Put Away the Wire Hangers: Joan Crawford’s Hungry Heart Exposed

By Charlotte Chandler
Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $26

It’s easy to feel superior to Joan Crawford. There are her Great Lady affectations, that pissy upper-crust speech reeking of noblesse oblige. “My audience always deserves the best I have to give, and I give them everything I have,” she tells Charlotte Chandler in Not the Girl Next Door, a new oral biography. “I like to remember people on special occasions. I’m sure there are people it doesn’t mean much to, but if one lonely person was cheered, it was well worth the effort.”

And there is the truth that, left to her own acting devices, she tended to apply a shade too much pressure. Top it off with the half-mad portrait in her daughter Christina’s scabrous book, conveniently published after mommie dearest was dead and the will that disinherited her daughter had been made public.

But …

Am I alone in finding something poignant in this driven, now unfashionable creature? Am I alone in thinking that, at her best, she was extraordinarily effective?

Take, for instance, Grand Hotel (1932). Or The Women (1939). She’s sexy, sad and touching in the former; sexy, rowdy and funny in the latter. Or the star turn of Mildred Pierce (1945), or the unclassifiable bizarrerie of Johnny Guitar (1954), or her ravaged vulnerability in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). And that’s not even taking into account fascinating, audacious failures like A Woman’s Face (1941).

Crawford’s best work was always about the damaged soul beneath the mannered surface of a hard woman. She didn’t do irony, and she didn’t hold herself aloof from her material; she responded to her parts the same way her public did—ardently.

From the beginning, she cast her life as openly aspirational. Crawford was a girl from the wrong side of the Texas tracks, and her first two husbands were Douglas Fairbanks Jr.—as close to a crown prince as anybody who’s ever come out of Hollywood—and Franchot Tone, a smooth and sophisticated New York charmer.

Clearly, the woman was desperate for standing, for status. So it follows that Crawford’s great crime as far as posterity is concerned is wanting it too much—the desire to be beautiful, sexy, a star, to dominate, leaks through her pores. It’s the same trait that makes it hard to take Tom Cruise—a better actor than he’s usually given credit for—entirely seriously.

We like our movie stars to be casual about their stardom, so we can comfort ourselves that the only difference between them and “those wonderful people out there in the dark” (i.e., us), is good luck—not ravenous ambition and carefully harnessed and nurtured talent.

In Not the Girl Next Door, the wise old George Cukor shows his unerring grasp of psychology—not just of movie characters, but of the actors who played the characters. “The time [Crawford] really came alive,” he told Ms. Chandler, “was when the camera was on her. As the camera came in closer she had an expression on her face of wanting it intensely. She glowed from within. Her skin came to life. Her head fell back. Her lips parted. … It was utterly sensual, erotic. … She was married many times and had many lovers, and I was never in her bedroom, but I’m certain no man ever saw the look on her face that she had as the camera moved in.”

Ms. Chandler’s book is the same mixture as her earlier books: an oral biography, with co-stars, ex-husbands, etc., commenting on the subject at hand. Not cross-checked by documents, but invaluable nevertheless. As, for example, Crawford and Fairbanks’ particularly honest remarks about their lusty, short-lived marriage.

Crawford was always quotable, always revealing, although not always intentionally. Here she is, talking about returning to MGM to make Torch Song in 1953, after an absence of more than 10 years:

“As soon as I was on the set, I knew I hadn’t been forgotten there. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful being there made me feel. I was afraid that no one would remember me. I can tell you I was deeply worried that maybe I wouldn’t be remembered. By then, there were all those wonderful technicians. Not only did they remember me, but I remembered them, every single one.”

Perhaps Crawford had experienced Gloria Swanson’s performance in Sunset Boulevard so intensely that she was unintentionally paraphrasing one of its core moments, when Norma Desmond returns to Paramount and her beloved Mr. DeMille.

Or perhaps Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett penetrated to the need for recognition that lies at the core of the actress’ heart.

Perhaps both.


Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

Put Away the Wire Hangers: Joan Crawford’s Hungry Heart Exposed