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Joan Crawford´s best performances:

28 Mar

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Joan Crawford was one of Hollywood´s top legends and one of the greatest faces ever to appear on the big screen, and even though her place in film history is more than secure – her legacy is everlasting!− people tend to overlook  her dramatic abilities over the uber-glamorous and beautiful persona she displayed on screen and off. In this list, we take a look at her 15 best performances, ranging from the silent days to the liberated 60s, an accomplishment in durability that few other stars ever achieved.

15) The Unknown (1927)

Mr. Chaney was known as a generous man to young actors. He certainly was to me”- J. C. on Lon Chaney.

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Starring Lon Chaney and directed by Tod Browning (he would also direct Dracula and Freaks) “The Unknown” is one the strangest mainstream films ever made, and one of the shortest, running less than an hour. Joan Crawford gets the juicy supporting role of Nanon, the young and beautiful daughter of the circus owner and also the assistant and target of the armless knife thrower Alonzo (Chaney). The bizarre plot tells the story of Alonzo, a dangerous and insane criminal fugitive from the law, whose only chance is to disguise himself completely as an armless man  strapping his arms with bandages, and work in a circus in Madrid, to avoid getting caught. Alonzo masterfully pretends not to have arms and no one suspects thus hiding another disturbing physical attribute that might give him away: his double-thumbed hands. Luckily for him, Nanon has an almost pathological dread at being touched by men and becomes very fond of him. Although nearly impossible to steal a movie from the great Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford lights up the screen using her huge eyes to full advantage in order to express a wide range of emotions aptly conveyed for the silent screen. Like most of Chaney films, this film was an unquestionable success and provided much needed attention to young starlet Joan Crawford in what can be considered her first notable dramatic role.

14) Queen Bee (1955)

“Queen Bee owed so much to Tenesse Williams, I felt like a Carte Blanche Dubois” – J.C.

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Joan Crawford at her evil best, and undoubtedly, her portrayal of Eva Phillips can be listed among cinema`s top bitches. A role that seems to fit like a glove to the post-Mommie Dearest image of Crawford we have forged, she plays the ruthless southern socialite to the hilt, beautifully dressed by Jean Louis (actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best B&W Costume design) and deliciously exploits her fierce physical attributes: her short hair, the thick eyebrows and the devouring overdrawn mouth plus her straightforwardly aggressive, cynical attitude. The rather ordinary plots follows the story of the domineering Eva and how she destroys everyone around her until she finds he own deserved and tragic demise. A true star in every sense, Crawford powerfully carries this otherwise weak film, giving a solid performance that is so over the top that is almost – but not quite – a parody of her own current tough image. In fact, her adopted daughter Christina said this role was the closest to the way she really was, leaving the theater midway through the screening of Queen Bee − Eva Phillips being too realistic for her to endure. Joan Crawford had approval of director, screenplay, hairstyle, make-up and costumes for this film and for the next one, “Autumn Leaves”, both of which she had negotiated with Columbia.

13) Our dancing daughters (1928)

“Joan Crawford was doubtless the best example of the dramatic flapper− the girl you see at the smartest night clubs… toying iced glasses, with a remote, faintly bitter expression – dancing deliciously− laughing a great deal with wide, hurt eyes” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Her first pivotal dramatic role (first out of five)* firmly stablished her as a star and she instantly joined the ranks of Clara Bow and Colleen Moore as flapper per excellence. Even though Crawford did not coin the term flapper, nor was it coined with her name in mind, she stepped into the role and lived it, becoming the first time (and certainly not the last one) where her private self and the public self would become intertwined, branding her care-free image in the mind of movie-goers for the time being. A consummate dancer, Joan was allowed to show off her talents by dancing the Charleston on a table, an essential composition in the Crawford persona. Flat chested, wide-eyed and sporting a short hairstyle, Joan Crawford was a step away from her definite look, but the charm of a real star quite clearly shines through this 1928 film.  She plays dangerous Diana, a girl who seems to care only about having fun, but deep inside is quite virtuous (and thus the usual tramp-turned wife endings that so appeased the censors). The could sin all they wanted, as long as they bad girl got punished and the good girl got married, at least in the public’s mind. This sexually daring film would lead to even more daring roles in the liberated but short-lived pre-code era; and her flapper image would eventually take her to the dancing lady persona, which she used to great advantage throughout the early to mid-thirties.

