I've been writing too much politics.
Via James Wolcott - a fan as much as I, I can tell - is this impressive reconsideration of Joan Crawford, framed around her 100th birthday, though as the Siren notes, it's probably a good 3 years past 100 for Joan.
I'd like to add my thoughts, but to do so, I need to quote the Siren:
Anyway, this renewed interest is good news for those of us who love Joan, who find great pleasure in her movies and don't want to hear about the goddamn wire hangers anymore. The Siren believes the book [Mommie Dearest] alone probably wouldn't have permanently altered Crawford's image to the extent that it has. It was the movie, with Faye Dunaway playing Crawford as a cross between Maleficent and Gregory Peck in The Boys From Brazil, that really did the extensive damage. Thank god nobody ever filmed the atrocious My Mother's Keeper or we'd have to go through the same routine every time we wanted to talk about Jezebel.
I tend to agree; those of us who admire Crawford's work, I think, always tend to do it the way she did - defending her as if she never got a fair shake. That interpretation itself, I think, isn't entirely fair; it's arguing from a defensive crouch, as if Dunaway's mad, out of bounds performance should be the starting point and not, as it is, the outlier. If you love old movies, after a while, it grows wearying to see gay boys and drag queens trot out the familiar lines about wire hangers, the mile wide shoulders, all the falderal. There was a real woman there, a striking looking one, who turned herself into an actress of surprising skill. It's a shame to let it fall into arch camp - as if that was all there was.
As the Joan Crawford Encyclopedia points out, the idea that she played a lot of shopgirls in the 1930s isn't borne out by her filmography. In fact, during the decade she only played three. It's probably more accurate to say, as one British critic did, that she was the shopgirl's delight. Her ascent to the upper classes, or her presence there from the movie's beginning, is sweet revenge if you're trying to alter your own lot in life. And lord knows there were plenty of people desperate to do that in the 1930s.
Also true; though I think it also goes to, as the Siren notes, the fact that her acting, wasn't Method, but was: she did best playing women who were trying to improve themselves, remake themselves; and even in contexts where it wasn't precisely a "shopgirl" role, that dynamic plays itself out. But certainly, it was the way she was relatable and identifiable to her fan base that drove her success.
Now, on to my favorite topic - The Women.
This is as good a point as any to say that my most anticipated film of the year is the remake of The Women that should arrive in the fall (they shot in Boston, and though I didn't catch actual filming, I did see setups and locations). This much discussed version is something Diane English worked on for years, and while hopes aren't high, it does seem to be trying to find a way to respect the original (play I mean - you can go all the way back to the Clare Booth Luce script to see how acidic this thing is).
I know loads of Women trivia; from the first moment I saw it, at 13, I was marked for life (oh yeah... gay from the get-go). The glories of 1939, The fact that it represents the ultimate Women's Picture. The famous feud (which, by the way, is where we get the title to this post). I'll give you my version:
Crawford always saw herself as being disrespected by MGM in favor Norma Shearer. Shearer had married Irving Thalberg (Crawford, mantrap that she was, had gone after him, but Shearer was a nice Jewish girl, and Crawford wasn't... among other things), MGM's head of production, and as a result she got any project she wanted, swiping work from Crawford repeatedly. Crawford seethed. When Shearer made Louis Mayer buy The Women for her, Crawford immediately knew she wanted to be Crystal Allen, the shopgirl who steals the lead character's husband; Mayer hated the idea - he felt Crawford playing a bitch would hurt her rep. Crawford knew it was the best part in the piece, one she knew inside and out.
Ultimately, Crawford got her wish (there's a suggestion that she got it as a consolation for losing the part of Scarlett O'Hara, though how seriously she was up for that is anyone's guess), and it put her opposite Shearer as Mary Haines, the wronged wife. The two women would only have one scene, a doozy of a confrontation in a department store fitting room. As history tells it, George Cukor worried tremendously about a scene, but the master shot (of the two together) went smoothly. Then they did closeups. Shearer, being the bigger star, went first. Crawford, at this time, had taken up knitting, and worked on it when she was off camera (there's actually a reference to this in the film - Roz Russell's character knits in several scenes). Crawford was knitting an afghan, with large needles that clacked loudly. And she sat, feeding Shearer her lines, not looking up, clacking furiously, breaking Shearer's concentration. Until finally Shearer said, icily, that perhaps Miss Crawford wasn't needed for the takes. And she was forced to leave the set.
Siren has pretty much the same version, but with some differences, and then says:
Since the Siren has never much cared for Shearer she's firmly on Crawford's side, and that's the charm of The Women. Joan just wipes the floor with her rival. In their big confrontation scene Joan bites off her lines like gunpowder cartridges. "What have you got to kick about?" she asks Shearer. "You've got the name, the position, the money..." Shearer replies that her husband's love means more. Crawford's response pretty much sums up the Siren's feeling about Shearer's character: "Can the sob stuff, sister. You noble wives and mothers bore the brains out of me." Shearer does get more interesting later on, when she starts to fight instead of posing and preaching, but round one goes to Crystal, and how. Next to her, Shearer looks dumpy and overbred. Even later, when Crawford says "I guess it's back to the perfume counter with me," she says it in a way that tells the audience the ladies haven't heard the last of Crystal.
I'd go a step further: what Crawford shows is that she's a better actress than Shearer; Shearer's lost in the part of Mary Haines, and it does hurt the picture. But almost every actress around her is brilliant, especially Crawford. And it's Crawford who carries the confrontation: there's a real menace in the master shot, as Joan unleashes years of pent up resentments, but does it in character. When Mary bites off her last bitchy retort about Crystal's outfit "If you're dressing to please Steven, not that one; he doesn't like such obvious effects," Crawford's right there, in her face, to respond "Thanks for the tip. But when anything I wear doesn't please Steven, I take it off." The triumph on her face says it all. No one but Crawford could manage, under the Hays Code censorship, to make it quite so clear just what her appeal would be to another woman's husband (without, say, the more obvious quality Jean Harlow used). And that's the thing - beneath and beyond the camp, what gives Crawford her gay fanbase is the unapologetic nature of her work - tough, uncompromising, sexual. God, I love her work.