‘Don’t call me Mommie’: The Celebration of Joan Crawford

The Cinema Store, situated just off Leicester Square, used to be a mecca for film lovers. Books and memorabilia filled the vast ground floor, and one could happily pass hours browsing through the shop’s many treasures. Downstairs, nurtured by two fabulously flamboyant cinephiles, lay possibly the greatest DVD treasury ever assembled in one place. Rare classics, foreign gems, latest releases – in the era before Netflix, a weekly pilgrimage to the Cinema Store was as essential as Sunday brunch.

The shop closed down a few years ago, and was, unsurprisingly, replaced by a chain coffee shop. But its legacy lives on; the love of films and film stars, and the very particular way it was celebrated at the store remains with many of us. One icon was especially cherished in the basement of the Cinema Store: Joan Crawford. Upon entering the space, visitors were immediately struck by those expressive eyes, the arched eyebrows, the striking, defiant beauty. Images of Crawford were everywhere, and the central display cabinet had been transformed into a cinematic alter paying homage to the star’s legendary career. It was a place of worship for Joan junkies. From early silents, through the glory days of MGM dance pictures and Warner Brothers noirs, to her twilight years as grand dame of horror flicks, Joan Crawford’s on-screen career was treated with a reverence that befitted a queen.

Since her death in 1977, Crawford’s reputation has suffered greatly. In 1978 Joan’s eldest daughter published a shocking memoir, painting her famous mother as an abusive narcissist. While many who knew Crawford insisted that Christina Crawford’s account was at best exaggerated, the damage had been done, and it seemed that Joan Crawford’s reputation would never recover. The popular perception of Crawford as a grotesque monster was further enhanced by the 1981 film adaptation of Mommie Dearest, in which Faye Dunaway delivered a deliciously camp, over-the-top performance. The ‘no wire hangers’ image of Crawford has become one of our favourite pop culture mythologies, and for years it seemed to be the only way the public was willing to view the iconic star… with one notable exception.

The gay community. In this space, Crawford, alongside her arch-rival Bette Davis, was an untouchable goddess. As early as the 1940s, long before the gay liberation movement, queer audiences revered Joan Crawford as their icon: a star who had overcome her own abusive childhood, poverty, the misogyny and sexism of Hollywood, and who constantly reinvented herself in order to thrive as her best self. She was the ultimate survivor. Her loyal fanbase in the queer community remained steadfast even after Mommie Dearest– in fact the film’s camp aesthetic only reinforced Crawford’s iconic status.

But things have a way of changing. Opinions shift, reputations and legacies are reassessed in a new light. The closure of the Cinema Store, and with it, the shrine of Crawford, symbolised a new era, a liberation for the actress and her work. New generations of film lovers, queer and straight alike, are discovering Joan Crawford anew, free from preconceptions. While Crawford might no longer be the major gay icon she was thirty years ago, she isn’t Mommie Dearest anymore either. The mainstream film community is busy rediscovering Joan Crawford, giving her the appreciation she has been due for decades. In 2017, Ryan Murphy produced Feud, an eight-part TV extravaganza about the troubled relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In her nuanced and sensitive portrayal of Joan, Jessica Lange did much to reverse the damage done by Faye Dunaway more than three decades earlier. Suddenly Crawford emerged as trailblazer, a strong, independent woman and a dedicated professional.

With her personal reputation largely rehabilitated, it’s time to go back to what matters most: Joan Crawford was, above all, one hell of an actress. In the majority of her ninety-plus films, she is a force which blazes across the screen like a flash of lightning. To watch a Joan Crawford movie is still an Event with a capital E, a heart-stopping experience, despite more than half a century having passed since her best films were made. And those of us living in London are extremely fortunate to bear witness to a grand event: a two-month long celebration of Crawford and her films, which is currently taking place at the British Film Institute. The season is the first significant retrospective of Joan Crawford’s work in years, and there can be no doubt that it is a clear sign of a new era for the legendary star and her cultural legacy.

The reappearance of Joan feels timely. New kinds of female characters have graced our screens and entered the cultural consciousness in recent years. Amy Dunne from Gone Girl is the obvious example but there are others. The characters from Gillian Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, now adapted to a limited television series on HBO, are all deeply flawed at best, deeply disturbed at worst. Of course, back in 2013, Orange is the New Black set a president for criminal female characters, as House of Cards did for the cold-bloodedly ambitious. But back when women were all angling to play the Good Wife, the ingénue or the pretty one, Joan Crawford stepped out.

She played drunks, losers, bitter housewives, remorseless gangster molls, wickedly coy secretaries and red-hot seductresses. If anybody played up and down the whole gamma of human fallibility, it was Joan. Perhaps she could channel these emotions because of her miserable beginnings, as the working-class daughter of a single mother in Texas, she overcame a childhood which, as one of her biographers remarked, makes Marilyn Monroe’s early years seem a fairytale by comparison. Or maybe she knew these roles would make her stand-out, as MGM screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas said, ‘No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star.’

There’s something else too. Perhaps Joan, with all her scandals and bad publicity, is suddenly someone we can actually feel close to. Someone we can understand. She was a star, a diva, a supernova, but she’d elbowed her way in and had her nasty side. Maybe this is a relief. Maybe the saccharine, ultra-square image of celebrities we have nowadays is just adding to the pressure to be perfect. The A-listers support charities, tout vegan and enter the political debate, and while these are all highly admirable qualities, it makes them seem too distant, too shiny, too golden. Joan Crawford, with her intensity and her deep understanding of immorality, allows us to feel human.

The BFI offers viewers a real treat, screening a different Crawford movie every day until early October. These include the 1946 classic Mildred Pierce, for which Crawford won the Oscar for best actress, as well as lesser known gems, like the pre-code comedy Dancing Lady, in which Joan shares the screen with Clark Gable and dances with Fred Astaire in his first screen appearance. There are also cult classics, like the queer-themed Johnny Guitar, and of course the legendary clash of the titans, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the only film starring Crawford and Bette Davis.

Are you still reading? Because you should be opening a new window and booking your ticket. Joan Crawford waits for no one.

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