*Joan Crawford´s 5 pivotal dramatic roles where the ones which marked turning points in her career, and they were: Our Dancing Daughters (1928) for which she became a star, Grand Hotel (1932) for which she became a super-star, The Women (1939) which resurrected her career, Mildred Pierce (1945) she got the Oscar! And Whatever happened to Baby Jane (1962) that also resurrected her career.

12) What ever happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

“She said Miss Crawford not with a tone of respect, but with more of a sneer. I thought of her as Bette, but she never once called me Joan” – J.C. on Bette Davis

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Joan Crawford`s fifth – and last – pivotal dramatic role and the one that revitalized the later part of her career, even though it meant for her plunging into low budget horror movies. Joan effectively underplays the effervescent Davis in this grotesque masterpiece, directed by Robert Aldrich and currently enjoying a revival thanks to the following generated after the airing of the TV series Feud created by Ryan McMurphy, dealing with the legendary rivalry between Davis and Crawford. Davis got her 10th Academy Award nomination for her brutal portrayal of Baby Jane Hudson. Crawford, playing the recluse Blanche Hudson, was not nominated, much to her disappointment. Blanche Hudson represents the quintessential Crawford image crafted throughout her career, that of the ultimate sufferer being mistreated and tortured by the great punisher of the screen Bette Davis. All of their previous roles prepared them for this notable picture.

11) Autumn Leaves (1956)

“When I was a girl I could not have imagined myself not being young. It seemed getting older would take forever. I didn`t even give it a thought. Later, time went by faster…” – J.C.

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Like a bunch of her films from the 50s, this one starts off like a soapy, typical melodrama telling the cliché story of the older woman (Joan Crawford) having a relationship with a younger man (Clift Robertson). Millicent`s (Crawford) physic is tough, with her short hear, thick eyebrows and huge mouth, but she has been single much too long, taking care of her ill and elderly father until he passed. Then she was left alone, working as a typist and living modestly in a bungalow having no one to cure her loneliness, except her landlady friend, Liz. She is hungry for love − but also apprehensive − and her enormous eyes are wonderful at giving away that vulnerability needed in this role, for it is almost camp, but not quite. Directed by Robert Aldrich, the movie soon changes direction and jumps into a study of mental illness, its implications and unconditional love. Few people knew how to suffer like Joan Crawford. In Autumn Leaves she finally meets the man of her dreams, only ten years younger, to find out shortly after they got married that he has been lying compulsively to her and is quickly falling into schizophrenia. She gets beaten-up, heartbroken and humiliated and the film allows her to display a wide range of emotions, including the necessary hysterics.

10) Grand Hotel (1932)

“I never made a greater film in all the rest of my career, which was a very long time, even including Mildred Pierce” – J.C.

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Joan Crawford`s second pivotal dramatic role and the one that catapulted her to super-stardom. Grand Hotel was and still is one of the grandest films ever made, mainly because it showcases old Hollywood`s legendary glamour at its very greatest. Although her name got third billing, she did not care, because she knew she was making history with this film, the first one to bring together many powerful stars and well known secondary character actors. It was Thalberg`s idea to make an all-star film in a desperate attempt to sell tickets in the darkest days of the Depression era, stating that for the price of one, you got to see Garbo, the Barrymores, Crawford, Beery and others. Joan Crawford, the eternal working girl, gets the role of a lifetime playing Flaemmchen, the stenographer, hired by the brute Beery to work for him in Berlin´s Grand Hotel. She was wonderfully dressed by Adrian and even though is a bit difficult to upstage Garbo or John Barrymore; she does so, almost effortlessly. As time goes by, Greta Garbo´s whining prima donna is a bit annoying and no matter how divine she was this simply was not her best role. Joan is credible, subtle and efficient with her acting, making it clear that she has been around a bit, has grown tough as nails for that, but her heart still remained soft.

