Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"No Wire Hangers Ever" (or How I Stopped Being Scared and Learned to Appreciate and Respect Joan Crawford) [Biography Giveaway!]

That's the first line that used to come to my mind whenever someone would mention the name Joan Crawford.  I first saw Mommie Dearest when it was being shown as a late, late, late night movie on WPIX (you know, the old WB) when I was probably about 13 or 14 and I was terrified.  I hadn't seen a Joan Crawford movie by then, I wasn't interested in classic films just yet and I was pretty sure after that movie I would never be interested in anything that had to do with Joan Crawford.  Thankfully, as I got older and got more interested in classic films in general I started to give some Joan Crawford movies a chance, thanks in part to the 1001 movies you must see before you die book.  I ended up seeing movies where she was part of an ensemble like, The Women and Dancing Lady.  I was also exposed to her bigger, tour de force roles like Mildred Pierce and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  I had even seen the silent film The Unknown with the amazing Lon Chaney and didn't quite realize that the leading lady was Joan Crawford.  Overall I was amazed by her range, talent and ability to take on so many different roles and admired her for taking on such great films.  Before too long my opinion of Joan Crawford began to change and I wasn't as scared of the caricature of her that was shown in Mommie Dearest.

This is what author, Donald Spoto, strives to accomplish with his Joan Crawford Biography titled, Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford (published by Harper Collins).  I was immediately intrigued by the title and found it very fitting for Ms. Crawford.  This is because the word possessed has two very different definitions.  Possessed is defined as: 1.  Spurred or moved by a strong feeling, madness, or a supernatural power and 2. Poised or self possessed.  Those are two very dynamic definitions and I think that's how Donald Spoto wanted to present Joan Crawford, a dynamic, possessed woman.  (It should also be noted Joan Crawford also starred in a 1947 movie titled Possessed with Van Heflin, but I still like to think there's a deeper meaning to the title of this biography.)

From Tumblr, no credit given
From the get-go Spoto sets out to dispel the  misconception that many classic movie fans and general movie watchers have of Joan Crawford because of 'Mommie Dearest,' that she was a cruel, over-bearing, control freak.  Instead he hopes to humanize her and show the softness and realness that she possessed.  He begins the book with an introduction that includes the response to a fan letter that Ms. Crawford sent to him on November 18, 1952, when Spoto was a young boy.  This book diligently chronicles her humble beginnings, her arrival in Hollywood and her ascent to movie star status (complete with Oscar nominations and one Oscar win).  There are some stories and things I had never heard about Joan Crawford, that Joan was a natural red-head with freckles (she had to wear special make-up to cover them up).  There are also very thoroughly researched stories that I have heard before, like the contest that MGM/Photoplay held to name their young new star.  Spoto shares how the Lucille Fay LeSueur from Kansas City was renamed (by the public), groomed, and transformed into the star we all know and love (or at the very least like).  Crawford's personal life is also well chronicled.  There are insights into her 5 marriages, various love affairs, her frequent miscarriages, adoptions, tumultuous relationships with her children, and her feuds with people like Bette Davis (it was interesting to read about "Joan's side" of the feud, I've read Charlotte Chandler's Biography on Bette Davis, which offers a slightly different view of the discord).

This book is well researched and comes across as an accurate re-telling of Joan Crawford's life both inside and outside of Hollywood.  I liked that the research didn't solely rely on newspaper articles of the time or fan magazines, instead it was mostly based on conversations or quotes from friends and family.  I would recommend it to any Joan Crawford fans specifically and any classic movie fans, generally.  While it does a great job delving into the life of Joan Crawford it also does an amazing job of painting a picture of the way things were during that time period.  It also provides great examples of the inner workings of the Hollywood system and how the studios worked and treated their stars.  When I first took on this project I wasn't a fan of Joan Crawford in particular, I had seen a handful of her movies and had known some bits and pieces about her life, but after reading this book I have a new-found appreciation for the hard work and dedication she put into trying to live the life she wanted and to have a successful career.  I have read many biographies, autobiographies of actors, actresses, directors, as well as books about this time period, like The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger and this book by Donald Spoto is a great addition to any biography fan's reading list and/or library.

