Combining the impeccable aesthetic of MGM, the meticulous lighting and atmosphere George Cukor is known for, and some kick-ass performances by all the leads (Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, Conrad Veidt, Osa Massen), A Woman’s Face is a psychological melodrama with aspects of a crime thriller, a noir, and a five-hankie weepie. It tells the story of Anna Holm (played brilliantly by Joan Crawford), a woman who was horribly disfigured in her youth, leaving her scarred on one side of her face. Being ugly is not just skin-deep. Anna Holm has been repeatedly rejected by the human race, who stare at her scar in horror and fascination, recoiling from her, and so she rejects the world in turn, succumbing to a life of crime. It’s not that she’s bad all the way through – Joan Crawford manages to suggest the pain at the heart of being that rejected, and what it means to the development of a personality. Joan Crawford naturally was a babe from the moment she was born, and seriously: this woman was a babe to end all babes. If you’ve seen photographs of her in her late teens and early twenties you know what a stunner she was. I mean, she was always beautiful – but in her youth she was spectacular. To see how she inhabits the neurotic cringing personality of Anna Holm, how compassionately she suggests what it is like to be ugly (and she does so with no condescension or self-importance, like: “Look at me! Joan Crawford! Bein’ all ugly!”), and how she shows this woman’s dawning realization of her own softness, her own desires … is a revelation.
I am determined that I will see a Joan Crawford Renaissance in my lifetime. I am determined that her reputation be rehabilitated! It’s insane that a vicious autobiography with a giant CHIP on its shoulder should so destroy an actress’ entire reputation … that book was a watershed, not just in Hollywood memoirs, but in the publishing industry itself. But that’s neither here nor there. And frankly, I am SICK of having to talk about Christina Crawford every time I talk about her mother Joan. I am SICK of having Christina Crawford set the tone of the conversation, and insinuate herself into the action. We’ve heard what you had to say, Christina, now get out of my life. Whatever did or did not happen in that household is, as far as I am concerned, immaterial. I don’t care if Joan Crawford made her children scrub the china with toothbrushes, I don’t care if she made them dance a jig in the moonlight until they collapsed from exhaustion, I don’t care if she made them drain the pool with teaspoons. I’m over it. Can we talk about her WORK, please? Honest to God. If she abused her kids, that’s awful. Whatevs. I’m not interested in Joan Crawford because she’s an upstanding citizen (although I think Christina’s damning book leaves much to be desired in the way of, oh, TRUTH). I’m interested in Joan Crawford because she is a fine actress. So. NO MORE, CHRISTINA. You’ve dominated the Crawford landscape long enough.
Ah, that felt good.
A Woman’s Face is told in flashbacks. We start in a Swedish court of law, where Anna Holm is on trial for murder. We never see Joan Crawford’s face. She wears a black hat tilted over one eye, and her head is bowed. There is a group of people who are the ‘witnesses’ and they are all held in a small room with express instructions to not discuss the case amongst themselves. Wonderful character actors, all of them. One by one, they are led out into the courtroom to tell their version of the story, and we flash back to the past.
Conrad Veidt (who was just about to play Major Strasser in Casablanca) plays Torsten Barring, a slick conniving conman, who meets Anna Holm in the back of a tavern (leave it to MGM to make that tavern like something out of a fairy tale. The group of revelers sit outside on the patio, surrounded by a Hansel and Gretl forest, absolutely gorgeous) when he is trying to get out of paying his check, and when he sees her scar he does not recoil in disgust. He takes it in, certainly, but his manner is that of a gentleman, kind and considerate. He sees in her something that he can use (because he’s that kind of guy) and eventually they go into “business” together. Their business is blackmailing the rich.
One of Conrad Veidt’s party is the sleazy luscious Vera Segert, played beautifully by Osa Massen.
She is married to a prominent plastic surgeon in Stockholm, but she is obviously having an affair. Probably multiple affairs. She’s a slut. Conrad Veidt steals a packet of her love letters out of the jacket of her lover, in order to blackmail her later.
Anna Holm goes to visit Mrs. Segert, and there is a thrilling vicious scene of confrontation between the two women. Mrs. Segert begs for mercy, she loves her husband, please let me have my letters! At one point, Joan Crawford has her on the couch, and she slaps her on the face 3, 4 times. Watch Joan Crawford in that violent moment. It’s melodramatic, sure, but Joan Crawford was at home in melodrama. She could fill it, she could justify it, she could make it look real. I’m convinced she could make anything look real. She’s that good. Her slapping of Mrs. Segert is not movie-violence, it’s real violence, and you clench up, watching it, because it’s the real world inserting itself into what is, of course, just a movie. Anna Holm loses control in that moment. And Anna Holm, twisted inside, bitter, hard, never loses control. So to see her slapping Mrs. Segert, Mrs. Segert crying out and sobbing, trying to get away, is thrilling movie-making. Crawford’s eyes. Just take a look at Crawford’s eyes in that scene. Scary. It’s real.
