Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Possessed - The Life of Joan Crawford, By Donald Spoto

It may seem strange or even hard to believe that in spite of my interest in the history of American cinema I'd never read a biography or critical study on Joan Crawford until picking up Donald Spoto's book on her a few weeks ago. Having read several other of his books before, I knew roughly what to expect. In other words, Spoto knows what he's talking about, knows his Hollywood history, abstains from making undue claims he can't buttress, and tends to rely on a variety sources, including secondary literature, oral histories and empirical data. And indeed, this also applies to his book on Crawford, aptly titled Possessed, which refers to both the title of two of Crawford's movies as well as to that of her traits which best describes her. Possessed makes for compelling, engrossing reading. It is well written, well researched relying as it does on a slew of sources, among them the Joan Crawford papers at Lincoln Center.

What I found most intriguing though, is that in the book's introduction Spoto reveals the impetus not only for writing this book, but for his interest in Joan Crawford in general. For when Spoto was 11 years old, she answered his letter in which he expressed his admiration for her performance in Sudden Fear. As Spoto rightly pointed out, he had no expectation of ever receiving an answer to his, the letter of an 11-year old. Yet, the fact that he did get a reply says a lot about Crawford and the way she pushed herself, obsessed with being the star and remaining one, which included never letting down her fan base by also recruiting new ones, such as 11 year old Donald Spoto.

Aware of the importance and significance of our childhood experiences and memories, I can just imagine the impact Crawford's reply was bound to have on the eleven year old Donald, sparking a life-long fascination for one of the small handful of women - stars - whose names are forever linked with the golden age of Hollywood and which have become synonymous with glamour. Therefore it comes as no surprise that his book is full admiration for its subject. But don't be fooled, his is of course not the out-pour of some gushing fan. Spoto always retains a critical distance by also taking Crawford's detractors into account, including Crawford's adopted daughter Christina's infamous Mommie Dearest. However, where appropriate he disproves her and refutes her claims by providing evidence, usually oral histories of people who knew Crawford personally or professionally.

When after nearly 500 pages you get to the end of Possessed you're left with a biography of a woman in whose life glamour was but one aspect. Above all, Crawford was a hard worker, notoriously hard on herself - much more so than on others - and a woman possessed by perfection and who had trouble telling the woman from the star. Like others of her time - Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis - Crawford was the improbable product of the studio system, a system that tolerated no deviation or aberration lest it may damage the star's image and consequently box office receipts. But their, including Crawford's, glamorous image and relatively sudden rise to stardom stood in rank contrast to their modest backgrounds, which included an absent father and an almost complete lack of education, something even the most lavish Adrian gowns never managed to make up for, let alone cover. The result was incredible wealth and fame at the expense of a desolate, ultimately lonely, private life.

Possessed is a fascinating portrait of one of the most fascinating personalities spawned by Hollywood's golden age, one who was so central to the rise of MGM, which in turn was pivotal in the history of American film.

Possessed - The Life of Joan Crawford, by Donald Spoto, Harper Collins, 2010