From Examiner.com
I noticed that Amazon has the first chapter available as a free sample, I highly recommend checking that out...or you can try your luck at my handy dandy little giveaway!  To enter all you have to do is follow my blog (yes, I know tricky) and in the comment section share your favorite Joan Crawford movie or favorite performance by her, or if you're not a huge fan of Ms. Crawford (I don't know why you'd be entering a giveaway for a Joan Crawford biography if you aren't a fan, but I don't want to leave anybody out) tell me why you feel that way or maybe what you hope to learn from the biography.  Good Luck to all.  The drawing will be held on December 1st, so get those entries in!

Oh and PS, great blog post about Joan:  Joan Crawford arrives in Hollywood,

And PPS-- Thanks to Raquelle at Out of the Past I must disclose that I received this book from Harper Collins for the sole purpose of a review and for conducting a giveway.  Best of luck to all who enter.


  1. Oh wow, great review. You seem very well-read in biographies! I've read The Star Machine too and would love to talk to you about it. I borrowed a copy from a friend but have been meaning to get my own copy.

    I would love to enter this giveaway. Most of what I know about Joan Crawford is from her dealings with Bette Davis & Norma Shearer. If you say Spoto humanizes Crawford, I'd like to see the real Crawford, or as close as we can get to it. Because I know humans are complex and we all have our reasons for being the way we are.

    Thank you!

  2. I never liked Joan Crawford - too scary. But, Diane sure seems to know a lot about classic movies. Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. I'd love to win ... I love to read anything ;.)
    kkfoster35 at msn dot com

  4. Raquelle- Thanks for the compliment. I LOVE reading biographies, especially biographies of classic movies stars and directors. Charlotte Chandler is one of my favorite classic Hollywood biographers. You should check out her books, if you haven't already.

    I'd love to talk to you about 'The Star Machine,'I've never had the opportunity to discuss it with anyone. I got it as a birthday present about 3ish years ago and kept trying to lend it to my friends, but they resisted. I'm looking forward to reading Jeanine Basinger's other book, 'Silent Stars,' if I ever get my hands on it. And thanks for entering the giveaway! Good luck.

    Jack- Thanks for the compliment and Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

    kkfoster- Welcome and thanks for following my blog!

    Anyone else reading this blog- Only 2 more days left to enter the giveaway!

  5. I'm reading this blog (now)! I love it! I really don't know much about Joan Crawford. Unfortunately, I'm one of the people with the misconception that Spoto is hoping to dispel... and I pretty much equate her to her character in Mommie Dearest. I know... it's wrong, and I'm willing to do my best to change that!

  6. Joan Crawford was my favorite actress back in high school when I first got into classic movies. I remember in the days before TCM staying up late to catch her movies on the late show, especially Possessed and Mildred Pierce. On a trip to Hollywood senior year I got to stand in foot prints at Graumen's chinese and couldn't believe how tiny her feet were. Definitely looking forward to reading Spoto's book and hopefully it will dispell some of the "Mommie Dearest" image.

  7. I love Joan Crawford in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" - a macabre classic that I could watch over and over again. I'm also looking forward to seeing Joan in "Trog" (next in my Netflix queue) - I'd be very interested to see what Mr. Spoto has to say about that cinematic gem!

  8. I'm not the most avid of Joan Crawford fans because she wasn't very adept at comedy, but I respect her accomplishments as an actress and have come to realize the Crawford painted in the book and movie "Mommie Dearest" is a gross exaggeration of what she really was. (If Myrna Loy, someone I admire, stood up for Joan after the book and movie came out, Crawford must have had something going for her.) I've enjoyed Spoto's other film bios, so I'll have to check this out.