When Joan Crawford is angry, it is 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 look at what she's doing, even if it's utterly over-the-top at times. Later-era Joan should never, ever be boxed into only camp (not that there's anything wrong with camp, quite the contrary, and not that no one should laugh -- sometimes she's hilarious, which makes her all the more complicated) but I'm always irritated by people who view her in such simplistic wire hanger terms. Crawford could be terrifying, even humorously so, or valiantly (I have uttered a "hell YES, Joan!" while watching her contend with the likes of Steve Cochran in the great The Dammned 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, The Women, A Woman's Face, Possessed, Humoresque and Mildred Pierce, but are also enraptured by the older, severe, yet still-sexy Joan in Flamingo Road, any movie co-starring the fantastically sleazy David Brian, William Castle's I Saw What You Did, the criminally underrated Robert Aldrich picture Autumn Leaves 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, multi-facted actor I will watch in any movie), whom everyone calls "Beauty" for the large scar on his face (for me, the scar makes Sullivan even sexier). Those close to Eva know she's evil and corrupt, but young Jennifer Stewart (Lucy Marlow), a cousin who comes to live in the manor, 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...so many bees... Nicolas Cage must have studied this movie), Eva is, not surprisingly, the Queen Bee and those buzzing around are her 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 the great John Ireland). Judson, for reasons we can only believe to be pure sexual masochism (Crawford is the master of this hot dynamic and it only amped up as she got older), has been Eva's lover, while Eva has tortured her understandably ill-tempered, drunkard husband.
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 -- keeps the viewer riveted. And yet, 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." He's right and wrong. Yes, the cruelty is often dished out 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 looks like she 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 psychotic crescendo of Joan trashing the place with a riding crop (a riding crop) -- like a Born to Kill Lawrence Tierney, Crawford doesn't appear to be acting. The actress was not method, but whatever was going on in her life, or whatever she's thinking about her past -- it's 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...).
Joan is one of the most fascinating actresses of all time and, I think, uniquely gorgeous. Gorgeous when she was younger and softer and, at times breathtaking (see George Cukor's haunting A Woman's Face) and gorgeous when she was overdrawn and hard and butch. 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, hunter's-bow mouth, and huge shoulders saunter across a room ready to explode in a rage of bizarre evil is 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 who was more terrifying? And who was more complicated? And who was more touching? Well, that's easy. Joan. When her devil was in full effect, there was always a poignant angel crouching underneath -- quite possibly hiding behind her eyebrows, revealing itself in eyes moistened by tears or a look of panic-stricken fear -- fear of aging, fear of career or, as Fassbinder understood and filmed, fear of fear. Life is hard. Love is hard. And happiness -- happiness is just too damn simple sometimes. And that thought is often like Joan who, though a sufferer and a survivor, and powerful and poignant, often seemed sad. And sad can be scary. Sublimely scary.