Last week I got my finger nails painted ‘Jungle Red’ and headed down to the BFI Southbank to an afternoon of talks about the ultimate Hollywood star, subject of a major BFI retrospective and star of The Women (where her character Crystal wears the eponymous shade of polish) and Mildred Pierce – two Hollywood classics which will be on nationwide re-release next month – Joan Crawford.
The event was part of Fierce: The Untameable Joan Crawford, a two-month season ‘revelling in the formidable and versatile Hollywood star’ which runs between August and October and featured three female speakers (look mum, no mans!) Sight and Sound critic Pamela Hutchinson, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Queen Mary University of London Lucy Bolton and journalist and broadcaster Samira Ahmed. The three speakers all talked about their affection for Crawford and about various aspects of her stardom and performances. As I am just putting the finishing touches to a journal article about film star fan club magazines and invisible film star labour, which uses Crawford as a case study, I was keen to hear what these three experts had to say.
The afternoon was great fun and the darkened venue was packed fun of Crawford fans and aficionados and film scholars despite the glorious weather outside. The speakers selected a number of excellent clips from Crawford’s films and were asked to include their favourite Crawford GIFs in their talks, the audience were asked to pick their favourite Crawford performance (incidentally mine is the initial flirtation in the lobby in 1932 classic Grand Hotel. Its chock full of fantastic quick-fire double entendres). Pamela Hutchinson discussed Crawford’s self-conscious star persona, Lucy Bolton talked about Crawford as a product and about the phenomenal amounts of labour Crawford put into being a star over the years whilst Ahmed jokingly lamented that her son wasn’t gay or a raging Crawford fan ‘despite her best efforts.’
In terms of the cinematic re-release of The Women and Mildred Pierce, if you haven’t seen either of these films I would heartily recommend both of them. Both feature incredibly complex, strong female characters, and excellently showcase both the recognisable Crawford persona and her immense skill.
I have taught Mildred Pierce several times to undergraduate students and never tire of it. Mary Beth Haralovich writes an excellent piece of scholarship on the film’s promotion and its sociocultural context which I use every year on my Film and Material Culture undergraduate module. It was the first significant role Crawford took after having left MGM and moved to Warners and it was a big deal. She subsequently won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, which, like the diva she was, she famously accepted from her bed.
Alternatively, Crawford isn’t the lead actress or the protagonist in The Women, she’s the antagonistic, brassy and calculating mistress of headliner Norma Shearer’s fictional husband. The film is worth watching not only for its plethora of big names (Crawford starred alongside Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine) its celebrated ‘women’s’ director, George Cukor and for its entirely female cast. That said, the film certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel test as almost all the conversations revolve around husbands. As the tagline highlighted, ‘It’s all about men!’
I was thrilled to be asked about both of these films and about Crawford on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme on the 28th of July. I chatted with presenters Gillian Marles and Isabel Fraser about Crawford’s desire for fame and success, her strong work ethic, nurture of her fans, star persona and its shift from a modern, intensely sexual young star, to a camp grande dame at the very end of her career, about the longevity of that career and Crawford’s ability to adapt to survive in a notoriously age and sex-obsessed, misogynist industry. Building on my Women In Hollywood project we also discussed female audiences and women’s stars of the 40s and their relevance in the current climate.
I think it’s because of my years in cabaret that I really enjoy doing public-facing activities and particularly enjoy doing radio. Even more thrillingly, as I was already in London, my live interview took place at Broadcast House, which is extremely impressive.
Other films in the BFI retrospective include 1962 camp horror classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1927 Todd Browning suspense The Unknown, steamy 1940 Crawford and Clark Gable vehicle Strange Cargo, 1941 A Woman’s Face, 1954 feminist Western Johnny Guitar, Dorothy Arzner-directed rom-com The Bride Wore Red, 1937 rags-to-riches tale Mannequin, 1933 musical and the film in which Fred Astaire made his film debut Dancing Lady and 1946 romantic drama Humoresque.
For more information about the season visit: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk or keep your eye open for my upcoming podcast with the BFI’s Anna Bogutskaya who organised the afternoon of talks and chaired its closing panel.