In his review of Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, screening this weekend at the Music Box as part of the “Weepie Noir: The Dark Side of Women’s Pictures” series, Dave Kehr calls the film “the archetypal Joan Crawford film,” which it very well could be—I actually haven’t seen it, and I’m also not that sure what constitutes an “archetypal Joan Crawford film.” Crawford’s 45-year career is among the most varied and storied of any Hollywood actress—it transcends multiple eras, stylistic shifts, and industry overhauls. Crawford is the mother of reinvention: She epitomized, according to no less an authority than F. Scott Fitzgerald, the 20s flapper spirit; she was the quintessential MGM glamor girl in the 30s, under direction of studio masters like Frank Borzage and George Cukor; and somehow, she rode it all to her tawdry, Grand Guignol phase of the 50s and 60s. Crawford’s career trajectory makes sense logistically—the camp qualities of her later career do correlate with some of classic Hollywood’s whimsical appeal—but how does one exactly pinpoint a single career- and style-defining performance in a body of work so diverse? Why not point to a few? Here are my five favorite Joan Crawford performances.
5. The Women (dir. George Cukor, 1939) After a string of expensive failures, Crawford was famously dubbed “box office poison,” but bounced back marvelously with this lively comedy, in which she doesn’t receive top billing but nevertheless steals every scene. After A Woman’s Face, this is probably the last great film she made for MGM, and her performance certainly has something of a “mic drop” quality.
4. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1962) This chilling psycho-noir has thrived on its camp reputation for decades, but the film is easily one of cinema’s creepiest and most trenchant commentaries on the nature of stardom. Amplifying the already excessive qualities of Hollywood genres like gothic horror and melodrama, the movie transcends formula to reveal themes of ageism and the lingering effects of familial distress; Crawford, naturally, took to such material like gangbusters.
3. Possessed (dir. Curtis Bernhardt, 1947) Released a year before the great Daisy Kenyon (more on that below . . .), this dreamy noir is further proof that Crawford would have flourished in the German expressionist era. Her striking appearances in the film’s moody, oneiric fantasy sequences no doubt earned her that Oscar nomination, but my favorite moment is the opening sequence, in which she traverses downtown Los Angeles like it’s some sort of alien landscape.
2. Johnny Guitar (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1954) Crawford is the ultimate genre buster in this B movie masterpiece. Her brusque dialogue and masculine disposition reinforce the notion that audiences cannot automatically rely on genre conventions to comfort and orient them to a film—ambiguous and ambitious characterizations draw us in far more effectively than traditional narrative strategies. Crawford’s larger-than-life persona certainly helps, and of all the actors here, she’s clearly the most attuned to director Nicholas Ray’s unique rhythms, which may explain why she’s the film’s central figure, not the title character.
1. Daisy Kenyon (dir. Otto Preminger, 1947) Another film with unconventional and highly intriguing characters, this melodrama offers a troubling yet fascinating and impulsively watchable account of three flawed, esoteric people. “There’s nothing like a crisis to show what’s really inside us,” says Crawford, playing the title character, revealing the film’s modus operandi and summarizing director Otto Preminger’s entire directorial career in a single sentence. Crawford, alongside fellow veterans Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda, is at her career best in the climactic restaurant confrontation—she absolutely owns every odd, off-kilter close-up.