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Starring Joan Crawford: Hollywood Historian Explores The Lasting Impact Of The Pop Culture Icon

June 13, 2024

She started making movies in 1925 and won her sole Oscar in 1945. She died in 1977, seven years after shooting her last picture, at age 69 or possibly 70 - something. Almost half a century later, Joan Crawford keeps popping up everywhere from Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan to Ru-Paul’s Drag Race, from Richard Brody’s film criticism to parodies inspired by Mommie Dearest.

In the new book Starring Joan Crawford: The Films, the Fantasy, and the Modern Relevance of a Silver Screen Icon, Hollywood historian Samuel Garza Bernstein draws on reams of press coverage and never-before-seen restored images from movie posters and stills, publicity shots, sheet music, and magazine covers. Starring Joan Crawford is both a celebration and a compelling exploration of how she informed ideas about wealth and class, femininity and gender roles, identity, and fulfillment.

Dividing her career into five phases, Garza Bernstein looks at what Crawford meant to audiences:

Influencer and It Girl—Her marriages and rise to fame.
This phase marks the beginning of its end in 1928 due to two transformative events: her marriage to a Hollywood prince, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and the arrival of talkies. After escaping a harrowing childhood and dancing her way to Broadway, Lucille LeSueur is discovered by an MGM talent scout. She made her silent film debut in January 1925, and dazzled as the joyful jazz baby. Off-screen, she is unafraid of hard work, which includes getting her pictures in the papers for dancing and partying. Three months later, the studio’s publicity head launched a “Name Her” contest in Movie Weekly magazine, and Joan Crawford, the star, was born. If Social Media had existed, she would have been out there, offering upbeat advice on how to reach your goals and make yourself whatever you want to be.

Queen of the Movies—How she made many and how her career was flailing.
In 1930, Crawford was named the top box office draw in the world, ahead of Greta Garbo. A full-blown star, Crawford sets out to prove she can act and takes on dramatic roles—playing a bitter antihero in Paid and a suicide survivor in Laughing Sinners opposite Clark Gable, with whom she develops an enduring friendship. Rain is her first flop, and she blames herself. Rebounding, she switches to rom-coms. Then she makes a second flop. Branded “box office poison,” she is mortified. But she has a career to protect. In 1939, she sparkled in The Women, a big-budget film directed by George Cukor. In 1940, she made two films that she considers her best work: Strange Cargo opposite Gable and Susan and God opposite Frederick March. But her string of hits peters out and the quality of the scripts MGM offers is below par, so in 1943, Crawford asks to be released from her MGM contract—paying $100,000 for the privilege—and embraces her most controversial role: mother. Still, her work comes first.

Mother and Martyr.
By this phase, Crawford is on her third husband (after a brief second marriage to Franchot Tone). She marries Phillip Terry because he seems like a kind man who will make a good father figure. After buying her freedom from MGM, she is forced to wait two agonizing years before making her first picture for Warner Bros: Mildred Pierce. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress. With Mildred, Crawford creates a new archetype for not only herself but also American women, with suffering baked into the drive for independence and fulfillment to help ease the guilt of getting what you want. Though Crawford is in demand, unlike in the MGM years, she has time on her hands. Boredom is dangerous for a workaholic. To ease her anxiety, she depends on alcohol. And to keep busy, she micromanages her four adopted children.

Dragon Lady—From actress to Pepsi spokes girl.
In her mid-40s, though beautiful and with legs to die for, Crawford worries about failure. She starts trolling Marilyn Monroe, and the backlash defines the public image she develops in the 1950s—at first, seen as old and out of touch, and she self-sabotages her chance to sizzle on the beach in From Here to Eternity (the Deborah Kerr role was meant for Crawford). Then she embraces the monster and returns to MGM to make the movie that will seal her fate as a dragon icon: Torch Song. She plays the iron lady of Broadway musicals—a star who feels empty because she cannot find love in her private life—a situation that hits close to home, where she often fights, sometimes physically, with her daughter Christina. She continues to land roles as bitchy ball-busters in films, including Johnny Guitar and Queen Bee. She marries for the fourth and final time. As the wife of Alfred Steele, the President of Pepsi, Crawford embraces her role as the public face of a soft drink giant.

Reinvention—What ever happened to ...?
She signs a contract for her memoirs, searches for her next project, and lands on the story of two aging sisters—one a crippled former movie star, the other a demented former vaudeville star. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? happens because Crawford finds the novel, finds the director, gets Bette Davis, and convinces Director Robert Aldrich to sign on. Crawford begins her final phase devastated by the loss of Steele (who unexpectedly died of heart failure a few days shy of his 58th birthday), their larger-than-life partnership, and the financial security she thought he provided (his estate was essentially bankrupt). Determined to cement her legacy, she barrels into the 1960s leaving her humanity behind.

The Author
Samuel Garza Bernstein is a Stonewall Book Award-Winning Author, Screenwriter and Playwright. He splits his time between Porto, Portugal, and Los Angeles, California.

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