Joan Crawford had a career that could be likened to a rollercoaster. She began acting in films in the Twenties, and, after successfully transitioning from silent pictures to the “talkies”, enjoyed enormous success in the “women’s pictures” of the Thirties, such as The Gorgeous Hussy and Love On The Run.
Life imitated art, however, and a chaotic off-screen romantic life did not help her reputation. By 1939, she was one of a group of actresses labelled “Box Office Poison” by the Independent Theatre Owners Association of America. Smarting at the criticism, she switched to richer dramatic roles, and won an Oscar in 1946 for her performance as the titular character in the psychological thriller Mildred Pierce.
Yet this proved to be the highlight of her career. Beset by continued rumours that she was impossible to work with, she appeared in pictures that gradually turned into self-parodies, with titles such as Berserk! and Trog. A rare late success came in 1962’s What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, a Grand Guignol horror in which Crawford appeared opposite her long-time rival Bette Davis. Davis was nominated for an Oscar, and Crawford was not, possibly because her reputation in Hollywood had been so debased.
She gradually became a heavy-drinking recluse after her appearance in Trog in 1970, eventually dying in a New York apartment in 1977. She left $2 million in her will, but the vast majority of the money went to her favourite charities. Her eldest children Christina and Christopher were disinherited, and Crawford’s will stated: “It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son, Christopher, or my daughter, Christina, for reasons which are well known to them.”
The following year Christina got her revenge with the publication of her damning memoir, Mommie Dearest. It presented Crawford as an abusive alcoholic who had adopted her children for little more than publicity, and spent her time on a succession of self-destructive affairs with both men and women.
Christina wrote of how her mother relished inflicting sadistic corporal punishment upon her children: “Mommie was always in a terrible mood if anyone accidentally woke her up, and the spankings for this infringement of the rules conveyed the full force of her anger. She spanked so hard she broke hairbrushes, wooden hangers and yardsticks across my bottom. The spankings left large painful blisters and the long red welts would be visible for days.”
Many of Crawford’s former co-stars defended her against her daughter’s allegations. Even Davis said: “I was not Miss Crawford’s biggest fan, but, wisecracks to the contrary, I did and still do respect her talent. What she did not deserve was that detestable book written by her daughter.” The combination of prurient detail and Hollywood scandal, though, made Mommie Dearest a bestseller.