“It was perfect. A great script. Our director, Eddy Goulding, was perfect. And Adrian, dear Adrian. He was the greatest costume designer of them all. There will never be a greater one. Adrian dressed Garbo and me, and he made sure we were dressed fabulously, but always perfectly in character”− J.C.

9) Paid (1930)

“Just wait until you see Joan Crawford in this powerful dramatic role! The story is absorbing and Joan is simply grand! – Photoplay

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Norma Shearer, the reigning queen of MGM during the thirties turned down the role due to pregnancy and was assigned to Joan Crawford, who never cared much about being given Shearer´s leftovers, as long as they were good. This early talkie* and pre-code film represents the first serious dramatic role of Joan Crawford and the one in which she begun to shape her distinctive look, accentuating her big eyes and lips. Her haunted gaze is quite powerful and her lack of make-up in some scenes is quite shocking as well, for the fans that are used to see Joan Crawford dripping in furs and wearing incredible dresses. Actually, Paid also marked the first time that glamour was not a prerequisite for a Crawford movie. She is raw and alive and full of grudge, just like you have never seen her before. She plays a prison inmate waiting for her release to get revenge, and the film is full of pre-code moments! – The film was originally called Within the law and some people consider it a proto-noir, for the distinct cinematography, themes and general depressed mood.

*MGM resisted the change to sound more than other studios, under the premise that “silents were to stay” according to genius producer and husband to Norma, Irving Thalberg.

8) Mildred Pierce (1945)

“So many people have written that I was a star and not an actress. They wrote that Bette Davis was an actress and a star, a real actress. I knew I was as much an actress as she was. But I wasn´t as hurt as you might think because I loved being called a star, even more, being a star. But it was nice with Mildred Pierce to be certified as an actress” –J.C.

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Joan Crawford´s fourth pivotal dramatic role and the one that resurrected her career – yet again! Noir film suited Joan´s strong looks from the 40s perfectly and she adapted to the genre smoothly, so much that most of Crawford´s best films fall into the Noir category. After a string of weak pictures shortly before her release from MGM, she fought hard to get this role, which at first was turned down by Bette Davis, who thought it would not be right for her. Mildred Pierce is actually more of a Stanwyck vehicle, but Crawford made it her own. She plays a hardworking mother who loves her greedy and selfish daughter so much that she cannot see the viper she really is, until it´s too late. Michael Curtiz, well known monster in Hollywood, directed the film masterfully and although is not Joan`s best performance, she got an Oscar for it and Mildred Pierce became the biggest hit of her career. Joan Crawford was back and swathed in more fur than ever.

7) Strange Cargo (1940)

“The acting is high-grade with Joan Crawford giving her best performance to date” – Film Daily

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Joan Crawford´s 8th and last film with chauvinistic pig Clark Gable. After her career resurrected with her unsympathetic role in The Women, Joan jumped to another chance to play a tough lady, this time, one much tougher than glamorous Crystal Allen. The movie is exotically set in the French Guianas, and Joan could not have been better at being bitchy and caustic! Her look of disgust and scorn at gross Monseiur Pig´s advances (Peter Lorre) is truly hurtful, enhanced by the harsh lighting and thin, evil eyebrows.  The last time audiences watched Crawford stripped from all her glamour and make-up was nearly a decade before, when she starred in Paid. In Strange Cargo, even though it seems to be a regular Crawford – Gable formula, she quickly gets rid of all glamour and pursues her lover through the jungle and then on the sea to salvation. After The Unknown, this could be considered Crawford`s strangest film (strangest serious film, that  is) because it deals with religion and a messiah-like figure who appears from nowhere and just teaches good values to a bunch of guys who were deep in  the gutter, leading them all to some sort of enlightenment. Miss Crawford gives a fantastic performance as the feline Julie under the capable direction of Frank Borzage and an impeccable supporting cast.

