The Comeback Kid — The Films That Saved Joan Crawford's Career

Monday May 31, 2021
Originally published on May 30, 2021

Joan Crawford with her Oscar for "Mildred Pierce"
Joan Crawford with her Oscar for "Mildred Pierce"  

When it comes to picking the greatest movie star, there is only one choice: Joan Crawford. Sure, Katherine Hepburn had class and Bette Davis the courage to act outside her comfort zone; but no other actress from Hollywood's Golden Age personified star quality more than Crawford. She became a star during the silent era and held onto it for five decades with such a determination that Stephen Sondheim had her mind when he wrote "I'm Still Here," the ultimate anthem of show business survival.

"She's one of the finest examples of how stardom works and is a powerhouse of an actress, despite the sexism and obstacles she faced from the same industry that made her a starlet," writes Angelica Jade Bastien in a 2016 appreciation published on Roger

Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in  

Today Crawford's numerous film performances are overshadowed by an artful impersonation — that of Faye Dunaway in "Mommie Dearest." The film, directed by Frank Perry, was based on her adopted daughter Christina's 1977 best-selling memoir about how she was adopted by the actress at an early age then endured decades of emotional and physical abuse. (Crawford also adopted a boy, Christopher.) The film, to say the least, does not show the demanding, neurotic Crawford in a good light, qualities Dunaway embraced with unusual fierceness in a performance she feels seriously damaged her career.

"Has any movie queen ever gone this far before?" Asked Pauline Kael when reviewing "Mommie Dearest" in 1981. "Alone and self-mesmerized, she plays the entire film on emotion. Her performance is extravagant--it's operatic and full of primal anger; she's grabbing the world by the short hairs...."

The result is a camp classic, largely because the filmmakers (including Dunaway herself) had no idea just how absurd their finished project came across. You can judge for yourself with the new Blu-ray release of the film, newly restored from a 4K film transfer, that comes out on June 1. The Blu-ray also features commentaries by gay icons Hedda Lettuce and director John Waters. (Watch an interview with Hedda Lettuce about the film at this link.)

But what of Crawford? How did she maintain her stardom for nearly five decades, and what were the movies that defined her numerous comebacks as she, as Sondheim put it, careered from career to career?

The Women (1939)

Crawford was already a well-established star in 1939, most notably for her feisty secretary in 1932's "Grand Hotel." Still, by the end of the decade, she was labeled "box office poison" by exhibitors. It was then that George Cukor was signed to direct the film version of Claire Booth Luce's Broadway smash "The Women," in which he replicated the production's all-female cast on screen. That Crawford pursued the role of the play's villainess — the gold-digging shopgirl Crystal Allen — surprised MGM head Louis B. Mayer since she was playing second-fiddle to star Norma Shearer, thought of as Crawford's biggest rival at the studio. But Crawford knew what she was doing, and their feud made for great publicity, which helped translate the film into a hit. While she may have been upstaged by Rosalind Russell's gossipy Park Avenue matron, Crawford "is deliciously wicked as Crystal. We wait half an hour for her to appear while the rest of the cast speculate about the mystery adulteress, and when we finally meet her, she's a powerhouse: multitasking at work while manipulating her lover on the telephone. She is by turns fragile, vicious and richly seductive," wrote the Financial Times in an assessment of Crawford's career.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Emboldened by her return to stardom, Crawford pursued an unusual role — that of a disfigured blackmailer in "A Woman's Face," also directed by Cukor. It failed, as did her other MGM films of the early 1940s. This led her to be dismissed from the studio (a scene recreated in "Mommie Dearest"). She moved to Warner Brothers for a three-picture deal, then sought the coveted title role in an adaptation of James M. Cain's best-seller "Mildred Pierce," transformed to the screen as a film noir mystery. Director Michael Curtiz was wary of Crawford. "She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads... Why should I waste my time directing a has-been?" he said before demanding Crawford do a screen test. Curtiz relented, Crawford played the self-sacrificing mother with sympathy, though years later, the scene where she slaps her daughter Veda would be the film's most memorable after the publication of Christina Crawford's book. Winning the Oscar, Crawford famously accepted the award from her bed, declining to attend the ceremony due to the flu. (The scene is also found in "Mommie Dearest" and precedes the famous "No wire hangers!" scene, suggesting what she did after winning the Oscar.)

Sudden Fear (1952)

By the early 1950s, Crawford's career was in another rut. She had starred in a series of glossy melodramas ("Humoresque," "Possessed," "The Damned Don't Cry"); but after she completed "This Woman is Dangerous," which she considered one of her "worst" pictures, she asked out her Warners contract and moved to RKO for "Sudden Fear," a woman-in-distress crime drama in which she played a famous playwright gaslit by her much-younger husband (Jack Palance) and girlfriend (Gloria Grahame). In one sequence, Crawford learns of their treachery while listening to a dictation machine. "There's confusion, denial, hurt, denial again," wrote critic Sheila O'Malley in an essay published in 2017 on "Then heartbreak, then panic so excruciating that she runs to the bathroom to vomit. Her work in this scene should be studied by young actors as an example of the pinnacle of what film acting can be, as well as the importance of listening, listening being the most important 'skill' any actor needs to have. Beginning acting classes are often about helping young actors learn how to really listen onstage. The entire scene is about Crawford listening. And through her powerful and active listening, she struggles to understand, she can't bear what she hears, she resists, she succumbs, she weeps, her stomach heaves, she flees to the bathroom. None of this is 'over-the-top.' None of this is 'campy.' It is world-class acting, period.":

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Hollywood rivalries don't come any better than the one between Crawford and Bette Davis, which became the basis of Ryan Murphy's excellent mini-series "Feud" that featured Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis. Curiously their paths did not cross professionally, at least until 1961 when both needed a hit; Crawford especially after being left deep in debt when her husband, Pepsi mogul Alfred Steele, died unexpectedly in 1959. Director Robert Aldrich sent Crawford the script to "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Interestingly, Aldrich said Crawford suggested Davis be cast opposite her. Much was made of their rivalry while the film was made, with the pair sabotaging each other at various times. "It's proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly," Aldrich said. In the film, Davis played an unhinged woman who tortures her sister, a wheelchair-bound, former Hollywood star played by Crawford. Davis may have gotten an Oscar nomination, but Crawford got the last laugh at the ceremony when she accepted the Best Actress award for an absent Anne Bancroft as Davis stood backstage.

The film jump-started both stars' careers, though for Crawford, it was the beginning of the end with a series of B-movies, including the hilariously over-the-top William Castle vehicle "Straight-Jacket," in which she played a convicted ax murderess released from prison; "I Saw What You Did," another Castle exploitation flick; and two British-made horror films, "Beserk," in which she starred as a trapeze artist who runs a circus plagued by violent murders; and in 1970, "Trog," in which she played a famous scientist whose leading man was a prehistoric creature. After a career that spanned 45-years and some 80 films, Crawford retired from feature films. Three years later, she attended an event in New York City she co-hosted with her friend Rosalind Russell. When a photo of them appeared the next day in a New York newspaper, Crawford said, "If that's how I look, then they won't see me anymore." She became more and more reclusive until her death in May 1977, at the age of 71.