“If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.” – Joan Crawford

Today is Joan Crawford’s birthday. Some links first:

World-Class Acting: On Joan Crawford and Sudden Fear

Here are the re-caps of Feud: Bette and Joan I did for The New York Times. Lots of discussions of Joan Crawford’s career and acting woven throughout.

A while back, Mitchell and I had a discussion about her. Well, we discuss her all the time. But this time I recorded it.

The setup of the conversation went as follows (an ongoing series): I throw names of famous people at Mitchell, and ask him to describe each person in only “one word”. Then we both take it from there. Enjoy.


Sheila O’Malley: One word.

Mitchell Fain: I’m looking for a word that means “of an era”. I guess I’m going to say Of Her Time. She invented film acting. She was this girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and a dancer, it was the flapper era, she was a wild girl. Talk about a chameleon. Fuck Madonna.

MF: (continued) She was the flapper girl, she was the good time girl, she was the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who makes good, she was the modern businesswoman, and then she was the hardened older woman, and then she was the grotesque. Very few people have careers who last as long as hers.

MF: (continued) It’s hard for me to talk about her because I know so much about her personal life, or what I think I know about her personal life. This was a person who loved being famous more than she loved anything else. And being famous meant she had to get good at her job so she became a fabulous film actress but it was about being famous. It was about saying “Fuck You” to the trashy weird place that she grew up in, living in the back of a laundry with her mother on a cot. But as an actress, she really did perfect a kind of film acting. First of all, the camera loved her face. Interestingly enough, she was a blue-eyed freckled girl with red hair. We’d never get that from black and white movies. Her freckles were covered. We never got the sense that she had blue eyes. Cinematographers loved her for her angles.

MF: (continued) So she learned the art of film acting while it was being formed, and everybody has benefited from Crawford’s discoveries.

My favorite Joan Crawford performance is in The Women.

MF: (continued) It’s a great example of her work because she’s surrounded by women who were her contemporaries. You look at Joan Crawford now and we see her movies and the acting may seem archaic in the way that people don’t understand that style anymore, which I get. But you put her around her contemporaries, like Norma Shearer, and she is so utterly real and contemporary. Crystal Allen, the woman she plays in The Women, is so going to get what she wants. And she’s so funny. The scene in the dressing room where she says to Norma Shearer, “Whenever so-and-so doesn’t like what I’m wearing, I take it off.” She is sexual, she is a sexual threat. That role is the personification of Joan Crawford. Working girl, clawed her way to the rich side, she’s stunningly beautiful, she’ll do what she has to do to get there, she knows what she looks like and how that works, she’s brutally honest with herself. To me, it’s her perfect role, because she’s funny and she’s real and she’s stunning and she is the kind of woman that we want to judge, but that we all secretly want to be. It is the way we hope we would be, that kind of tenacity, that kind of “Fuck you, I’m getting what I want.”

SOM: You know what else I love about her is how smart she was about material for herself. The story of Crawford, on bended knee, begging Otto Preminger to put her in Daisy Kenyon. She knew: This is mine. Nobody else can do this. She courted projects, she courted directors. She was in it for the long haul from the beginning, which I love, because she was a jazz baby dancing on tables. Who knew where the movies were gonna go?

MF: There were no VCRs. They didn’t know we were going to study these films with a fine-toothed comb. There weren’t film studies classes. That’s my whole point about what they did back then. When I try to explain to people about old movies and how fabulous they were, my point is they were making these films as entertainment. The idea of the auteur, the artist/director wasn’t really in play, not at the beginning. Roger Ebert does that thing where he watches a film frame by frame with an audience. Back then, there wasn’t even the possibility for people to do that, there was no thought that that was going to happen. So the kinds of movies that were made back then have an unconscious level of artistry to them. We now can study the unconscious intentions, the unconscious moments that came from all of these very conscious decisions. For example, watching Meet Me in St. Louis.

MF: (continued) Vincente Minnelli chose every moment specifically, maybe more so than any director who was a big director at that time. But he made so many different kinds of films that to see him as an auteur is almost difficult because he seemed to be a workman, a journeyman. However, the story that emerges from the details he chose back then then tells the story that we can look at 60 years later.

Then there’s a story that really warms my heart and that is Joan Crawford’s relationship with Billy Haines.

MF: (continued) Billy Haines was a number one movie star in the silent era, he was openly gay, he had a partner. Louis B. Mayer said, “You have to fake a marriage like everybody else or I’m going to fire you” and Haines said, “Would you leave your wife?” And Mayer said, “Make a choice, Hollywood or your partner.” They fired him and put it out that his popularity was going down because of sound, which wasn’t true. He was a top box office person in the country for three years running, and then they kicked him out of Hollywood. He decided to become a designer, which had been his hobby. Joan was a really good friend of his. They had worked together in silent films. In fact, he named Joan, I think. Anyway, she stuck by him. She would have him decorate her house, and would have people over, and people would ask, “Who decorated your house?” He became one of the most influential interior designers in American history and it was partly because of Joan Crawford’s loyalty.