Mr. Segert (played by the marvelous, God I love him, dear God help me, Melvyn Douglas) comes home unexpectedly and interrupts Anna Holm in the act of trying to escape out the window. Mrs. Segert, slut that she is, is terrified that Anna Holm will reveal the REAL reason that she is in their house. Mrs. Segert continuously insists that she “lufs” her husband, she “lufs” Gustav so much … but you know she’s only in it for the money and the prestige. She has a vested interest in being “Mrs. Gustav Segert” and if Anna Holm breaks out the packet of love letters, all will be lost. However: Gustav Segert just happens to be (“just happens”! Ha – that’s one hell of a coincidence) the number one plastic surgeon in Stockholm, and he gets a look at the scar on Anna Holm’s face, and tells her he can help her. He pulls out a book of before and after photographs, people who have been terribly burned or scarred – and what he has been able to do for them, the reconstructions he is known for.
Anna Holm is a tough case. She’s not just a softie waiting to emerge with the right circumstances … she is tough. She’s had to be. But Joan Crawford flips through the before and after photographs with a dawning sense of hope on her face, hope and amazement … and it’s even more startling because hope, for Anna Holm, is necessarily combined with sadness. Hope cannot stand on its own, because she has been disappointed and hurt so many times. And that does something to a human being. It warps what was once straight. (I’m thinking about Tess of the D’Urbervilles right now, as I seem to do whenever such a question of the warping of personality by life comes up … Can such things be undone? Is there such a thing as “too late”? Hardy thinks yes, but then he was a great pessimist. Tess was made, MADE, for a happy and fulfilled life. She was made to be a vibrant loving and loved woman. But life had something different in store for her, and by the time she actually emerges from the nightmare, and finds love again – it is too late. The damage has been done.) Joan Crawford is able to modulate that kind of delicate imbalance with meticulous accuracy. A million things are going on on her face (and for half of the film, she only has half of her face at her disposal as an actress!), she cannot believe that he is able to work such miracles, and she also cannot believe that he could ever “fix” her. “You couldn’t fix this!” she says. But there’s something deeper going on in the scene, and you just need to keep your eyes fixed on Crawford’s face to discern it. The thought that someday she might NOT have a scar has never occurred to Anna Holm. But now, suddenly … it does. Instead of leaping for joy, she is almost devastated by it. Because what will it mean? Her whole life is about having that scar. Who will she be without a scar? There’s a certain sense of loss there as well … it is as though she feels her whole identity is her scar.
Anna Holm submits to 12 grueling operations, and Gustav Segert (I love Melvyn Douglas … have I mentioned that?) reminds her that all of this may come to naught. He makes no promises. But he’s a genius, and after the 12th operation, Anna Holm is revealed as, well, the Joan Crawford we all know and love.
But life isn’t as simple or as clear as it seems. We see that immediately in a scene where the newly un-scarred Joan Crawford strolls through a park. She still has the cringing posture and odd mannerisms of someone trying to hide herself from the world. A little boy chasing after a ball bumps into her, and glances up. Anna, so used to the cringing response from people to her scar, recoils, hiding the right side of her face, waiting for the inevitable “Ewwww” look to appear. But the little boy grins up at her, openly, and makes some cheese-ball 1941 comment like, “Gee, lady, you’re awful pretty!” One must accept a bit of cheese with your pointed psychological melodrama. And I was moved to tears watching Joan Crawford’s face in response to that comment. She realized how she had anticipated rejection, and then to NOT have it come … it was like you could actually SEE her start to open her heart up to the world. You can actually SEE her become a little bit softer.
But the path will not be that easy for Anna Holm, due to her sordid past and her association with Conrad Veidt. Not to mention the fact that living for so many years in a state of bitterness, removing herself from the human race (as it were, and as she says in the last line of the film), accepting the world’s worst opinion of her, and living up to it … it won’t be that easy for her to ‘change her spots’. Thank God the film didn’t go in that direction, ie: If you’re ugly you’re bad! But all you need to do is be changed into something beautiful, and all will be well! A Woman’s Face is more complex than that. People internalize the world. It happens all the time. Our outer appearances are judged a million times a day, and people make decisions about us based on our appearances. This is just a part of life. For the majority of her time on this earth, Anna Holm got the message: You are ugly and it makes us frightened to look at you. And so she internalized that until it became her entire identity.
Joan Crawford is marvelous at this. Watch how she always, even after the operation, protects the right side of her face. She still seems to feel that the scar is there. And Crawford plays it so well that there were times when I could still see the scar, even though her skin was smooth and clear. The scar was inside. She still felt it, and therefore, so did I.
A Woman’s Face is a terrific film with some minor silly elements, one being a “Swedish” folk dance scene – which The Siren, in her brilliant way, breaks down:
By far the worst is the dance at the castle, when Crawford shows up in the aforementioned dirndl. The guests are doing a traditional Swedish dance (or so we’re told, possibly MGM made the whole thing up) and the old man who owns the castle says to Crawford, “come and try it! it isn’t hard!” No, not hard at all. You just have to jump in the air, swing your partner, join hands and galop down a row of similarly attired partygoers, twirl in a foursome, join hands again and do a “London Bridge” formation and then start all over again with Conrad Veidt as your partner. For the duration of the dance poor Joan’s performance goes stone-dead. Anyone who’s ever seen her Charlestoning up a storm in one of her Jazz Baby roles realizes right away that Joan is really, really hating this “Lonely Goatherd” shit.
