Born Lucille LeSueur on March 23, 1904, her father abandoned her mother and older brother before she was born. By age 16 she had had three different stepfathers, although her mother’s marriage to Henry Cassin was listed as her first in the 1920 census. Cassin was a minor impresario in Oklahoma whose vaudeville shows gave LeSueur, now Billie Cassin, her first taste of show business. The family having moved to Kansas City, she began dancing in shows there before moving on to New York and Hollywood. She made her first film under her birth name and had two un-credited appearances in other films before a Hollywood fan magazine ran a contest that gave her a new name – Joan Crawford.
Unsatisfied with the small parts in films she was given, Crawford embarked on a strategy of winning dance contests which led to MGM giving her better roles. She became a star in 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters. In 1929 she married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. over the objections of his father and stepmother, Mary Pickford. The elder Fairbanks later warmed to her, but Pickford allegedly never did.
Having taught herself proper diction and enunciation, she made an easy transition to sound films beginning with 1929’s Untamed. She had enormous hits opposite Clark Gable in 1931’s Dance, Fools, Dance and Possessed. In 1932 she was part of the all-star cast of Grand Hotel. Her portrayal of Sadie Thompson in that same year’s Rain was critically lambasted and became a box office flop.
She bounced back with such films as 1933’s Dancing Lady and 1934’s Sadie McKee. Divorced from Fairbanks in 1933, she married Franchot Tone, her frequent co-star in 1935. That marriage ended in 1939. Her films of the late 1930s included The Last of Mrs. Cheyney; Mannequin and The Women.
In 1940 she adopted the first of her four adopted children, Christina (born 1939). She adopted her second child, Christopher in 1943 and the twins Cynthia and Cathy in 1947. All but Christopher were adopted between marriages. She was married to third husband, actor Phillip Terry, from 1942-1946.
Dropped by MGM after a series of box office flops, Crawford signed with Warner Bros. in 1943, but aside from a cameo in 1944’s Hollywood Canteen, did not appear in a film until 1945’s Mildred Pierce which resurrected her career and won her an Oscar on her first nomination. More late 1940s hits followed including Humoresque; Possessed Daisy Kenyon and Flamingo Road. She received a second Oscar nomination for 1947’s Possessed, a completely different film than her 1931 hit of the same name.
Crawford received her third and final Oscar nomination for the 1952 thriller, Sudden Fear. Her late 1950s hits included Queen Bee; Autumn Leaves; The Story of Esther Costello and The Best of Everything, a rare film in which she wasn’t the lead.
Married to Alfred Steele, the chairman of Pepsi Cola, in 1956, she was left a very wealthy widow upon his death in 1959.
In 1962 her career was once again resurrected by Warner Bros. when she starred opposite longtime rival Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and aside from her villainous role in 1963’s The Caretakers, made only a handful of horror films in addition to TV appearances in the remainder of the decade. At this time she was also a board member of Pepsi Cola and company spokesperson. In 1973 when she was no longer useful to the company, she was forced to retire. After seeing an unflattering picture of herself in a newspaper in 1974 she became a recluse.
Joan Crawford died on May 10, 1977 (Mother’s Day) at the age of 73. She left her fortune to twin daughters Cynthia and Cathy, nothing to Christina and Christopher. Christina got her revenge by publishing a notoriously unflattering memoir, Mommie Dearest, which was made into a successful film in 1981 starring Faye Dunaway. Dunaway’s performance was brilliant, but the actress was shunned by Hollywood for her unflattering portrayal of a legend and has not had a successful career since.
A WOMAN’S FACE (1941), directed by George Cukor
The remarkable thing about Crawford was that she was able to change with the times better than most of her contemporaries. A flapper in the late 1920s, a shop girl or girl from the wrong side of the tracks, sometimes both in the same film, in the 1930s, she graduated to a whole host of more complex roles in the 1940s.
One of the first and best was her portrayal of the disfigured blackmailer who changes for the better after plastic surgery restores her beauty in this remake of a 1938 Swedish film with Ingrid Bergman. Crawford, under Cukor’s superb direction, gives her most complex performance to date matched by the incomparable Conrad Veidt in one of his great villainous roles.
MILDRED PIERCE (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz
Crawford had the role of her career as the over-protective mother whose spoiled daughter turns out horribly wrong. A successful hybrid of a woman’s film and a film noir, Crawford pulls out all the stops as a woman whose husband leaves her for another woman forcing her to raise her daughters on her own. She builds a successful business from her pie making skills and then has to deal with a two-timing boyfriend who is more interested in her no-good daughter than her. Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott, Jack Carson and Eve Arden provide terrific support.
POSSESSED (1947), directed by Curtis Bernhardt
This delicious film noir gave Crawford her second best role as the mentally ill woman who stalks Van Heflin as the lover who jilted her, marrying Raymond Massey on the rebound, but not able to forget Heflin. She really goes off the deep end when Massey’s daughter from his first marriage, Geraldine Brooks, starts dating Heflin.
All four stars are superb including Brooks who rarely had a role as good in her subsequent career.
THE STORY OF ESTHER COSTELLO (1957), directed by David Miller
Crawford’s screen career took yet another turn in the 1950s when she usually played successful women in love with younger, often troubled or troublesome men. One of the best was this unusual film focusing on Heather Sears as a sensitive teenager who goes deaf and blind witnessing the accident that kills her mother. Sears is then helped by a magnanimous Crawford, but exploited by her sleazy ex-husband, Rossano Brazzi. Helen Keller’s co-workers threatened to sue the author of the book the film is based on because of Brazzi’s character’s perceived similarity to Annie Sullivan’s husband.
Audiences went to see the film for Crawford, but came away praising Sears.
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), directed by Robert Aldrich
Crawford and her arch rival Bette Davis were cast at the insistence of director Aldrich over the protestations of Jack Warner who eventually saw the box office potential of the two women he considered has-beens. Still, fearing critical bombast or indifference, the studio released the film directly to neighborhood theatres in New York rather than giving the film a prestige opening at a first run movie palace as was the usual procedure for a major film release. The result was a box office bonanza and unexpected critical respect for the two stars long past their prime. Davis in garish makeup got most of the attention and an Oscar nomination as the crazier of two sisters, but Crawford was her equal as the object of her wrath.
JOAN CRAWFORD AND OSCAR
- Mildred Pierce (1945) – Oscar – Best Actress
- Possessed (1947) – Nominated – Best Actress
- Sudden Fear (1952) – Nominated – Best Actress