Tuesday, February 06, 2007

NOIR CITY 5—Eddie Muller and Foster Hirsch Remarks On Joan Crawford

On the closing night of Noir City 5, Eddie Muller welcomed his audience to Super Joan Sunday. "The Joan Bowl, as we call it. For those of you keeping score, within the Castro Theatre: Joan Crawford 532; big sweaty football guys zero."

To help him introduce the Joan Crawford double-bill, Muller invited on stage Foster Hirsch, esteemed author of more than 16 books, including Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen (Da Capo Press, 1983) and Detours and Lost Highways: A Map Of NeoNoir (Limelight Editions, 1999). Acknowledging that Hirsch was a man who has tread this film noir terrain for more years than he had, Muller likewise credited Hirsch with probably forgetting more about film noir than he would ever know.

Visiting from New York City, Hirsch qualified that New York does not have a theater like the Castro. "You San Franciscans are so lucky that you can see these rare films on a big screen in one of the greatest remaining movie palaces of America." His cheering audience agreed 100%. The two then engaged in a dialogue about Joan Crawford.

Muller: I have very distinct opinions about Joan's place in movie history and specifically in film noir; but, I wanted to get your opinion on Joan as an actress and then how did Joan make that weird transition from actress to icon?

Hirsch: I don't know … was she ever really an actress? She was a personality. And she was larger-than-life. You have to see Joan Crawford on a screen like this. …She's too big for your home t.v. She's over the top. She was always over the top. She just got more and more over the top as she got older. She was terrific. She was great. She transcends whether or not she's an actress. She was something they don't have much any more: an authentic movie star. I don't think she had any range. She didn't have to have range. She played Joan Crawford and she painted everything very big and very bold and very black. She had no sense of humor. None.

Muller: Isn't that ironic? Not a trace of it.

Hirsch: Not a trace of it. So she's perfect for noir. I have a few quotable lines. I didn't write any of them but they're all great stuff about Crawford and noir. Here's what I found out: "She's the best leading man in noir." "She's a man trapped in a woman's body." "She's more man then you'll ever be." "She's deadlier than the male." There was definitely a masculine component to her personality. It's what gave her the strength and—in these two films you're going to be seeing tonight—she really plays roles normally played by men. In Possessed she falls apart because she is in love with Van Heflin. He's the object of desire; she's not the femme fatale. It's normally the man who's derailed by obsessive love. In [Possessed], she's derailed by it. But can you buy Van Heflin as the object of desire? As the homme fatale? I'm not going to answer that; I'm just asking.

Muller: When you see them together on screen, …it does seem like Joan could pretty much snack on [Heflin] for lunch. They're not equally weighted.

Hirsch: One of the things that is fabulous about Joan Crawford—and you'll see it tonight—is she seizes the screen. She absolutely takes charge. She's totally in control of the screen. Your eye goes to her. You're mesmerized by her every minute. Van Heflin is just not at that level of performing. But in the second film, The Damned Don't Cry, very interestingly all the men in that film give good performances. David Brian—who is moreorless her equal—has the coldest eyes of any actor I've ever seen. He is very much a good pairing for Joan Crawford. Steve Cochran, who is terrifically underrated….

Muller: The Elvis of Noir!

Hirsch: There's a scene of Steve Cochran in a very short bathing suit. We want you to whoop it up. And Kent Smith is terrific as the mamby-pamby. Three great performances that match her's, which I think makes The Damned Don't Cry a balanced film.

Muller: Absolutely. I will say without hesitation that, for me, The Damned Don't Cry is my favorite Joan Crawford picture. It also follows the same trajectory of Joan Crawford's own life story, even though it's supposed to be about Virginia Hill, Bugsy Siegel's moll, it's really a thinly-veiled depiction of Joan Crawford's own life. Trust me, any movie that Joan Crawford is in, it's all about Joan Crawford!

