Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Joan Crawford, by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell

Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography, by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002. Cloth, $27.50, 294pp. ISBN 0-8131-2254-6.

Joan Crawford was not Mommie Dearest. In the expert new biographyJoan Crawford, co-authors Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell dismiss Christina’s efforts to forever encase Crawford in grotesque motherhood. To Quirk’s and Schoell’s credit, they avoid the opposite tone and steer clear of gushing fanzine hyperbole. The woman who emerges from these pages was tough, demanding, self-obsessed, horny, generous, and loyal.

The subtitle of this book, the essential biography, actually does the work a disservice. The essential biography would be longer than these 294 pages, and include exhaustive library, archive, and first-person sources. This book is more a personal reflection, as Quirk knew Crawford for many years and heard firsthand her innumerable tales of life in Hollywood. Joan Crawford is therefore all about her career, but it doesn’t probe as much as it offers a chronology of her life in movies. To further boost Joan Crawford‘s compulsive readability, the authors do a fine job of discrediting Christina with ample opposing testimony to Crawford’s character. And anyone looking for potshots at Esther Williams, Marilyn Monroe, and Faye Dunaway won’t be disappointed.

We are first taken to Crawford’s scruffy childhood in Texas and the Midwest, but soon the former Lucille LeSueur is bewitching the early moguls of Hollywood as the flapping starlet of such light efforts as Pretty Ladies, The Boob, Tramp Tramp Tramp, and The Taxi Dancer. One is reminded that she later made her share of decent movies — Possessed (1931 and 1947), Grand Hotel, Rain, The Women, A Woman’s Face, Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Flamingo Road, Sudden Fear, and the delectably off-kilter western Johnny Guitar. I’ve always had a soft spot for Crawford in the 1950s, when she was vainly hanging on to the glamour girl image just as her key light got brighter and the camera lens got softer. It’s hard to watchThe Damned Don’t Cry, Female on the Beach, and Autumn Leaves and not see a hybrid of actress-woman clinging to her sexually ripe hardscrabble survivor persona. It makes for compelling screen acting.

The strength of this book, with its attention on her epic career, is also its weakness.Joan Crawford at times can’t helping lapsing into predictable rhythms. (Fill in the blank) is given a plot summary, made, released, and ranked on an unofficial scale from Mildred Pierce to Trog. Crawford (loved/hated) that movie and (loved/hated) her co-stars. The next movie is treated similarly, and the one after that. This gives the reader an appreciation for the assembly line of studio era Hollywood, but it dims any chance of deeper insights on Crawford’s life and work. The authors don’t hesitate to take on her whispered bisexuality, or mention a little-known affair she had with Jimmy Stewart, but these nuggets appear only in passing. Marriages are made and broken, children are famously adopted and prove less than angelic, MGM lets Crawford go, she gets her revenge at Warner Bros., marries Pepsi nabob Al Steele, and does a sadomasochistic tango with Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s all here, but one longs for more depth with Crawford the woman. Where Mommie Dearest was all domestic drama and little appreciation for Crawford the star-actress, Joan Crawford is quite the opposite.

Perhaps that is the unwritten message of Joan Crawford — that the woman and the star were one. What a startling contrast Crawford was to Grand Hotel co-star Greta Garbo, who spent half a century running from fame, wandering the streets of New York like a confused and frightened stray cat. Crawford couldn’t have been made of more different temperament. She carried herself as though stardom was her birthright. She reveled in it, sought it and expected it, as though she forever imagined a sparkling tiara affixed to her well-coiffed scalp.

Crawford has been dead 25 years, yet her ghost defies obscurity just as the woman did in life. Of course her career went south and the pictures got small. Toward the end she was reduced to changing costumes in a car. Still she carried herself with shoulders back and head held high. Now that she’s gone, we forgive her those last pitiable years, and hope she forgave the powers-that-be who wasted her talents. Time has proven her durability. Don’t we love the élan, the chutzpah, and the sheer force of character that makes for such rare beings as Joan Crawford?

Quirk and Schoell are two film gentlemen-scholars who have at last repaired the maligned Crawford legacy. She doesn’t deserve the easy jokes begat by Christina’s ulterior attacks. At the end of the movie Mommie Dearest, the disinherited Christina (played by the odd Diana Scarwid) alludes that she’ll have the final say on her Gorgon of a mother. Quirk and Schoell made sure that didn’t happen, and they are to be saluted for their effort at fair appraisal. Enough time has passed to prove that Joan Crawford doesn’t deserve wire hangers. She was and is an enduring star, one of the great ones.