6) The women (1939)

“Even the dog is a bitch” – George Cukor

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Joan Crawford`s third pivotal dramatic role and the one that resurrected her career thus far. The career-wrecking term “box-office poison” was labeled on some of the 30s greatest stars, such as Garbo, Dietrich, Hepburn, West, Shearer, Francis and Joan Crawford – among others. It was an article in the magazine Independent Film Journal that on May 3, 1938 sentenced that even though no one questioned their craft, for some reason their box office appeal had diminished considerably. After a few unsuccessful pictures, Crawford`s career was thought to be dead, or soon to be dead. She decided to take a risk and go against the usual Crawford formula and play an unsympathetic supporting role in a film starring arch-rival and Queen of MGM Norma Shearer. Directed by Joan´s favorite director George  Cukor, known for his ability to direct women, and co-starred hilarious Rosalind Russel, The Women became a sensation worldwide, resurrecting Crawford career and changing its direction towards the more serious and heavier dramatic roles that were to come.  She plays Crystal Allen, a perfumes sales girl, not too young but not too old either and full of sex appeal who steals away Shearer´s husband.  A star studded cast, the movie is a magnificent example of the magic of old Hollywood and a good taste of what real divas were made of.

5) Rain (1932)

“Rain was an ordeal for me. At the time, I thought it was my worse performance yet, but now I think I was wrong. Because of my motion picture background, all of those Broadway actors treated me like I really was Sadie Thompson.”- J.C.

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Crawford least favorite film and the one that demanded even a public apology from her. Hypocritically puritanical America was not ready to see hard-working Joan Crawford play a whore, and quite realistically too. She´s brazen brazen! Heavily made-up, dripping in attitude and projecting a voice worth of Garbo´s talkie debut, Joan Crawford is stunningly beautiful and truly, a star to behold. Her entrance is fantastic, self-confident and masterfully made, worth of the time when there were real movie stars having entrances according to their statuses. Joan`s Sadie Thompson can be considered her best acting piece up to that time, and by far. It was Joan Crawford´s first loan out by MGM to United Artist. Directed by Lewis Milestone, Rain represents the opposite of films aging poorly and becoming too old fashioned, her raw and powerful Sadie Thompson, along with the beautiful B&W photography and the sometimes unconventional shots of the tropical Pago Pago (actually Catalina Island, but whatever) make this one of Joan´s best films during her early talkie period, and the one that really became better and better with time, proving strongly that Rain was way ahead of its still embryonic movie audience.

4) Sudden Fear (1952)

“The scenario… is designed to allow Miss Crawford a wide arrange of quivering reactions to vicious events, se she passes through the stage of starry-eyed love, terrible disillusionment, fear, hatred and finally hysteria. With her wide eyes and forceful bearing, she is the woman for the job.” −  New York Herald Tribune

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After a string a mediocre pictures at Warner Brothers she asked to be released from her contract and joined RKO for this noir masterpiece. She thought the script was good and when the studio could not meet her salary request, she reduced it, opting for a percentage of the profits. The suspenseful film adds nothing new to already mature noir genre, but it is the way is done and acted that makes it so effective. Joan Crawford plays Myra Hudson; a mature, successful playwright who falls in love with an actor she had previously dismissed from one her plays, in this case odd looking Jack Palance. It is the romance of a lifetime, until she finds out that he is planning to murder her along with his bitchy girlfriend, Irene played by Gloria Graham. Crawford gives an outstanding performance as the paranoid wife, planning her way out of the mess by seeking revenge but ultimately leaving it to destiny to punish those who have wronged her. Joan was nominated for an Academy Award and the film was a huge success, boosting for a while her waning career. Bette Davis was also nominated that year for her performance in The Star, a caustic portrait of an aging motion picture star, supposedly based on Joan Crawford´s life, which she vehemently denied, claiming that Davis looked too old and overweight to be playing her. That year, the Academy Award went to Shirley Booth, for Comeback little Sheba.