Hirsch: We could call it All About Joan. She's Ethel Whitehead who becomes Lorna Hansen Forbes. Brian plays George Castleman who started out Joe Cavany. But the director Vincent Sherman started life as Abraham Orvitz. All of these people had a background that they wanted to hide. The thing about Joan Crawford, you can't look at her films without bringing a knowledge of what we know, or think we know, about her life. We know about Mommie Dearest. We can't forget that.

I interviewed Ruth Ward for a book I was working on. She worked with Joan Crawford and had some pertinent things to say about Joan's person. She said you could never tell what she was thinking—that there was this masked quality to her in the real world—and that she was very cordial and very professional. She never caused any trouble. She was a total pro. But you could sense that beneath the cordial surface, there was ferocity. She was really a forbidding woman and you stayed across the room. [Ward] said [Crawford] counted on propriety because she came herself from such desperately low circumstances. She always had things she wanted to cover up. The irony is that her life has been exposed after her death and we know probably more than we need to know.

Another little event that is significant about her personality: a friend of mine Steve Harvey a number of years ago wrote a [book] on Joan Crawford. He worked at the Museum of Modern Art. [One year] after the book was published, [he received a phone call], didn't know who it was from, went to the phone, and [the voice] said, 'Mr. Harvey, this is Joan Crawford. I want to congratulate you on your book. I'm so proud; I'm so pleased with myself; I'm so pleased for you.' He wrote her a thank you note for the call. And he got back a letter thanking him for his thank you note. She was wonderful if you were a fan or a stranger. Beware if you were her child.

Muller: So you're really in for a treat. I would say, really without hestitation, 99 River Street perhaps aside, if we'd seen Cry Danger in a really good 35mm print instead of that 16mm print we had to show, they would be contenders for the best in show at this festival…. [Someone shouted out Wicked Woman.] Wicked Woman, of course, and since you're a Wicked Woman fan, you'll get to see Richard Egan again in The Damned Don't Cry; but, I can say without hesitation that this is the best double bill of the series. These are two really great films and they are great films because of Joan Crawford. Not only because of what she brings to the screen, but the power that she wielded behind the scenes. Joan Crawford, to me, is one of the great auteurs of film noir. People don't think of it that way because she's the actress up on the screen, but she really is the driving force behind these movies. She is the person who got these movies made, absolutely controlled her image on the screen, and these films are as good as they are because Joan Crawford would settle for nothing less than absolute. We'll have a good time with these movies. We'll get some laughs out of them. But bear in mind that these are A-list pictures and Joan Crawford was—in addition to becoming somewhat of a camp icon—a real serious….

Hirsch: She wasn't quite yet self-parodying in these films. That came a little bit later. She's sort of on the edge in these films. She's not quite at that level. But, since we're here about film noir, in Possessed there are two of the greatest set pieces in noir: the opening when she's walking through a deserted downtown Los Angeles and she's not wearing any make-up, fabulous noir stuff, and that scene where she's waiting for her step daughter and it's raining and every object in the house seems menacing. Great noir expressionist photography by Curtis Bernhardt.

Muller: Curtis Bernhardt the director, one of the great underrated German Expressionist directors. He was very inspired by Joan Crawford; a piece of expressionism herself. I think they were a perfect match together. Any final words on Joan?

Hirsch: Isn't it great that we can be here enjoying Joan as fans and not having to call her Mommie Dearest? As fans we can see how generous she was to her audience. She wanted you to love her, even though she's playing wicked characters, you're rooting for her and you like her anyway. That's star power.

* * *

I cracked open Joan Crawford's autobiography A Portrait Of Joan, to see if she had anything to say about either film. Crawford reminisced: "I went on to an even more difficult part in Possessed, the part of a schizophrenic, a woman going insane from unrequited love." (1962:142) Elsewhere, Joan described her character Louise as a woman "so bruised by love she sinks into the psychotic." (1962:156)

"The role of Louise was violent and fearful and required medical accuracy," Crawford detailed. "I spent six weeks in hospitals watching schizophrenics, seeing how sodium pentothal and sodium amytal restores them to memory for a few brief moments—six weeks at L.A. General Hospital, and many sanitoriums. Even the critic who disliked me most called me 'Hollywood's great sufferer Academy style.' Mr. Mayer ran Mildred Pierce, Humoresque and Possessed and made his MGM producers look at them each three times.

