Monday, February 5, 2007

Joan Crawford: Actress or Movie Star?

Possessed (1947, dir. Curtis Bernhardt)
The Damned Don't Cry (1950, dir. Vincent Sherman

Joan Crawford Breaks Down

The San Francisco Film Noir Festival
Friday, January 26th-Sunday, February 4th, 2007
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco, CA
For a complete listing of the screenings go to:

Noir City 5 wrapped up last night with the best double feature of the festival, Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947) and The Damned Don't Cry (both available from Warner Home Video). Even the titles epitomize film noir. Special guest, Foster Hirsch, author of The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir and Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir, aptly remarked that Crawford was "too big for your home TV." --that I agree with. I disagreed immensely with two other comments he made about Crawford. One that she was a great movie star but not a particularly good actress; and, two, that she was the best leading man in film noir. I think that both of these films prove him wrong.

Is Joan over the top? Yes. Does she have a tremendous range as an actress? No, she does tend to play variations on a theme, but that is true of about ninety-five percent of film actors, especially ones that become stars. If you want to see the actors who disappear into their parts then you have to turn to the character actors, like Kent Smith who co-starred in The Damned Don't Cry. Movie stars typically always play themselves. However, I would argue that Crawford is a great actress precisely because of that. Don't forget Joan Crawford is a character not a real person, she's a role created and portrayed by Lucille Fay LeSueur.
Lucille Fay LeSueur was born in San Antonio, Texas and like the character she played years later in the Damned Don't Cry, Ethel Whitehead who transformers herself into Lorna Hansen Forbes, she was determined to escape her grim working class life. She started out as a dancer then moved onto Hollywood. Stardom in silent films and a new name, chosen by a contest in Photoplay magazine, followed. Joan survived the traumatic transition to talkies that killed many a star's career. She had a tremendous ability to reinvent herself as eras and popular tastes changed which kept her a star for decades.
Also like Ethel, she learned early on how to use men to aid her in her journey to the top. When she married for the second time, it was into Hollywood royalty. She wed Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. son of Douglas Fairbanks and stepson to Mary Pickford, two of the biggest stars of film, the cream of Hollywood society and the two of the founders of United Artist. At this time, also like Ethel, she put herself through a rigorous course of self-improvement eliminating her rough edges. So, is part of the reason she gave such a great performance in the film because it paralleled her own life? Yes, of course, but that's not enough to give a great performance, the greatness comes with making the audience belive the reality of the character and to feel empathy for the character. Even when she behaves badly, we still like her.
She even manages to make the audience identify with her character, Louise in Possessed despite the fact her character suffers a schizophrenic breakdown. The two times she acts out violently towards people- the entire audience bursts into applause. Not a lot of actors can get an audience to cheer acts of violence committed against people, who while immensely irritating, aren't really wronging the protagonist. The film also provides Crawford with a chance to show her range. The film's opening shows us a very different Joan Crawford; she wanders the deserted streets of Los Angeles with a startling bare face devoid of make up and with frighteningly vacant eyes. She is taken to the hospital in a catatonic stupor where he story is told in flashback. During the course of the film we witness her bouncing back and forth between seeming normality and dementia until she finally breaks down completely. All the while, no matter how unstable she becomes, she stays the emotional center of the film and the audience's sympathies remain with her.
As for Joan being the best leading man in film noir, there's no man who could match her toughness. But it's a woman's toughness. I don't find Joan masculine. I never have. She is direct, her characters get what they want but who says those are exclusively male traits? Is she a softly feminine beauty? No, but that doesn't mean she's mannish. Mannish is Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar. Crawford, like long term friend and actress, Barbara Stanwyck, could take roles that were traditionally male in genres that were traditionally the provenance of male movie stars, and bring a whole new dimension to them. They didn't act like men; they were their equals, if not their superiors.
If you'd like to decide for yourself how good of an actress Crawford was I recommend the following films, in addition to the two discussed above, to give you an idea of the range of characters she played in a career that moved her from put upon ingénue to horror maven: The Unknown, Grand Hotel, The Women, Mildred Pierce, Johnny Guitar, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Strait-Jacket. All these films are available on DVD.
Want to read more about the festival? Click below:


  1. Great posting about Crawford. And as a former Noe Valley resident, I sure do miss the programming at the Castro.

  2. Thanks for your comment - the Castro is screening a series of six Bette Davis double features- Joan would hate it but I love em.