When one hears the name Joan Crawford, an image of a frenzied Faye Dunaway sporting a green sleeping mask with larger-than-life eyebrows might come to mind, accompanied by the phrase, "no more wire hangers!" How could an actress whose celebrity outlasted the average movie star's by at least four decades suffer such a rapid and humiliating post-mortem decline of reputation?
Mark A. Vieira, a classical Hollywood film historian addresses the child abuse rumors: "I really don't believe them. I've never heard anyone verify these accusations other than what Christina Crawford printed about Joan in Mommie Dearest."
In fact, there may not be any validity at all to these accusations. Vieira elaborates, "I have heard -- and I can't verify this -- but I have heard that a number of the incidents in Mommie Dearest were made up after the first draft because the editor told Christina Crawford that it wasn't interesting enough. So they made up the wire hangers and they made up the whole child abuse thing. There have never been any other people interviewed who verified those events."
Rumors aside, as Vieira asserts, "If you're a Crawford fan, and you don't like Mommie Dearest, there's evidence every week on cable television that Joan really had an amazing career. Her ability to radiate charisma and captivate her audience made her so successful."
Crawford's film career, which spanned five decades, is most memorable for Joan's exceptional ability to reinvent entirely her public image as both the change in times and her own physical aging necessitated. From Crawford's first onscreen appearance as Norma Shearer's body double in the 1925 silent picture Lady of the Night to her final role as a victim of ESP harassment in the 1975 sci-fi flop We're Going to Scare You to Death, Joan's career underwent a series of transitions.
Joan first started to attain a cult following as the model '20s jazz flapper, starring in silent musical pictures such as Our Dancing Daughters and Our Modern Maidens. The majority of silent film stars did not survive the industry's transition from silent to sound. Big names like Gloria Swanson, John Gilbert and Bessie Love disappeared from screen credits after a few awkward years of early talkies. Joan's onscreen persona moved without a hitch, evolving from the controversial, party-going flapper, to a more sober but still light-hearted Depression-age "shop-girl who makes good."
Whereas the '30s displayed some of Joan Crawford's finest work as a young Hollywood star in films like Dancing Lady, Sadie McKee and Letty Lynton, the '40s began with a tumultuous start for Joan. From the loss of her MGM contract, to her divorce from her second husband Franchot Tone, to the fading of her youthful good looks, Joan endured many a disappointment in the early war years. The same fanaticism that drove Crawford to persist through this nadir can be likened to the very fervor that later perpetuated her notoriety as a madwoman.
Joan claimed both her comeback as well as her first and only academy award as the title role in the 1945 smash success Mildred Pierce. Her clownish makeup, including her trademark eyebrows and colossal lips, facilitated her enduring success after the passing of her youthful heyday. Joan was not willing to sacrifice her career and fame to the fear of coming across as slightly eccentric. The '40s and '50s featured her in many more box-office hits, such as Humoresque, Possessed, Sudden Fear and Johnny Guitar.
It is indeed regrettable that such an outstanding and long-lasting career as Joan Crawford's has been almost entirely overshadowed by one highly subjective and purportedly fallacious representation of it. Joan was not the monster whom Faye Dunaway portrays in Mommie Dearest. Walls of the classics section of any video store are lined with the evidence to prove it. As Vieira remarks, "Many more of Crawford's movies are now being released on DVD. Rent Mildred Pierce, rent Humoresque. Crawford's work speaks for itself"