Joan Crawford in her living room, designed by Billy Haines

MF: (continued) So the idea that she was a monster who used people and threw them away is not true. There were people who very loyal to Joan. And she was also a loyal friend for many many years.

Unfortunately, because of Mommie Dearest, which may or may not be apocryphal but which Christina Crawford has certainly dined out on ever since, the book and the movie has made Faye Dunaway‘s impression of Joan Crawford into Joan Crawford.

Nobody’s watching Possessed and no one’s watching The Damned Don’t Cry and no one’s watching Daisy Kenyon, which is one of my favorites. It’s such a beautifully ambiguous movie. Dana Andrews, Henry Fonda, it’s so beautiful. You have no idea who to root for.

SOM: Exactly.

MF: Who’s the good guy here? You don’t know. It’s so brilliant. I also think that she, like Elizabeth Taylor, although Taylor was more hit or miss, Joan was best when she was pushed, when she was challenged. If she had a director like Otto Preminger, who expected her to be an actress, she pulled it out. If she had a weaker director, she was just going to play Joan Crawford. Like with Elizabeth Taylor, when she was working with Rock Hudson or James Dean or Richard Burton or Mike Nichols or Monty Clift, she gave some serious performances.

MF: (continued) When she was working with Paul Newman, she was like, “I gotta bring my A game”. But left to her own devices, when she was the one who was calling the shots, just because she was the biggest star on the lot or the biggest personality, she phoned it in a bit. I think Joan was a little bit like that. For Elizabeth Taylor, it was like she was a little girl trying to prove something, and Joan Crawford was a poor girl trying to prove something.

But like Cary Grant, I am not sure anyone else has known how to use a camera better than Joan Crawford to tell a story. Her face and the camera working together, understanding what that meant, and how that tells a story.

There’s that scene from Sudden Fear where she’s in the closet.

SOM: The slant of light across her eyes.

MF: She knows exactly how much to do with the camera, and what it is, and what the lighting meant. That’s what I mean about film acting. They were creating film acting. In movies now it’s mostly natural lighting, and realistic acting, and we don’t have to worry about those elements so much anymore, it’s not the same artform in a lot of ways. The idea of moving the pictures forward is now all in the director’s and cinematographer’s hands, except for people like Meryl Streep who is still doing that old-school kind of acting work. But back in the day, your face WAS the architecture of the movie. Your face, your body, your shoulders. Look at how Bette Davis walked. The stars were the architecture, their shape meant something to a camera, and I think they knew it and I think they were making it up.

MF: (continued) She’s so fabulous-looking. The image of her will always be jarring and beautiful. There are certain images of her, from the 1940s, with her hair in a snood, and the cheekbones and the lips, and the light across her face, that noir lighting that they perfected on her, that is just so iconic. And then Adrian, the designer, who created the big shoulder thing for her, which made her look like an Amazon.

SOM: She was probably very tiny.

MF: She was tiny. There’s ways that she used herself that they didn’t even know what they were doing, because there weren’t gender studies programs at the time. It’s like Johnny Guitar. Nicholas Ray may have known it on some subconscious level because he was dealing with those things in his own life, but Joan Crawford didn’t know it. But even before that, there was something masculine about the way she strolled across a film. The Bride Wore Red.

MF: (continued) Even though she’s very feminine and very beautiful in that movie, there’s something very masculine about how she goes about getting what she wants, and so the fact that her style became these huge shoulder pads, as though she had these crazy broad football player shoulders, was very deliberate and interesting, in terms of gender. And they put the shoulder pads in everything. It became ridiculous. She’d be wearing a dressing gown with shoulder pads the size of Gary Cooper. It’s also interesting that she did a lot of films with Clark Gable, successful in their time, although they weren’t as famous a duo as Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy or William Powell and Myrna Loy. But they were very successful, and there is something there in the dynamic that reminds me of what Robert Redford said about working with Barbra Streisand: She’s so masculine that you get to be your most feminine, and she’s so feminine you get to be your most masculine. Now, Clark Gable isn’t gonna say that, but that’s what happened with her and Gable.

MF: (continued) He ended up looking pretty compared to her. He had to use feminine wiles to win her over until he became “the man”. Her persona was masculine and feminine. She is a pre-gender-studies classic gender studies subject.

SOM: That’s what we were texting about with Johnny Guitar.

MF: That whole movie is a gender studies class. All of those roles existed, the lipstick lesbian, the bottom boy who was there to please and complement the top guy. It all existed. It’s just that nobody talked about any of it until there were gender studies classes and queer filmmakers and female filmmakers.

