Joan Crawford the actress and Joan Crawford the myth are difficult to distinguish. It’s more than likely that when you think of her, you don’t think of The Women, Mildred Pierce, The Gorgeous Hussy, The Bride Wore Red, or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Instead, you probably think of this:
The image of Joan Crawford the tyrannical mother has overshadowed her talent, which is a shame as she wasn’t a bad actress, especially when she was cast in sudsy women`s pictures. Her fame rests on only a handful of films, and she was notoriously difficult to work with; her on-set tantrums and demands were infamous, and while working on The Women, playing a vixen who torments Norma Shearer, she played the role of bitch to her co-stars even after the cameras stopped.
What is often forgotten about her is just how long her career was. She was a silent star for many years, usually cast as a flighty party girl, and she was one of the few silent movie stars who successfully transitioned to talkies.
In the 1930s she was the undisputed Queen of the MGM lot, and was generally offered first refusal of the best scriipts. She was Clark Gable’s most frequent leading lady, appearing together in eight films, including Dance Fools Dance, Laughing Sinners, Possessed, Dancing Lady, and Grand Hotel.
When she wasn’t starring in movies, she was playing the part of the consummate movie star, dressing for the role on-screen and off. She sat down three times a week to hand-write thank you letters to fans; the studio had to hold back her fan mail as her dedication to responding to her adoring fans was taking up so much time.
While audiences liked her, others didn`t. Humphrey Bogart admired her talent but openly hated her. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “She can’t change her emotions in the middle of a scene without going through a sort of Jekyll and Hyde contortion of the face, so that when she wants to indicate that she is going from joy to sorrow, one must cut away and then back.”
But perhaps nobody hated her more than that other big-eyed actress, Bette Davis. The two had a notorious long-running feud, which began over a man, Franchot Tone, and which was marked by petty rivalries and nasty insults. “I wouldn`t piss on Joan Crawford if she was on fire,“ Davis famously said. She was dismissive of Crawford`s talent, calling her no more than mannequin with “caterpillar eyebrows.“ And she thought her a slut. “She slept with every male star at MGM, except Lassie.” Crawford retorted “Poor Bette, she looks like she’s never had a happy day, or night, in her life.”
Eventually, the two ended up working together in the campy, catty psychological horror/bitch-fest Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and even then, there was no love lost between them.
After a string of flops, MGM declared her box-office poison and fired her; she made a triumphant comeback at Warner Bros. with Mildred Pierce. It is probably the definitive Crawford performance: resilient, strong, bitchy, and it won her the Oscar (convinced she would lose, she didn`t attend the ceremony; when her name was announced, they rushed the statue over to her house and hastily arranged a photo op).