I love Joan. Forget Christina. Though I'm sure Ms. Crawford was no cake walk when it came to child rearing (more like rare steak walk, if you're up on your Mommie Dearest), I don't judge Joan's acting talent based on how she handled her Comet cleanser. And besides, the bathroom probably was filthy. You know how kids are.
I'm more in line with Bette Davis, who found Joan so phony, so full of airs, so... oh please. But that made Joan, Joan. I love her specifically for her manufactured persona -- her insane need to be a damn star, even while sick and receiving her Oscar in bed. I refuse to choose Bette over Joan (and I've been asked to). Margot Channing over Mildred Pierce? They're both extraordinary creatures (though I'd rather be and be friends with Davis).
But this is about Joan. That control Bette was so irritated by, well it worked quite well for Joan in terms of her talent. Case in point, a movie I adore and have written about a few times -- Harriet Craig. In an interview with David Frost she admitted, with good humor, relating to this part. And oh my, what an admission. I guess this is the closest Joan came to neo-realism. Yes, not surprisingly, Joan was good at playing a controlling, conniving women who will stop at nothing (nothing!) that gets in the way of her marriage. And in Harriet Craig she’s just so sickeningly splendiferous, that you almost root for her.
A daring portrait that revealed the dark, spirit-breaking side of marriage, and the desires of many women to be something else (even if it meant working that something else through their marriages -- and in an ultra negative way), this 1950 picture directed by Vincent Sherman (who really dug into both Joan and Bette) has remained woefully under-seen. It's too bad because it features one of Joan’s most riveting and true-to-life on-screen beeotchs and yet, a woman with just an ounce of vulnerability, Never forget Joan was a vulnerable woman -- on screen and off.
The movie will get under your skin in ways you might not have imagined -- even if you’re unmarried. If you are married, think about your happiness before watching this domestic horror-show of passive aggressive manipulation. And don't watch it with your significant other. I have watched this picture numerous times and with my sister, for reasons I should not disclose but, what the hell. Harriet Craig is my stepmother. I mean, exactly. I won't go into specific details. That's not fair. Even if I'm right.
It's not typical of me to admit such personal information about another person in my writing, and I like to give a person a break (something made her that way, and it probably wasn't pleasant and I want to understand. I just wish I knew), except well, I miss my father, and it looks like I may never see him again. My sister and I -- we'll put up with anything to see our dad. But we're sick of it. For years my stepmother's nickname (she's never heard it -- she would kill me) has been a pretty simple one: Harriet Craig. When we were kids, my brother, sister and I called her (never to her face, again, she'd kill us) Nurse Ratched (she actually had Muzak piped throughout her house, to keep things "calm," I suppose -- which only furthered our inner little R. P. McMurphys, and then we remembered how that worked out for him), but Harriet Craig is just right -- it hits the nail not on, but through the proverbial head. I swear I'm not being Christina here. Anyway, I'd eat that rare steak.
But back to the real Harriet Craig (in the movie). Adapted from George Kelly's play, the movie was in fact a remake of the 1936 Rosalind Russell film Craig's Wife, directed by Dorothy Arzner. Though that picture is usually considered the better picture, I’m fond of Crawford’s special kind of bent and find it more timeless. Not only does she brings that extra Joan panache to the role of a borderline sociopathic wife but she brings more inner turmoil and even a tad bit of sympathy. She also brings more order, coldness and an especially annoying obsession for perfection. If her marriage were a corporation, she would be CEO. But it's not. And she didn't make that choice in life. She should have. But that opportunity is not something that comes easy to a woman, if ever. This is where many women may understand her. Even today.
Poor old Wendell Corey plays the hen-pecked husband whose personal life and interests are sapped by wifey Joan who throws a fit if he puts his feet anywhere near the furniture, smokes a cigar, visits a pal or has a friendly conversation with the widow next door. And then she sabotages his chances for a promotion. The smothering domination reaches an all time high. It almost becomes a horror movie. Actually it is something of a horror movie.
And it's a movie. So I find myself at times, liking her. I wish I liked my stepmother as much as I liked Joan. (That's entertainment) Don't worry, my stepmother will never read this and if she does, perhaps something will happen. Something melodramatic because melodrama is often very real. I mean, she too is some kind of creature. I'm often impressed by her weird manipulations. And I want to have a good relationship, no matter how bizarre. Even Bette Davis would agree. And she is powerful. Power means something.
And if she's wearing Adrian next time I see her, I may forgive her for everything. Well, not everything, but a lot. Perhaps we'd come to terms on a few things. Perhaps, to quote Faye as Joan, we'd simply be mad not at you, he or she, but mad at the dirt. Because, in a better world, I don't want her to end up like Harriet Craig.
Read a wonderful piece about Harriet Craig at Self Styled Siren.