Hollywood biography machine Spoto (High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly, 2010, etc.) presents the life and career of screen queen Joan Crawford (1905–1977), a movie star whose iconic status owed as much to the actress’s sheer willpower as to her perfect bone structure and improbably large, expressive eyes.
Crawford, in marked contrast to her rival Greta Garbo, employed a maniacal determination and inhuman work ethic to earn and maintain her place in Hollywood’s firmament of stars. Born into poverty, uneducated and profoundly insecure, Lucille LeSueur parlayed a successful dancing career on Broadway into a movie work, acquiring the name Joan Crawford in a magazine contest held to christen MGM’s newest contract player. Spoto deftly analyzes Crawford’s changing persona through her long career, from plucky flapper to suffering matron to leering grotesque, and recounts her failed marriages, numerous affairs and alcoholism with great sympathy. In fact, this perhaps overly reverential treatment is a bit of a letdown, as Crawford’s outsize diva histrionics, promiscuity and alleged abuse of her adopted children are key components of her continuing fascination for film audiences. Spoto discounts or explains away Crawford’s less-than-salubrious reputation, and the result feels a bit whitewashed. Crawford’s daughter Christina’s infamous autobiography Mommie Dearest (1978), and the subsequent film, cemented the public image of Crawford, perhaps unfairly, as an unhinged martinet, obsessed with order and cleanliness. Spoto works hard to refute Mommie Dearest’s damning portrait of the actress, but Crawford’s housekeeping mania, strict discipline and emotional instability are widely acknowledged. Christina’s brother Christopher, who corroborated her account, is described by the author as a troublemaker who was constantly running away from home, which begs a fairly obvious question. Still, the book is useful for its diligent consideration of Crawford’s films and legacy.
A worthy but toothless consideration of one of Hollywood’s most distinctive performers.