Gay Icons: Joan Crawford - Part 1
Joan Crawford has been a gay icon for over thirty years, and mostly for all the wrong reasons. Most gays know Joan only from the book and film of Mommie Dearest, and probably a screening of The Women or Mildred Pierce. Joan Crawford's reputation was tainted forever by her adopted daughter's sleazy book and the notorious Faye Dunaway film.
In regards to Mommie Dearest, we should remember that a number of Joan Crawford's friends,
including Myrna Loy, had nothing good to say about Christina as a person
or a daughter. And the fact that Christina was disinherited might have
had a lot to do with her vicious payback. Joan Crawford also had two
other adopted daughters later in her life who have nothing but good
things to say about Joan as a mother.
Whether or not one accepts Christina Crawford's melodramatic revelations is pretty much beside the point if you are looking at Joan Crawford the movie icon, the artist and star. For those who only
know Joan from Mommie Dearest, I suggest you rent her two
finest performances: Humoresque and Sudden Fear.
Most people rate Grand Hotel, The Women, Possessed and Mildred Pierce as Joan's finest but I prefer Humoresque. Joan was 42 when she made Humoresque for Warner Brothers. It was filmed from December 1945 through April 1946. During the production of this film, Joan won the 1945 Best Actress Oscar for Mildred Pierce.
Humoresque is one of the greatest melodramas ever filmed. The story of a poor, young violinist (John Garfield) who falls in love with the alcoholic society matron Helen Wright (Joan Crawford) has to be seen to be believed. Joan does not appear in this film for the first 25 minutes as we have the Garfield character (as a child and young man) introduced and developed along with his poor, working-class family. She finally appears at a wealthy reception where Garfield is paid to entertain the guests.
Joan's Helen Wright is a socialite trapped in a loveless marriage surrounded by sexy young men who wait on her hand and foot. Helen Wright drinks too much, sleeps around too much and is living a pointless life until she hears sexy John Garfield play his fiddle. From then on the two clash like two trapped tigers falling wildly in love while each of them knows the hopelessness of the relationship.
Joan Crawford has never looked more glamorous (gowned by Adrian) or been more brilliantly photographed (Ernie Haller) in her entire movie career. Director Jean Negulesco (Johnny Belinda, Three Coins In The Fountain) directs her in the most intense, sexy and spellbinding performance of her career. Helen Wright is forever drinking with expensive crystal decanters in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I think many gay men became alcoholics after watching this film as drinking has never looked more glamorous or dramatic.
The script by Clifford Odets (mostly) based on the old Fannie Hurst potboiler has Joan uttering some of the campiest lines in history. "Martinis are an acquired taste, like Ravel." In answer to Garfield's question, "Do you like music?" she answers, "Most symphonies, some concertos."
There is one incredible shot of Joan as she sits in her box seat listening to Garfield play his violin. The camera dollies in on her— dressed all in white— and ends in a close-up of Joan in which she looks like she is having an orgasm. It is one of the most stupendous close ups in movie history that rivals the Garbo ending in Queen Christina.
But the piece de resistance in Humoresqe comes at the very end (SPOILER ALERT). John Garfield is having his big concert but Joan is staying at her beach house drinking. After a visit to John's mother (the splendid Ruth Nelson in a great role), Helen knows that she cannot make this relationship work. She is pouring drink after drink and then talks to Garfield on the phone explaining why she can't be there. This scene is played so brilliantly and the dialogue is so wonderful as Joan is photographed in velvety dark shadows. When Joan puts down the phone she has the radio playing John's rendition of Tristan and Isolde. She wanders through the French doors to the beach, walks a bit, and finally walks into the sea as the music hits its crescendo. In her gorgeous Adrian dark spangled gown, she is a goddess leaving this earth. These final 5 minutes of Humoresque are probably the greatest moments in Joan Crawford's film career. The acting, cinematography, music and direction are unparalleled in movie melodrama history.
As Ruth Nelson (playing John Garfield's mother) says to him earlier in the film: "Special people got special things they have to pay for." Well, Helen Wright was about as special as you can get and Joan Crawford was never more glamorous or radiant on film.
Check back tomorrow for Mike's tribute to another Joan classic: Sudden Fear.