Joan Crawford

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Joan Crawford Pencil Portrait
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Labelled ‘box office poison’ by the same industry that had first brought her to fame, and tired of promoting war bonds on behalf of the national effort, there now lay ahead the ignomy of a screen test for a role that was tailor made for her. There was little encouragement from Director Michael Curtiz, who made his views crystal clear to Warner Brothers executive producer Jack Warner. “She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads…why should I waste my time directing a has-been?”

The actress herself, remained guarded about the finished film, fearful of a sub par noir entry in the fabled Warners cannon and feigned illness before the 1946 Academy Award ceremony. Nominated for her starring role in Mildred Pierce, considered by many to be a comeback vehicle after a three year absence from the screen, the former Queen of Hollywood was convinced the night would belong to Ingrid Bergman for her role in The Bells of St. Mary’s and elected not to attend the ceremony. Feigning influenza, she failed to attend the industry’s most important night of the year and repaired to her bed. Upon hearing that she had in fact prevailed, the woman christened Lucille Fay LeSueur, transformed herself for the waiting press with make up and hair styling to receive the best actress statuette at her bedside. The pictures stole the next day’s front pages and upstaged everyone else who won that night. Against all expectations, Joan Crawford was back where she belonged and ahead of her would lay some of her most enduring film roles.

Recommended viewing

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Transcending the genre of high-powered soaps with a noirish opening, Joan Crawford returned from three years in exile to win the best actress oscar in a film that explores the undercurrent of several key themes in American society; misplaced maternal love, the drive for individual achievement, and the presumed correlation between worldly acquisitions and happiness; all are explored throughout the rollercoaster ride Mildred embarks on as she breaks free from twenty year’s domestic drudgery to become a successful businesswoman. James M. Cain’s central character set the tone for Crawford’s subsequent career but before she sank into late life parody, here she is at her mesmerising best.

All our favourite characters are present and correct, the shakers and makers, lowlifes and movers. There’s real estate agent Wally Fay (Jack Carson), who offers Mildred ‘consolation’ when her husband moves out, and then takes a one third share in her business; the high bred but penniless Monty Baragon (Zachary Scott), who remains singularly averse to calluses on his fingers, and restaurant manager Ida Corwin (Eve Arden) who offers friendly advice and razor sharp one liners to predatory males. A soaring success with her first outlet, Mildred opens her own chain of restaurants by correctly judging the needs and tastes of middle-class people like herself. For a woman with little interest in the polo set life, she nevertheless strains her bank balance to satisfy the growing desires of Veda, the Frankensteinian embodiment of Mother Love. Played by the teenaged Ann Blyth, she is the daughter from hell, beautiful, deceitful and ruthless, a triple threat who takes the cake for sheer nerve. Her callous exploitation, with just the right assistance from Wally, of the poor Forrester kid and his rich family is the work of a junior-league Borgia. When she’s co-opted by Mildred’s own second husband, even the reptilian Monty Baragon bites off more than he can chew.

Harriet Craig (1950)

The “Queen of clean” emerges in all her glory in the third adaptation of the 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Craig’s Wife”. Crawford was born to play the title character, an insufferably domineering housewife obsessed with controlling the running and maintenance of her luxurious home. Trapped in her shrewish grip is Walter (Wendell Corey), her hard-working, mild-mannered husband, sadly reconciled to the false premise of a childless marriage, who slowly comes to realize his wife’s true nature.

Beautiful and poised as a hostess, attentive and spuriously deferential to her adoring husband, Harriet runs their tastefully elegant upper middle-class home with the efficiency and warmth of a science lab. In that curious definition of “housewife” indigenous to the moneyed set, Harriet neither cooks nor cleans, raises no children, and has no job. Spending every waking hour running roughshod over the harried staff of housekeepers, or servants, as she prefers to call them, Harriet even finds time to engage her grateful poor-relation cousin Clare as free labour. The end result is the creation of a perfectly clean, perfectly orderly, perfect home. Trouble arises when Harriet, fearful that a job promotion for her husband might loosen the short tether she has kept him on for the entirety of their marriage, attempts to broaden the scope of her manipulation.

Their domestic interaction has a desultory feel to it as Harriet steadfastly avoids her husband’s affectionate overtures for fear of mussing her hair; Walter’s adoring hangdog reaction shots becoming ever more pitiable as we literally scream from his corner. Whilst professing undying love and devotion, Crawford really resents his existence, having developed a hatred of men as a result of her father’s desertion when she was young. As time passes, her domination becomes near-psychotic.

It’s an understated tour de force from Crawford, as she eschews her normal romantic histrionics in favour of a female character who takes the role of housewife to its literal and tragic extremes. Drawn into her world with a perverse fascination, we recoil in horror at the continuing machinations of this deeply disturbed woman.

Familiarity with the storyline never compromises the subtle nuances of Crawford’s portrayal, for whatever the periodic trials and tribulations we all face in our marriage, Harriet Craig is a perennial reminder that it could be a hell of a lot worse.