You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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?

More Reviews

  • A Strange Loop review

    Off Broadway Review: 'A Strange Loop'

    “No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write,” sings the anxiety-ridden lead character in Michael R. Jackson’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exasperating new musical, “A Strange Loop,” at Playwrights Horizons. The abundantly talented Jackson takes the otherwise tired trope of the young, poor and sensitive artist trying to discover his true self and [...]

  • GRAND HOTEL - "Pilot" - Eva

    TV Review: 'Grand Hotel'

    There’s hardly a better setting for a summer drama than a swanky Miami hotel overflowing with champagne and secrets. Enter ABC’s “Grand Hotel,” based on a Spanish series and developed by Brian Tanen (“Devious Maids,” “Desperate Housewives”). It wastes no time diving straight into a tangled mess of melodrama, ranging from missing people to secret [...]

  • Alternatino with Arturo Castro

    TV Review: Comedy Central's 'Alternatino with Arturo Castro'

    There’s something extremely cathartic about watching a Latinx comedian get his own platform to do as he pleases, ripping cliches in the entertainment industry and beyond with invigorating vehemence. With his new Comedy’s Central sketch show “Alternatino,” Arturo Castro has the rare opportunity to tell his own story and skewer the inevitably cringe-inducing perceptions of [...]

  • The Paradise

    Shanghai Film Review: 'The Paradise'

    Although gritty dramas about the hell of drug addiction are seldom in short supply in the low-budget independent sphere, it’s hard to imagine even the most uncompromising U.S. film committing quite as tenaciously to the idea of the bleak futility and probable failure of rehabilitation as Shih Han Liao’s compelling downer “The Paradise” (title ironic). [...]

  • Emanuel

    Film Review: 'Emanuel'

    Mass shootings continue to be a shameful stain on contemporary American history. They strike at such a frequent rate that the way they occupy news cycles before losing the public’s short-spanned attention has become appallingly routine. With his somber documentary “Emanuel,” released by Fathom Events in theaters for two nights only (June 17 and 19), [...]

  • My Dear Friend

    Shanghai Film Review: 'My Dear Friend'

    Like a slow-acting hallucinogen, Chinese director Yang Pingdao’s audaciously strange and sorrowful feature debut works its magic so gradually that it’s with a slight surprise that halfway through you glance down and realize you’re high off the social-realist ground, suspended surreally in the air. At first a gritty tale of feckless men abandoning their families [...]

  • Emu Runner

    Sydney Film Review: 'Emu Runner'

    Writer-director Imogen Thomas’ debut feature “Emu Runner” has and probably will play in designated family-themed strands of film festivals, and given its story of a 9-year-old Aboriginal girl who deals with grief in the wake of her mother’s death by bonding with a lone female representative of Australia’s largest native bird species, this programming strategy [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content