And I’m sorry to bring up Christina again but I cannot help it:
To watch Joan Crawford’s intelligent heartfelt nuanced performance in A Woman’s Face is to realize, for the 100th time, what a grave disservice has been done to this American icon. And I admit, I’m pissed about it. Joan Crawford is a fantastic actress, and there are many folks out there who might just know her from late-night viewings of Baby Jane, OR (worse yet) only know her from Faye Dunaway’s chew-the-scenery performance in Mommie Dearest. I have nothing against Dunaway’s performance, and I actually think it was scary brilliant … but to have Joan Crawford, her huge and long body of work, to be remembered in the minds of millions as that? It’s enough to make me want to cry. Joan Crawford was a huge movie star. There are plenty of huge movie stars. But watch her acting, watch how smart it is – and also, gotta say it – watch how she creates a character here. Joan Crawford obviously had a persona, she came up in the time of great personae … but in her best roles, she submerges that into the experience of the character. Like in Daisy Kenyon (my review here) – a simple and compassionate portrayal of a magazine illustrator, living a simple yet independent life, torn between two loves and also her desire to have her own life. Then there’s Mildred Pierce, her tour de force, and seriously: please watch her in the scenes where she’s waiting tables on a busy night in the restaurant, barking to the cooks, “Hold slaw …” before swooping off with a tray of food over her head. Her work is detailed. I think a lot of times that is forgotten about Crawford, in the sometimes over-the-top portrayals in her later career, not to mention the shrieking-eel afterimage left by Faye Dunaway. There’s also Sudden Fear (my review here) which has quickly become not only my favorite Crawford performance, but one of my favorite performances of an actress ever. Marvelous. Marvelous. To put all of that up against her performance as the bitter pissed-off cynical Anna Holm in A Woman’s Face is to see a giant talent at work, an actress who knew what she was good at, knew what she was capable of, and had the ambition and guts to mess with her own persona when called upon to do so. Here she is in A Woman’s Face, denied, for the most part, of what was probably seen as her main asset: her beauty. And watch how Crawford doesn’t just show off the makeup job of the scar, it’s not at all a superficial performance. That scar goes to her core, and Joan Crawford plays it that way.
She was an actress. Check out this terrific interview with Crawford about how she worked on parts, and you can really get a sense of her dedication and her understanding of what her actual job is. I love her comment: “It’s wonderful to be a perfectionist.” I think many actors are in it to be famous. And I don’t scorn that. Fame is a great motivator. But if fame distracts you to such a degree that you are then unable to do your work (I’m looking at YOU, Lindsay Lohan … I love you, girl! But remember what you got into this thing for … get back to THAT, mkay? I got your back!) … you are no longer an actress. You are an “object”. You are in a two-way conversation with the tabloids. It is no longer about your work, it is about your personal life, your persona, your vajayjay, and your offscreen shenanigans. Now if you’re Paris Hilton, that’s fine. I mean, what else is she going to do? She had BETTER be in the tabloids at all times, because other than her fortune she hasn’t got much else going for her. But Lohan’s got talent. I love her. She’s actually an actress, so I hope that her derailment does not … well, derail her completely. Because her job, her actual job, is to be an actress. And she’s good! Joan Crawford had both elements in her life. She was a massive star. A “personality”. But she also knew what her actual job was … and that was NOT to be a star, but to be a good actress. To get in projects she was right for (and she had to lobby HARD for some of her most indelible parts), and then to commit totally to the demands of the script.
See A Woman’s Face. Crawford is wonderful, and have I mentioned how much I love Melvyn Douglas? Also, it’s a total hoot to watch Crawford in a dirndl skirt doing some bullshit MGM version of a folk dance. Seriously.
Other things to watch out for in the film:
— The thrilling sleigh chase. It was filmed in Idaho, apparently – and however they did it – I have no idea, and I don’t care … it’s a thrilling piece of filmmaking. Two sleighs gallop at top speed through the icy woods, dodging sudden avalanches, skidding perilously around corners … Fantastic. Terrifying.
— Conrad Veidt is great. I will always think of him as Major Strasser but he’s great here, and he has much more to do. The character is despicable, and yet you can see totally why Crawford’s character would find herself under his spell. When he saw her scar, he did not recoil! He accepted her!
— Every character actor filling out the picture gives a slam-dunk performance. God, I love that old studio system mainly for its stable of brilliant reliable character actors.
— Melvyn Douglas has a relatively thankless role, but what a wonderful performance he gives. I am particularly attached to the first moment he sees Anna’s scar, and the soft kind look that comes into his eyes – mixed with professional interest. I also love the “chase” scene with the cable cars over the freezing white-water river.
— But mainly it is the nuances of Crawford’s performance that makes this picture a must-see. Her bitterness in the early flashbacks is not a put-on, or an actress self-consciously “behaving” like the character would behave. It feels like I am looking at who this woman actually is. It doesn’t feel “acted” at all.