Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford" by Donald Spoto

Faye Dunaway as Crawford.
If you know who Joan Crawford is, then surely the image you conjure up when you think of her is that of the grotesque Mommie Dearest as portrayed in the book by her adopted daughter, Christina Crawford, and in the subsequent horrific movie starring Faye Dunaway. In his latest biography Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford (William Morrow, 352 pages), author Donald Spoto presents the many sides of Joan Crawford--the good the bad and the ugly. The result is a portrait of a woman plagued by inner demons that seemed to haunt her through her entire life, although she made a Herculean effort to banish them forever.

Spoto is not an apologist for Joan Crawford's tarnished image, nor does he try to revise history. He presents the facts as they happened and comments on their validity and impact upon Joan, her private life and on-screen persona. He made full use of the vast amount of information available electronically, filling the pages with direct quotes from many of the people who were instrumental in creating Joan Crawford, the star: her ex-husbands, lovers, writers, directors, and studio moguls. This was a complex woman, and if you want to look beyond "no more wire hangers," this is a good place to start.

The driving force in Joan Crawford's life--the fire in her belly, the impetus for everything she ever did--was her devastatingly unhappy childhood, and her efforts to erase all vestiges of the impoverished and love-deprived Lucille Le Sueur. Each chapter in the book represents a specific timeframe in Joan's life, chronicling her interactions with the people and events that contributed to her intensely personalized master plan for success. The seedlings are planted in her unstable childhood, never knowing her real father and going through a series of stepfathers, who eventually walked out of her life, reinforcing her sense of abandonment and initiating an ultimately frustrating search for someone to love her. She was forced to leave school in the fifth grade and join her mother providing for the family. She worked wherever her mother managed to find employment, mostly in laundries where the family lived on site in what could be described as little more than a hovel. The years spent working as a laundress, with its inherent drudgery and monotony, provided fodder for her ever increasing inferiority complex. Her bother, Hal, an early 20th century version of a slacker, was her mother's favorite, and was never asked to contribute to the family upkeep.

Crawford and Franchot Tone.
Joan's lack of education also preyed on her ego and contributed to the feelings of low esteem that she would eventually obsessively attempt to conquer. Uneducated and unrefined, she realized that she had to learn how to present herself physically and mentally in order to survive in the Darwinian social structure that existed in Hollywood. She readily acknowledges that her marriages to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Franchot Tone provided her with a veritable masters degree in self-improvement. Both men introduced her to literature, the arts, politics, and she gleaned enough information to comfortably engage in conversations with the more sophisticated members of her husbands' circle of friends and the Hollywood elite.

Joan with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Joan had many teachers who provided the lessons she needed in order to perfect her image. The gesturing and wide-eyed expressions of the silent films had to be replaced with more subtle and nuanced use of the face to convey a characters emotional reactions. Crewmembers shared important aspects of lighting and camera placement, which provided her with a working knowledge of behind the scenes filmmaking. Costume designers and makeup artists helped her during the various phases of her career, creating the right look for the flapper, shopgirl, independent woman, and sophisticate. The right look, in public, at the studio and at home, was fanatically maintained. From hair to shoes, Joan could never appear as the girl next door in jeans and a blouse. She was a star, and fans expected nothing less than the image they saw on the silver screen.

Joan wished very much to have children, and give them all the love and advantages of a good home. This quest proved disastrous and often legally questionable, as in desperation, she turned to so-called "baby brokers." Despite a resolve to prevent the children from experiencing the pain and loss of her own childhood, she could not overcome the demand for perfection nor could she provide the children with the stability of a father figure. As testament to her failed attempts to create a happy household, each child harbored totally disparate memories and images of Joan as a mother.

Alfred Steele.
Joan's own pursuit of love, resulted in numerous long and short-term affairs; even while married, she continued her quest for the seemingly unattainable, but still felt devastatingly lonely. When Alfred Steele, the charismatic president of Pepsi-Cola entered her life, she knew she would marry him and felt confident that he would bestow her with the love she so achingly craved and banish the spectre of loneliness from her life. After Steele's untimely death in 1959, age 58, Joan maintained that during her four years of marriage she felt fulfilled and truly alive for the first time in her life.

The ferocity of determination, which had transformed a little waif from Texas into one of the most glamorous denizens of Hollywood also applied to her career path, effecting the choices she made regarding roles she was offered and roles she wanted to play. She transitioned easily from silent films to talking pictures. She'd been one of MGM's brightest stars and continued to be so with the introduction of sound. However, she became frustrated with the roles she was assigned, the quality of the scripts and directors who did not share her ambitions regarding stardom. Her acting style and appearance were constantly evolving in an effort to achieve perfection of the image that she fervently believed was still a work in progress. Spoto presents an interesting timeline of films along with revealing insights into Joan's choices, and her feelings about the completed film. He devotes almost a chapter to a wrongheaded decision by Joan to star in a film called Torch Song, considered one of the worst movies ever made and one of the most unintentionally hilarious. Contrary to world opinion, Joan loved it, and even bemoaned the fact that they didn't make pictures like this anymore.

There is also a document presented in the book, originally published in Life Magazine in February 1964, detailing the require-ments Joan demanded at all hotels she stayed at during a publicity tour for the film Strait-Jacket. Its excesses are reflective of Joan Crawford's self-image, that of a great motion picture star representative of all the glamour and sophistication associated with Hollywood and therefore entitled to all the creature comforts available at whatever cost.

If you're a long-standing Joan Crawfor fan, you are probably familiar with much of the information presented in this book. Fledgling admirers, however, will find this a veritable treasure trove of the events and people who helped power Joan Crawford's juggernaut to her rightful place as a Hollywood legend.

HarperCollins Publishers provided a review copy of Possessed to the Classic Film & TV Cafe.


  1. Saz, I'm a huge Joan Crawford fan. What an amazing review on the biography, Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford. It sounds like a very interesting read. loved the pictures as well.

  2. Saz, this was a fascinating review that included lots of intriguing details I didn't know about Joan Crawford. If Donald Spoto's book is half as good, it sounds like a worthy addition to my film reference book library--and a great Chrsitmas gift for any Joan Crawford fan.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this article, Saz. I'm a Bette Davis fan, but I like a number of Joan Crawford films--most notably Mildred Pierce. She was a complex woman. When I was a little girl I remember watching Mommie Dearest numerous times--it was early cable and they showed movies over and over again. Anyway, I always remember one line from that film clearly (mostly because my mother said the same thing to me as a child): NO WIRE HANGERS EVER! I would like to add, though, that my mother never beat me with one. LOL!!! Again, great review.

  4. This sounds like a must read. Always felt Joan was a more complicated figure than the Mommie Dearest stereotype.

    Was she married to Franchot Tone at the time he made "Mutiny on the Bounty?" Always wondered if there was tension on the set between him and Joan's former lover Gable?

  5. Saz, I really enjoyed reading your informative review of Spoto's biography. I remember once, as a young girl, thinking that it would be wonderful to be famous. Today I am so thankful not to be. I always felt a coldness in many of the characters played by Joan Crawford. It sounds like she had a good, though sadly short, marriage to Alfred Steele. You did an excellent job in your review of a work profiling a talented and complex actress.