SOM: Most of the great movie stars, especially of that era before the sexual revolution, the ones who still resonate for us today, are the ones who have that mix of feminine and masculine. So Joan is hard, Clark gets to be soft. Or Cary is soft and Hepburn gets to be hard. But then they flip. And it’s all delightful. Who’s doing that now? It’s kind of out of style, I guess, but it’s so attractive.

MF: I mean, think about Kristen Wiig‘s persona in Bridesmaids . She’s so honest. And there’s something stereotypically male about her neuroses. She ends up being the female Woody Allen.

SOM: That’s more interesting than the one-note characters of uptight bitch, or an entitled Sex and the City Carrie Bradshaw type … maybe funny, but not attractive, ultimately, as a leading lady, at least in the classic sense.

MF: By the way, these are all Joan Crawford prototypes. I could pick a Joan Crawford movie that is the “entitled bitch”, that is the “uptight ice princess”. Crawford did them all. She practically invented them.


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10 Responses to “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.” – Joan Crawford

  1. Maureen says:

    I have such a hard time articulating my love of Joan Crawford. Her early works are so wonderful, and she is so natural-in a way I don’t feel like a lot of other actresses were. You bring up such a great point, that back then, movie people didn’t realize their works would be so dissected and analyzed like they are now. What is such a joy, is that these performances totally hold up. There is a reason we are still entranced by these movies.

    As much as I love so many of her performances, my favorite is Untamed, 1929. I think I might have mentioned this in your blog before, but this is the movie I realized how very tiny she was. Tiny, yet so full of vim and vigor-and totally mesmerizing.

    She and Clark Gable were involved on and off for years. That is a chemistry that totally translated to the screen.

    I really hate that so many people associate her with the Mommie Dearest. She was so very talented. I guess the only consolation is she was gone when it was published, not like poor Bette Davis who had to deal with the horrible book by B.D.

    I love reading your and Mitchell’s thoughts on Joan-one of my very favorite actresses!

    • sheila says:

      // she is so natural-in a way I don’t feel like a lot of other actresses were. //

      Maureen – this is so true. People miss this about her all the time – or they’ve only seen her later work – but even there: she’s very natural (in her Crawford way) even in Baby Jane. She “showed up” for that – look at how she was actually willing to look. I know she hated every second of it – and Feud made a big deal about her “acting out” and adding padding to her bra, etc. – but the fact remains: that is a very good performance. It’s not just “camp.”

      The concept of camp is a useful one – but not when that’s the only lens.

      // That is a chemistry that totally translated to the screen. //

      They were wonderful together.

      here’s a thought – very often she was paired with men who – although talented – didn’t match her in power/charisma. She dominated. The ones where she was equally matched – the Gable films, her and John Garfield, her and Jack Palance – really stand out. In a way, her insane stardom might have gotten in the way – nothing could be allowed to take focus from her.

      But it’s thrilling when she’s opposite a man who gives it as good as he gets it.

      and don’t even get me started on Christina!! The damage she did has now lasted almost 50 years.

      I am grateful to Feud for providing a more sympathetic portrait – and barely even mentioning Christina – and hopefully more people might go back and actually watch Grand Hotel or Damned Don’t Cry or A Woman’s Face or Autumn Leaves (another one I love).

      I think you will really dig Dan Callahan’s new book, if you haven’t read it. He clocks her (and everyone else mentioned) on moments he thinks artificial – or when she’s trying too hard – but in another very important way, he gets at her essence, at what she brought, at what she did like no other actress. She basically invented movie stardom for the talkie era.

      • sheila says:

        One of the things Dan observed was that she was a master at digging into whatever given emotion was required: and she could carry it along as long as the take required. Once she was “there,” she was THERE.

  2. regina bartkoff says:


    Great conversation!
    What’s weird is only recently, (I mean this year) have I finally appreciated Joan Crawford! Very late to this party but I’m all in now!
    I think she always weirded me out!
    But just today I saw Possessed on TCM for the first time. I think she was very young still, her face didn’t yet go into that masculine hard thing. But it was going there! With a very strange and severe hair style and those shoulders. Anyway! What I was really stuck by was her fantastic acting! I could really feel her deep pain and her totally called for great anger. And her cracking up! I didn’t question anything. I watched the whole thing transfixed. Guess I’m going on a Joan Crawford trip now…….

    • sheila says:

      Regina – // I think she always weirded me out! //

      I can see why. She is so intense – and she IS weird.

      Possessed is one of her best (imo). That crack-up scene is incredible. she’s so honest about playing a “woman who loves too much”.

      I’d be interested to hear your further thoughts and observations! Early Joan is a really rich period – I love Daisy Kenyon too – later Joan, but ambivalent and grown-up and fascinating.

