An Ardent Fan Talks About the Actress She Loves
By Annie Stone
She's the Star who has never disappointed her – the most unique actress of her generation whose "intense, raw reservoir of emotion” has not been surpassed by anyone since, says writer Donna Marie Nowak, whose recently published book “Just Joan: A Joan Crawford Appreciation,” has garnered rave reviews. "There aren’t piss-and-vinegar, sexy dames like that around anymore and we will perhaps never see her like again,” she wrote.
An unabashed love letter to the actress once called the Ultimate Star, “Just Joan: A Joan Crawford Appreciation” is filled with lush photographs, witty, insightful essays on Crawford’s life and work and an unapologetically feminist stance from its gifted author who describes the Crawford as “the Maria Callas” of actresses.
Glamour and Tenderness
With nearly 300 photographs that Nowak either bought herself or garnered from private collections – some never published before – we see Crawford at all stages of her life and career – from her early days as a silent-screen actress and then throughout her career all the way up until the 1960’s. The author presents a portrait of the woman born Lucille Fay LeSueur who though she had to claw her way up from what she describes as a “Dickensian childhood” in Texas severely lacking in love and filled with drudgery -- to the heights of Hollywood success -- never lost her drive, her glamour – or her tenderness.
Nowak -- who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and who has written two other books and several radio plays -- said she began her study of the actress in earnest after seeing the film “They All Kissed the Bride” and was blown away by her “charm, romantic lightness, beauty and jaw-dropping glamour” in a role that had originally been intended for Carole Lombard. While she had always admired and enjoyed the actress, she realized there was so much more to her than the “Bitch Goddess” roles for which she seemed most remembered.
The book, published by Bear Manor Media, isn’t just a work that pays homage to a great actress and artist. Nowak draws upon her extensive knowledge as a film and cultural historian, taking us on a journey through the actress’s films while always putting into context what was going on in the country -- and that other country – Hollywood – at the time.
And now, as a special treat – an interview with the author.
Why Did You Choose to Write This Book?
I had grown up, watching Joan Crawford films on television and in retro film festivals, so I've always liked her, but I became truly fascinated and smitten when I saw They All Kissed the Bride. Her lightness and beauty in that film knocked my socks off and sparked an interest. From that point, I sought out all of her films and came to a much deeper understanding and appreciation of Crawford. In fact, she blew everyone else out of the water. I started a website The Films of Joan Crawford in which I reviewed not only all of the movies, but all the stories, plays and books that had been the basis for Crawford films and all her autobiographies and biographies -- and even paper doll books based on Joan. I examined all sides of her in essays and maintained huge photo galleries - with over a thousand photos on my site. Plus I began to meet more and more people who had known Crawford. I always wrote the site as if it was a book and that's exactly what happened. I turned my website into a book which is what it was meant to be all along. I was obsessed with Crawford and she's never disappointed me.
How Does Crawford Differ From Others in Her Generation?
Joan Crawford is unique from any actress of any generation. She was completely self-actuated. She had such a strong sense of wanting to make the most out of whatever material she had and she gave her 200%. She was never an empty shell. From her early days when she was cast basically as an ingénue, she really worked to learn all aspects of the movie business. She was very savvy and smart in spite of an inadequate formal education. She achieved so many things on her own against the odds. And, unlike many actors then or since, she also gave back whole-heartedly to her fans and made them feel important. She, in fact, was very loyal to many people who had done her kindnesses and helped many a career. She stuck by William Haines and helped him establish a new career as an interior decorator when so many others abandoned him because he was gay. She helped Dore Freeman, who had been a Western Union messenger, get a job as a publicist at MGM -- all for feeding her a line when she was besieged by photographers. When they asked her if she was engaged to Franchot Tone, he told her to say, "Time will tell." A few days later he got a gold watch that said "Time will tell. Love, Joan Crawford." That began a relationship between them which lasted until her death in 1977.
How do you explain her enduring appeal?
For me, Joan Crawford is the Maria Callas of Film. She had such an intense and incredible reservoir of raw emotion, because she had a very hard life with a lot of struggle and yet she moved forward and achieved in spite of it. She came from poverty and was no stranger to pain. There's an emotional truth, to use that chestnut, that bleeds through many of her performances. In her films, Joan often faces her detractors with courage, chutzpah and dignity as an outsider and a woman. She wasn't simplistic, she was complex. She embodied a resilient spirit, someone who refused to be kept down. Who can't relate to that? As one critic pointed out, in Strait-Jacket, she made her axe murderess the most sympathetic character in the film. Plus she's sexy and exciting -- it's a bottomless well of reasons. Joan cared deeply about pleasing her audience, loved and gave tirelessly to her fans, and it transmits and resonates.
Why Do You See Her as a Feminist Hero and Icon?
Well, I have an essay in my book that explains that. I took great pains to write it and did a lot of research to demonstrate her influence and impact on women as a strong role model throughout her career.
