much rivalry between Crawford and Davis.  Such perceptions have clouded Spoto’s subject who he believes is one of Hollywood’s most talented actresses (she was certainly one of the most popular). He states:

“She was a recognizably human and passionate woman who entertained millions; she made egregious mistakes and learnt from them; and she always had a legion of friends and countless admirers.”

Spoto’s own aim in this work is to play down the sensational aspects and highlight the career, focusing in on the films (70 of her 87 films still exist in some form).

Part of Joan Crawford’s long-lasting success was in her talent for reinvention as well as that, in a time of aloof glamour, (such as Garbo and Dietrich) she represented the accessible and hard-working, acknowledging the poverty she had escaped from and was in touch with her fans.  She did this by communicating with them to an extent which borders on the unique.  Spoto wrote to her when he was 11 and got a reply.  I have, in my possession, a letter from 1964 thanking a fan for a Christmas card.  This was a conscious move which assured her longevity and support, even at times when she was labelled “box office poison” by movie magazines.  She always befriended crew and had high expectations of the productions she worked on and yet the reputation we have been left of her was that she was a nightmare to work with.

I think probably the truth, as much as we’ll ever know it now that few from that time are still around is somewhere between Spoto’s underplaying and Christina’s monstrous recreation.  I did enjoy reading about her films in Spoto’s accounts but his wish to sweep the bitching under the carpet can trip him up.  He says no actors ever refused to work with her but had earlier stated that Spencer Tracy turned down the opportunity to work with her a second time.  The filming of the western “Johnny Guitar” (1954) is the stuff of movie legend with sparks blazing between Crawford and co-star Mercedes McCambridge.  Spoto is keen to acknowledge alcoholic McCambridge’s bad behaviour and tends to let Crawford off the hook slightly, despite her shredding her co-star’s costumes and prompting the director to say about her; “As a human being, Miss Crawford is a very great actress.

I don’t want to come across as if I’m disappointed by Spoto’s measured appraisal of her career.  I’m fascinated by Crawford as an actress and disappointed that the number of films that still get shown and/or are readily available feels limited compared to other less significant actresses of her era.  I do think she was very much of her time and the type of material chosen for her has not dated so well.  She was a terrific movie star whose lasting popularity in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s show she was sublimely good at what she did and I welcomed Donald Spoto’s rebalancing of her life and career.  I suspect, however, that I’m more likely to return to Shaun Considine’s gleeful mauling as my definitive work.

Possessed: The Life Of Joan Crawford was published in 2011 by Hutchinson.

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