"Joan of Many Faces"
Oak Street Cinema
Mondays through December 9
The public likes provocative feminine personalities, but it also likes to know that underneath it all the actresses are ladies.
--Joan Crawford, 1953
OF JOAN CRAWFORD'S many faces, the most indelible might be the one she wore as Vienna, the saloon-owning cowgirl of Johnny Guitar (1954): her jaw clenched, her huge eyes bracketed by perpetually raised eyebrows, a wide streak of crimson lipstick barely concealing her righteous scowl. This irresistibly lurid distaff Western--equally informed by McCarthy and Freud, feminism and machismo, queer iconography and castration anxiety--seems the crowning achievement in Crawford's reign as queen of the women's picture. It captures the final two hours before her screen image starts to fade from powerful camp into the pathetic horror of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), as the industry loses interest in her ability to act tough yet ladylike.
Throughout her career, Crawford (or perhaps her directors) kept upping the ante on her image, to the point where its intensity became a blatant challenge to the mainstream--and then, in turn, a joke. Every feature of her face seemed magnified beyond belief, corroborating John Waters's view that true stars are required to look otherworldly. Indeed, Crawford remains the ultimate female icon; Demi Moore and Madonna have nothing on her. She made more than 80 films between 1925 and 1970, chiseling her face and molding her persona in accordance with the times. For the first two decades, the press regularly described her as a "self-made star"; but the irony was that, as a studio employee and a prime cut of Hollywood product, she was just as much controlled by larger forces as her vulnerable characters. In George Cukor's A Woman's Face (1941), she plays a disfigured nurse who's miraculously "remade" by her loving plastic surgeon--an apt metaphor for a star's Hollywood contract.
Ironically, it was around this time that Crawford was fired by her home studio of MGM, and forced to construct a new image on her own. Louis B. Mayer declared her "box-office poison" in 1942, just as the war began to increase women's roles in the workplace, while Hollywood responded with gynophobic film noirs and reactionary melodramas that argued in favor of domestic subservience. What's especially fascinating about Crawford's movies--including the five playing at Oak Street Cinema over the next month--is how clearly they manifest the culture's shifting views of women, and of the aging star herself.
As it happened, the sexy independence she embodied in her flapper and working-girl roles of the '30s (Grand Hotel, Sadie McKee) became the source of (melo)dramatic tension in the '40s and '50s, and overt misogyny in the early '60s: Conflicting issues of aspiration, love, work, marriage, motherhood, and middle age conspired to suggest that Crawford's characters couldn't have it all. For instance, the 1956 Autumn Leaves (December 2) features Crawford as a lonely typist whose affair with a younger man (Cliff Robertson) turns nightmarish when he reveals symptoms of violent schizophrenia.
Nevertheless, resilience was central to her persona, onscreen and off. Crawford's 1945 comeback film, Mildred Pierce (December 9), was the story of a woman who transcended adversity to open her own restaurant, starring a woman who transcended adversity to win an Oscar; Daisy Kenyon (November 25) further enhanced the star's new prestige by casting her as a successful designer who's pursued by both Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews; Johnny Guitar (November 18) expanded the Western's definitions of gender to suggest the flexibility of both character and star; and Baby Jane (November 11) doubly enforced the image of a tormented old actress who struggled to live down her past roles. That the latter was also a comeback film proved a mixed blessing, in that it inspired a decade-long string of thrillers depicting middle-aged women as victims or freaks (e.g. Crawford's own Strait-Jacket and Berserk).
The fact that the Oak Street series kicks off with the spinster hysteria of Baby Jane is odd but helpful: Getting the neurotic stuff out of the way leaves room to recover the true strength of Crawford's persona. Even the frustrating Daisy Kenyon (1947), which resolves its career vs. marriage conundrum in a typically unconvincing fashion, can be seen to support a woman's right to choose--that is, if we choose to screen it against the grain. As critic Molly Haskell writes in her classic study of women's pictures, From Reverence to Rape: "The images we retain of [the heroines] are not those of subjugation or humiliation; rather, we remember their immediate victories, we retain images of intelligence and personal style and forcefulness." Again, resilience is key: There's a sense in which the "real" Joan Crawford, with the help of her fans, survives even her movies.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.