Review: ‘Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography’

There are no wire hangers in this Joan Crawford bio. As co-authors Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell have it, Joan Crawford was the victim of lies when her daughter, Christina, penned her notorious bio, "Mommie Dearest," in 1978. It is written by two fans whose devotion to Crawford is only exceeded by a disinterest in investigative journalism.

There are no wire hangers in this Joan Crawford bio. That’s because the book’s two brief references are refutations. As co-authors Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell have it, Joan Crawford was the victim of vindictive, malicious lies when her daughter, Christina, penned her notorious bio, “Mommie Dearest,” in 1978. This slick, if belated, riposte might be alternatively titled “Joan Crawford’s Revenge,” for it is written by two worshipping fans whose devotion to Crawford is only exceeded by a tandem disinterest in investigative journalism.

Obviously, the authors’ goal is to resurrect the reputation of Crawford as both an actor of unheralded ability and a person of genuine character. But their old style of publicity-flacking gets in the way.

Indeed, Crawford makes a worthy subject, even if Quirk and Schoell miss some of the more tantalizing reasons why. One is the skillful manner in which this star, born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, perennially transformed her persona over five decades in order to maintain her celebrity. In short, Crawford was the Madonna of her day, and, incidentally, both women tangled in different eras with Pepsi-Cola, as transgressive, over-the-top spokeswomen.

Unfortunately, Quirk and Schoell depict Crawford as one of the masochistic heroines of her many romantic melodramas, and the writing pair’s primary source is the unreliable lady herself. Typically, they admit Crawford had her peevish, un-saintly moments, but always because someone else (usually another diva) was much more ill-tempered (one entire chapter is titled “Victim”).

Thus, during the making of “Grand Hotel” the “competition erupted when Garbo demanded that Joan’s scenes be trimmed — or else.” On “Johnny Guitar,” Mercedes McCambridge “was furious when she found out Joan was having an affair with (director) Nicholas Ray … her plans to shunt Joan aside were thus doomed at the outset.” During “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”: “If Joan had had more faith in the script, she might have ignored the unpleasantness of her co-star … Most observers agree that by this time, the feud was entirely, one-sided, with (Bette) Davis the sole instigator.”

Quirk and Schoell also defend Joan’s “incredible sex life,” although too often using gauche, patronizing jargon. In one photo caption, Quirk bills himself as “Crawford’s mentor and one-time lover.” Elsewhere, Crawford’s love affairs seem to last about as long as their descriptions: “Joan managed to snare (Jimmy) Stewart at some point during the filming of ‘Ice Follies’ … Joan was always on the prowl for an intriguing encounter in the sack.”

As for those child abuse charges, the authors mainly quote Crawford friends who wouldn’t — or couldn’t — have been witnesses (e.g., first husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr.).

In one of the last chapters, “Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography” offers some originality as Quirk and Schoell discuss why Crawford has become an icon for gay viewers. Here, the authors address viewer identification issues, not simply Crawford’s friendships with gay men. Certainly, Crawford’s on-screen work deserves more substantive re-evaluation, in particular for the way her strong, proto-feminist image often contrasted, or even conflicted, with her narrative’s sexist constructs.

Yet, despite the book’s early promise “to analyze her roles and films more fully” than usual, Quirk and Schoell catalog the works with wispy, predictable appraisals: “The Women” is “grand entertainment,” “Mildred Pierce” is “almost perfect moviemaking,” while “Strait-Jacket” is “undeniably schlocky, but it is also quite entertaining and effective.” The authors then glibly classify Crawford’s performances as either “natural” (i.e., good) or “artificial” (i.e., bad).

Well, at least the film stills and publicity photos are glamorous and beautiful, and not a one contain Crawford’s famously air-brushed freckles or “any nonsense about wire coat hangers.” After all, isn’t looking good what becomes a legend most?

Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography

U. of Kentucky Press; 342 Pgs.; $27.50


Lawrence J. Quirk & WIilliam Schoell
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