" 'She's through, is she?' he said. 'Why couldn't we have done this here? Every one of them is Academy timber!' He was right, I was again nominated for an award [for Possessed].

"I didn't win the Oscar, but I got something more wonderful—my twins, Cynthia and Cathy, darling babies two months old, still in incubators." (1962:142-143) Knowing—as Hirsch insinuated—probably more about Crawford than we need to know, I couldn't help wondering if Joan wouldn't have preferred two Oscars in incubators?

With regard to Crawford's perceived "masculinity", I would argue that this was not a quality exclusive to Joan and is a somewhat unfair if simplistic ascription. Mollie Haskell delineates it more accurately in her introduction to Leading Ladies: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actresses of the Studio Era: "At a time when very few women worked at all, and it was taken for granted that they were subordinate to men in marriage, here were women who radiated power on screen, and as actresses and star 'commodities' were making salaries equal to men. Even when stories dictated that, under the rules of romantic contrivance, they capitulate in the end, we were left with a quite different sense of them as heroic free spirits, contravening any and every implication of submission. And in these stories, they struggled with many of the same anxieties that beset us today, juggling friendship and ambition and the need for love, making choices both wise and foolish, carving out individual paths.

"Today's young women, benefiting from wide professional opportunities and greater sexual freedom, and operating under the assumption that we've 'come a long way, baby' from the benighted eras of our mothers and grandmothers, are often staggered by the incredible presence of these earlier stars—their strength of mind, their confidence, their brio and female swagger. These icons of a bygone era seem, in many ways, more authoritative, more at ease in their skin, than stars today. We may find ourselves returning to them for inspiration and as an antidote to our present day anxieties, forming as they do an ongoing historical basis for a belief in women's potential." (2006:15)

Which is to say that—instead of perceiving an actress like Joan Crawford as someone who has wrested from the male something that is essentially "masculine"—perhaps it's more appropriate (and again, accurate) to recognize the strength of their individual potential, unlimited by gendered preconceptions, especially as configured by the fashions and the mores of the time.

Muller is astute to draw attention to Crawford's auteurship. Haskell again: "They had clout back then, as well as faces! Those were the days when women were essential to the filmmaking process, commanded salaries equal to their male counterparts, and appeared in equal numbers on annual lists of box office favorites, very different from the current lopsided situation in which for every lone 'bankable' woman like Julia Roberts, twenty male stars constitute a significant box office draw and can sell a picture." (2006:14)

Star power, indeed. "If you're going to be a star," Joan Crawford once said, "you have to look like a star, and I never go out unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door." (Quoted in TCM's Leading Ladies, 2006:41.)


Brian said...

Thanks for trascribing these comments, Michael, and for adding your own interpretation re: Crawford's "masculinity". I missed the screenings, but I feel almost as I hadn't.

Maya said...

Great, Brian, I'm glad to hear that. We're so lucky in the Bay Area to have these kind of events going on and I really hope to share some via transcription with others.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Thanks for the story about JC and Steven Harvey. I knew Steven a bit, and have a signed copy of that book, from when I was a student volunteer at MoMA.

Anonymous said...

hi there-- found this through google. we had thepleasure of seeing foster hirsch introduce a showing of sunset blvd yesterday at the afi theatre in silver spring, md. i'm going to post something about it at sprig5.livejournal.com

he was a great speaker. i love his comments about joan crawford here.

Maya said...

Hey Anon, thanks for stopping by to comment. Foster is a lot of fun to listen to, isn't he? I'll look forward to your write-up.