  3. Bill Wolfe says:

    When I first saw Crawford – I suppose I was about 10, and I don’t recall the movie (it actually might have been the Spielberg-directed episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery on TV, now that I think about it) – I had exactly the same reaction that regina bartkoff described in her post: “I think she always weirded me out!” That, to a greater or lesser degree, remained my feeling until I saw The Best of Everything on TCM, sometime in my mid-thirties. I thought it was a remarkable depiction of a character very possibly unique in Hollywood up to 1959, the year of the movie: a career woman who, having chosen work over marriage, convinced herself in her mid-fifties to get married, before realizing that she needed to work to be herself – to be happy. The rest of the movie is hazy, but my memory of Crawford leaving her marriage to return to her job – in 1959! – is vivid, thanks to her acting. Since then, I’ve become more and more interested in her career.

    I also saw Possessed this week on TVCM, and it blew me away. The opening scenes, shot in downtown Los Angeles as night becomes morning, were amazing, as was the shot of Joan being wheeled on a gurney into the ER at County USC Hospital, with the camera shooting from Joan’s POV. Throughout the movie, her willingness to let loose, to go all the way, and to give everything to those moments where her character showed her frustration and anger turning to madness, were astonishing – and brave, I think. At no time did she hold back, or signal the audience “I’m not really like this, please like me.” By the end, I was convinced that there may never have been a leading man who deserved to get shot by his leading lady as much as Van Heflin in this movie. The fact that her other choice was Raymond Massey, consumed by brittle rectitude, made Joan’s situation all the worse.

    Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the scene where Joan imagines murdering Massey’s daughter. Wow, what a scene that was!

    I really hope I get to see a lot more of her movies.

    • sheila says:

      Bill – // until I saw The Best of Everything on TCM, sometime in my mid-thirties. I thought it was a remarkable depiction of a character very possibly unique in Hollywood up to 1959, //

      Ooh so interesting that this was your later moment of tuning into her. It is such a sad performance – it’s a really terrific movie if you wanted to re-visit! Matthew Weiner stole from it all over the place in creating Mad Men (which he admitted – so it’s more an homage – he had the whole cast watch Best of Everything).

      // The opening scenes, shot in downtown Los Angeles as night becomes morning, were amazing, //

      SUCH a fantastic opening. So moody and to see Joan – out in the real world like that – she was such a creature of the studios – is thrilling.

      // At no time did she hold back, or signal the audience “I’m not really like this, please like me.” //

      absolutely true. very very bold.

      All this conversation makes me watch to re-watch it immediately.

  4. regina bartkoff says:


    I did always love Mildred Pierce! And it is tradition for me and my daughter to watch it together as I forced her to as so as she came of age. (that ungrateful child, haha!) And we always howl together at the part where she says she had to become a waitress like it was the lowest thing on earth as I was always waitressing! (I can’t tell you how many movies do that!)
    I love Bill’s comments too! Yes for that gurney shot in Possessed! And especially not signaling to the audience she’s not really like that. It’s often a subconscious thing actors do.

  5. Brad Hall says:

    In writing about “Sudden Fear” you mentioned her range – how she could be soft and vulnerable or calculating and driven. I find myself drawn to those softer roles. Maybe, as Mitchell said, it’s the whole “Mommie Dearest” impression, and no one is watching some of the less harsh roles. I’m thinking, in particular, of another older woman/younger man film that rarely gets mentioned: “Autumn Leaves” with Cliff Robertson. Yes, the treatment for mental illness in 1956 is more than a bit dated, but for me, the story still works because of Crawford’s performance. She is older, lonely, and longing for a relationship, but never desperate. The strength, the resolve, is there, but beneath the surface. Quiet, not showy. When difficult decisions have to be made – such as committing Robertson’s Burt Hanson to a mental hospital – she does so, with anguish, but it needs to be done. So she does it. Hoping for the best. Accepting come what may.

    The ending may be a bit too “neat”, but because of Crawford it works. One of my favorites. Of course, like so many, I had the “Mommie Dearest”, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” impression of her. “Autumn Leaves” was the first film of hers I saw outside of the Joan Crawford “persona”. I was somewhat taken aback. So it has a soft spot in my heart. And I went on to investigate some of her other different roles.

    • sheila says:

      I love Autumn Leaves so much! You write about it so perfectly. (And I so want to live in her little bungalow.)

      I do think, like you say, she’s remembered wrong – for a variety of reasons – all very unfair. This woman was a leading lady for … 35 years or something like that? I mean, she pushed it as long as she could. She started in the silents. She had an incredible run. She could be tough – but she was rarely “hard”. if you think about Mildred Pierce – she’s a go-getter – but she’s not some ball-busting hard dame. Barbara Stanwyck was way more of the hard tough chick (although she could do it all too).

      Autumn Leaves should definitely be way more well-known. I have a little box set of Crawford’s 1950s movies – and that’s one of them.

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