When Joan Crawford is angry, it's serious business. Many viewers may laugh at her ire, most especially later Crawford and her Straight Jacket-style histrionics (a movie I revere), but one should pause when doing so. Pause and observe the woman, even if she's utterly over-the-top at times. Camp is a reductive appellation for her -- all later-era Joan isn't merely camp. It's hard to convince viewers of this because, we like camp, and laughter comes easy -- often she is hilarious, which makes her all the more complicated. But I'm continually irritated by those who view her in such simplistic "wire hanger" terms. Crawford could be terrifying, even humorously, valiantly so (I have uttered a "hell YES, Joan!" while watching her contend with the likes of that good looking so-and-so Steve Cochran in the great The Damned Don't Cry) but she had the power and humanity to reveal a vulnerability underneath her anger and was always, even in her lesser pictures, mesmerizing.
Queen Bee, a 1955 movie directed by Randall McDougall, is for those who stick with Joan through thick and thin. Fans who love The Unknown, Mannequin, Rain, Strange Cargo, The Women, A Woman's Face, Possessed, Humoresque and Mildred Pierce, but are also enraptured by the older, severe, yet still-sexy Joan in Torch Song, The Story of Esther Costello, any movie co-starring the fantastically sleazy David Brian (Flamingo Road, The Damned Don't Cry, This Woman is Dangerous), William Castle's I Saw What You Did, the magnificent Sudden Fear, the criminally underrated Robert Aldrich picture Autumn Leaves, Harriet Craig (which I wrote about) and the Polly-Bergen-gone nuts vehicle, The Caretakers, a movie in which Joan instructs her nurses in Judo. You must see The Caretakers.
In Queen Bee, Crawford plays Eva Phillips, a deceptively personable woman who lords over a Southern mansion with her husband Avery (the terrific Barry Sullivan, an unsung, multifaceted actor), whom everyone calls "Beauty" for the large scar on his face, which lends him a rough sex appeal. Those close to Eva know she's evil and corrupt, but young cousin Jennifer Stewart (Lucy Marlow), is not so sure -- at first. As the picture makes quite clear, from a character's speech about bees, to another character actually reading a book about bees (bees, bees, bees ... so many bees) Eva is, not surprisingly, the Queen Bee and those buzzing around are mere drones. She will sting anyone who crosses or interrupts her ambitions to get what she wants -- which is, apparently, everything.
Eventually Jennifer witnesses Eva's machinations, including the destruction of sister-in-law Carol's upcoming nuptials to Judson Prentiss (Betsy Palmer and a moody John Ireland, respectively) and that kid starts growing up real fast. Watch and learn, kiddo. Later-era Crawford is the master of sexual masochism so, Judson, drowning in this Joan-inspired erotic dynamic, is Eva's lover while Eva's been torturing her understandably ill-tempered, drunkard husband. It's kinky stuff and, within an environment so melodramatic and repressed, entirely necessary.
It's a tawdry affair, this movie, but its tasty arguments, splendorous tragedies, powerful moments via Ireland and Sullivan (Fay Wray also co-stars), and of course, that force, Ms. Crawford, it's all riveting. Nevertheless, Queen Bee was released to some poor reviews. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it the "height of mellifluous meanness and frank insincerity." Eloquently, he's right and wrong. Yes, the cruelty is often spooned with sugar (not a bad thing either), but there is something sincere about Queen Bee. The actors sincerely appear to be afraid of Ms. Crawford, and Joan sincerely understands her character's turmoil and sadism, with lines like the following (which Eva drops on her husband): "Darling, parties are to women what battlefields are to men, but then ... you weren't in the war were you? Something about drinking."
And when the act of packing up a room mounts from simply throwing dolls onto the floor to a crazy crescendo of Joan trashing the place with a riding crop, like a Born to Kill Lawrence Tierney, Crawford doesn't appear to be acting. The actress wasn't method, but whatever was going on in her life, or whatever she was thinking about her past, it is seeping into this performance. No wonder it was rumored that young Christina ran from the theater while taking in the dolly destroying/ riding crop massacre. Though I don't believe all uttered by Christina Crawford and again, enough with the wire hangers business! I don't like them either, frankly.
Joan is one of the most fascinating actresses of all time and uniquely gorgeous. Gorgeous when she was younger and softer and, at times breathtaking (see George Cukor's haunting A Woman's Face) and strangely gorgeous when she was overdrawn, hard and butch. She is a creation, her own work of art and her face paint shouts this to the world with an intriguing blend of vigor and angst. Yes, even her makeup is complex. That kind of charisma does not fade with age (see Nicholas Ray's brilliant Johnny Guitar).
So with Queen Bee, watching those thick, painted eyebrows, hunters-bow mouth, and huge shoulders saunter across a room ready to explode in a rage of bizarre evil is, at times, like anticipating a beautifully seasoned Jason creeping around the summer camp in Friday the 13th. No wonder one of Queen Bee's actresses, Betsy Palmer, went on to play Jason's mother in that franchise. But Joan pulls off poignant within all of this horror. When her devil was in full effect, a vulnerable angel was trembling on her shoulder, revealing itself in eyes moistened by tears or a look of panic-stricken fear -- fear of aging, fear of career or, as Fassbinder understood, fear of fear. Life is hard. Love is hard. And happiness, happiness is too simple. And that thought is often like Joan: a sufferer and a survivor, powerful and poignant, she showed us her sadness. And sadness can be scary. Sublimely scary. God, I love her.