She was really one of the movers and shakers of her time. Diana Vreeland considered her one of the ultimate fashion icons. She was photographed by the greatest photographers of her day, directed by its greatest directors, painted by some of the world's greatest artists and moved among all the great artists, writers and creative forces of her day. She was one of them. She had enormous charisma from the get-go, even when still very young and gauche.
Presence is something you can't completely manufacture; it comes from within. There's also that thing about being smart about the movie business. She had the eyes and the bone structure and the looks, but she also understood hers was a visual medium and wanted to "give value" to what she valued, as she once put it. She kept her voice in a lower register when she moved into film noir, which was very sexy, most notably in Humoresque.
She moved and held her body in a certain way. She dressed befitting her station as a movie star to please her fans. She established an iconic look -- what they would probably call a brand now -- the exaggerated lip line, the arching brows, and the shoes -- it was distinctive. She could be drawn with a few brush strokes.
What Makes Her Modern? Is There Anyone Contemporary Like Her?
I'd say timeless. I honestly don't see any contemporary actresses on her level. The same kind of larger-than-life icon isn't being manufactured by a studio system. Crawford embodied glamour and a powerful inner force. She carried her films. These films revolved around her -- a woman who was strong yet vulnerable -- a very American woman who reflected Crawford's own story sometimes in part. She had an earthiness about her that makes her acting and image still very natural or contemporary -- a striking example is Grand Hotel. Think of Crawford against Garbo. Crawford comes off as very unaffected and modern. Joan seems to call people out on the BS. She has grit and an unconventionality.
Talk About Her Range? Most People Associate Her With the Scary Mother in Mommie Dearest. What Don't We Know About Her?
I think it's pretty outrageous that anyone would view Crawford through the prism of her daughter's poison pen or certainly the campy movie which has very little to do with her. It actually spoofs a lot of scenes from Joan's films and isn't a serious biopic by any stretch of the imagination. But I don't agree that most people associate her with that. She has a very dedicated and loyal fan base. She did from her early years in cinema. If you attend retro showings of Crawford films, they are well attended and books continue to come out, reevaluating the stereotypes.
What some people might not know about Joan Crawford is that she had a life-affirming attitude and spirit, in many ways. She was eager to learn new things and improve herself. She had friends in all walks of life. She was not a snob. She took her craft seriously and wasn't afraid to take risks. People forget or aren't aware of how vivacious she was. You see that side of her in early films when she's a girl, but I feel that girlish, fun-loving side remained with her for life. She was generous with her money and time. People forget about the sheer range of characters she portrayed in her 50-year career; there was a lot of versatility and her look constantly changed even when it became a trademark look. She was passionate but also shy and a romantic. Many people don't peg Crawford as shy, but she was.
What is the Biggest Misconception About Joan Crawford?
Well, there are so many urban legends and she has her share of detractors. It wouldn't be Joan if there wasn't controversy -- it remains an enduring element of her life and persona. But I'd say one huge fallacy that continues to be repeated is that she was a star, not an actress. Crawford had star charisma, but she was an actress, too. She supplied some of the finest performances in certain films of any actress of our times. She could be over-the-top, but she was also subtle and usually completely invested. I believe she had a sense of humor, too, another thing people say she didn't possess. She could be a prankster and if you quote her or see her strike that match on the phonograph in Strait-Jacket -- give me a break, this woman had a sense of humor. Basically, I see a lot of criticism leveled at her that I feel has its roots in gender bias. It's a very real thing. Her drive and ambition wouldn't be made into a freakish thing if she was a man. Another misconception that rankles me to no end is that stupid statement that she adopted her kids for the publicity. She shot so much footage of Christina for her own private movies - Christina in the high chair falling asleep, Christina laughing. Saved the child's baby teeth, created scrapbooks. Whatever mistakes she might have made, I felt she really wanted to give love and be loved and she loved passionately. She valued her career but genuinely wanted a family as well.
What Is Your Favorite Crawford Movie -- And Why?
I love so many, but my very favorite is the film she won the Oscar for - Mildred Pierce. For me, Mildred Pierce is quintessential Joan. A woman of meager means with the deck stacked against her and no support from her family pulls herself up by her bootstraps and achieves phenomenal success. She is ambitious and willing to work hard -- and she's very glamorous. Her look there was at its most iconic -- the linebacker shoulder pads, the rolled hair, the ankle-strap shoes. Crawford was often exquisite in the 20's and 30's -- it was the peak of her youth and a vivacious, girlish personality - but in the 40's, she really reached her iconic status -- still beautiful and glamorous, of course, but with a new strength and maturity. As Mildred, she embodies a take-charge woman able to compete in a world of men without sacrificing her femininity, emblematic of the 40's maybe when women were pitching in while the men were at war -- but pure Crawford. Vulnerable, of course -- but Joan always is. The film is deliciously operatic, too.
What Do You Want People to Come Away With When They Read Your Book?I want to show people what I see in Joan, give a fuller understanding of all of her achievements, of that inner quality, magic and gift she had that explained why director George Cukor called her "one of the people that made Hollywood the place that touched the imagination of the world."