3) A woman`s face (1941)

“I went directly to Mr. Mayer and asked him to buy the property f or me. It was a wonderful part, and I knew I could be great in it.” – J.C.

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A role for which Joan should have won an Oscar for it is, truly, a great performance. Joan took a liking to risky roles and here she plays a disfigured blackmailer, who is lucky enough to blackmail a surgeon`s wife. Directed by George Cukor, this noir film is notably less dark than other films of the genre and it is mostly set in rural areas, unlike the asphalt jungle setting commonly associated with it. Joan Crawford´s big, expressive eyes are particularly useful tools in this picture; for they seem to crack open her rough, disfigured skin to shed light of the tortured human being inside, hungry for love and acceptance. Yes, she tells all that with her eyes in her first close-up. A woman´s face represents an early example of a glamorous and beautiful movie star – dependent on her looks, in a considerable way – making herself deliberately unattractive, even monstrous in order to achieve a performance. Joan Crawford, however, stays unattractive only half of the picture: her beauty is restored after several procedures and she once again has the luminous, symmetric face we all know. The glamour queen that strips herself from beauty in order to get an Oscar would become cliché, especially since Elizabeth Taylor notorious performance as Martha in Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? in1966.

2) Possessed (1947)

“I loved doing that film, and I felt lucky to be nominated for an Oscar, me and the part.” –J.C.

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Her back to back successes with Mildred Pierce and Humoresque gave Joan Crawford green light to jump into what she considered the most challenging role she ever played. The part of Louise was originally though as a Bette Davis´s vehicle, but her films were bombing at the box-office and she was on maternity leave, so it was assigned to Joan, who played Louise as a peculiar and lonely nurse whose obsession with a free spirited man (Van Heflin) triggers her gradual descent into madness. A celebrated noir masterpiece, Possessed stands out as one of the best and most electrifying films of Joan Crawford, achieving audience and critical praise upon its release and getting her an Academy Award nomination for best actress*. The somber and expressionist lighting suited Joan deranged and strong looks, quite unglamorous and certainly raw and powerful, and some scenes are so dark that it could almost pass as a horror film.

*That year, the Oscar went to Loretta Young for A farmer´s daughter.

1) Humoresque (1946) 

Humoresque is undoubtedly Crawford`s finest performance” – Lawrence J. Quirk.

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Humoresque can be considered one of Joan´s best movies in all her career, and definitely a must-see noir film. John Garfield plays Paul Borey, the struggling violinist who finds a mature and rich benefactor, Helen Wright (Crawford) who propels him to stardom as a music virtuoso. Joan Crawford gives a depthful performance as the complex and alcoholic socialite who falls in love with her protégé, only to have her life spiral down into the depths of depression. Helen Wright is irrationally jealous and inherently self-destructive and thinks her affair with Borey – now famous and sought after – doomed for failure like all her previous relationships. There is a subtlety in Joan´s acting – never quite matched before – every gesture being meaningful, every shadow signaling somber forthcomings, every broken glass pulling her further down the abyss. The film is a stylish noir, with wonderful costumes and soundtrack, great acting and memorable scenes such as the last close-ups of Helen as she approaches the ocean – there are tears in her eyes – walking while the background music plays Borey in concert and she gazes at the waves that would soon drag her to death. No doubt, it became Joan´s third biggest box-office hit of her career and a film that she would usually project in her own little movie theater. A nearly perfect film, if it weren´t so painfully depressing…

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