This website is dedicated to the study and analysis of film theory and history. Not all essays will deal with the figure of actress Joan Crawford, but in understanding the Crawford persona and its use in the creative process of filmmaking, much can be understood in the uses and responses to cinema.
Crawford embodied many symbols and contradictions: a formal photogenic beauty and a photographic curiosity (in later years), everywoman and yet simultaneously non-everywoman, a cultural benchmark and an historical embodiment, an audience's psychological fantasy projection and a culture industry's worshipped icon.
"Her face is nothing but obliging planes and angles, as stark as a talented abstractionist painting," so Parker Tyler wrote of Crawford in his 1947 book, Magic and Myth of the Movies. Yet Crawford also had performance and visual aesthetics similar to those of a photograph by William Eggleston: situational, workman-like, understood through its framing, everyday yet sublime.
As an artist, she was both seer and maker: by the 1940s she was so accomplished in understanding the camera lens, and rich in her supply of cinema-acting tropes, that she could simultaneously embrace the situation of audience member (in predicting the emotional responses from the masses to her various acting techniques) and the situation of filmmaker (in understanding optimum positioning of herself within the film frame). In her performance aesthetics and signifiers, her introduction into a film brought both ritual and narrative (her introduction into a film was always an agent for change). This ritual, initiated by Crawford's entrance, occurred both for the audience (since she was a firmly-entrenched cultural totem from the early l930s through the time of her death... and even into contemporary times) and also within the formal and archetypal elements of the film itself, since she was one of the handful of cinema actors whose body of work was a self-generating genre of film.
Similarly, there is consistently an idea of the notion of The Past in her performance aesthetics - a context - a situation - a reason for performance. Many actresses of the classic studio era gave performances firmly situated in the present, but Crawford's performance always hinted at and conveyed emotional baggage of the past; and she acted from that history. Working in a time-based medium that creates cultural documentation, her image and performance aesthetics function similarly to that of Film itself. Her self- created craft was always used to serve an idea of experience-oriented work grounded in audience engagement, the opposite of a passive observation and appreciation of beauty and performance as in the art of Garbo or Dietrich.
For example, there is Joan Crawford as the eponymous lead character in the 1950 film Harriet Craig: other actresses would have relished in the bitchiness, the controlled cruelty of the character. The desire of an upper middle class wife to control others' lives, at the core of this Pulitzer Prize-winning material, could have been presented by an actress as a character's proud display of her will and shrewd ability to manipulate.
But Crawford built a character that was a victim trapped in a burning building. There was no passion attached to this desire for control; it was a collage of determinism born in a psychologically maiming past. In her body of work, there's always the pain of memory informing and feeding Crawford's actions. The Past is determinist; memory is stronger than will. She is powerless against her past and her situational baggage -- which dictate her morality and the degrees of her control and isolation.
"There is something stark, animal-like, and haunted in this expression," Parker Tyler continued about Crawford in that aforementioned book. As a viewer of her craft, one didn't know where artifice began and autobiography disappeared when she emoted for the screen.
Autobiography and artifice went hand-in-hand (just as in many PostModern works) in the way Joan Crawford developed her off-screen personhood. Compared to another movie star of the same era, Deanna Durbin, who referred to her screen image as "the Durbin persona" and characterized her movie archetype as "Little Miss Fix-It who bursts into song," Crawford herself never allowed such distance from her screen image. Joan Crawford herself grew into that larger presence, the one projected on the movie screens of the world. Crawford the person equaled Crawford the actress equaled Crawford the screen image.
As with most PostModern works, a key evaluation depends on the interaction of the viewer with the artist's work. Similarly Crawford's performances are seldom examined as mere performance, but almost always bring in other elements (social class, the studio system, audience tastes, etc.) into the discussion. I invite you to explore thoughts and opinions on how the confluence of cinema and its artists can create such phenomena.