February 21, 2011

Book Review: POSSESSED: THE LIFE OF JOAN CRAWFORD by Donald Spoto

Book Description:  Joan Crawford was one of the most incandescent film stars of all time, yet she was also one of the most misunderstood. In this brilliantly researched, thoughtful, and intimate biography, bestselling author Donald Spoto goes beyond the popular caricature—the abusive, unstable mother portrayed in her adopted daughter Christina Crawford’s memoir, Mommie Dearest—to give us a three-dimensional portrait of a very human woman, her dazzling career, and her extraordinarily dramatic life and times.

Based on new archival information and exclusive interviews, and written with Spoto’s keen eye for detail, Possessed offers a fascinating portrait of a courageous, highly sexed, and ambitious woman whose strength and drive made her a forerunner in the fledgling film business. From her hardscrabble childhood in Texas to her early days as a dancer in post–World War I New York to her rise to stardom, Spoto traces Crawford’s fifty years of memorable performances in classics like Rain, The Women, Mildred Pierce, and Sudden Fear, which are as startling and vivid today as when they were filmed.

In Possessed, Spoto goes behind the myths to examine the rise and fall of the studio system; Crawford’s four marriages; her passionate thirty year, on-and-off-again affair with Clark Gable; her friendships and rivalries with other stars; her powerful desire to become a mother; the truth behind the scathing stories in her daughter Christina’s memoir; and her final years as a widow battling cancer. Spoto explores Crawford’s achievements as an actress, her work with Hollywood’s great directors (Frank Borzage, George Cukor, Otto Preminger) and actors (Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, John Barrymore), and later, her role as a highly effective executive on the board of directors of Pepsi-Cola.

Illuminating and entertaining, Possessed is the definitive biography of this remarkable woman and true legend of film.


I will start this review off by stating that I am a huge Joan Crawford fan; she is without a doubt my favorite classic movie actress.  Because of my devotion to her and her films I can easily find something positive with even the most banal Crawford offering but, happily, in this case no such searching was necessary. 

Since the publication of daughter Christina's alleged memoir Mommie Dearest in 1978, it has been a thankless job of sorts to support Crawford and acknowledge not only her contributions to the world of film but also the undeniable talent that was hidden under the tag of "movie star".   Prolific biographer Donald Spoto, who has also offered up works on Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Alfred Hitchcock, among others, not only acknowleges Crawford's many contributions to film and those incredible roles she turned out but does an admirable job in exploring Crawford's life and lengthy career, the highs and the lows, without titillating gossip and rehashed attacks on Crawford's character. Spoto himself is obviously a Crawford fan, and for some may come across as a Crawford apologist - for whatever reason, he does not address the question of whether Crawford's first marriage was not to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. but to a James Welton before she arrived in Hollywood; he did not address the many tales of Crawford's rumored affairs with actresses Dorothy Sebastian and Barbara Stanwyck, among others; nor does he touch much on Crawford's sexual prowess.  However, even without these details, a reader of Possessed will leave the book with an understanding of how complex, driven, willful , fortunate, lonely and utterly compassionate of a person Joan Crawford was. 

It is remarkable today, nearly ninety years after Crawford's initial arrival in Hollywood, how this former laundry worker, a dropout, and struggling dancer would become one of the greatest stars and actresses to be put on film.  Spoto does a commendable job tracing Crawford's early life and fleshing out Hollywood of the 1920s and, when Crawford came into her own professionally, the glamorous and one of a kind 1930s.  Special attention is paid to Crawford's incomparable style and fashion, something some of her films from that time period were better known for than the actual acting or plot (but such films are still fascinating and highly rewarding in this fan's opinion).

Spoto covers Crawford's four marriages, each one to a very different type of man, her decades-long affair and relationship with Clark Gable, her long professional ties with MGM and Warner Bros. and friendships that lasted more than forty years.    He also devotes many pages to Crawford's strained and often tumultuous family relationships, first with her mother and brother and later with her own children, most notably her two eldest, Christina and Christopher.  Spoto does quote sections from Christina's Mommie Dearest as well as quotes from a fellow thespian or acquaintance of Joan's who believed Christina's tale of a harrowing childhood.  He also quotes others who claim that Joan, while strict, was an attentive and loving mother and nothing like the monster depicted in Christina's book. 

Perhaps best of all are the sections of the book that highlight Crawford's many charitable actions and donations, most of which were never publicized during her lifetime.  She not only made many financial contributions to known organizations like The American Cancer Society, The American Heart Association and The Muscular Dystrophy Association, to name a few, but also kept rooms available at a local hospital for persons unable to pay and anonymously picked up their medical bills, as well as those for the studio employees who worked on the soundstages and sets.  She never sought publicity or attention for these deeds and went out of her way to make sure she remained anonymous. 

As a diehard Crawford fan, I didn't learn a lot of new information from Possessed but I did finish the book with a greater admiration for Joan, as both a woman ahead of her time, and a devoted friend.  Her attention to detail, her passionate desire to learn the ins and outs of filmmaking (which she most certainly did) and her fierce refusal to throw in the towel on her career at a time when women over thirty-five were shunned in the industry and expected to gracefully and silently retire, make her a glorious symbol of Hollywood at its finest.  Despite her flaws and her shortcomings, Joan Crawford was and remains one of a kind, one of MGM's "stars in the heavens" and Possessed a touching and reaffirming love note to her accomplishments, both professional and personal, and I think she herself would approve.

Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford is available for purchase now at major booksellers, including Amazon.   I am an Amazon affiliate. If you make a purchase through my link, I will receive a small commission.

FTC Disclosure: This book was borrowed from my local public library. I was neither compensated nor paid in any way for this review.

4 comments:

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

NO WIRE HANGERS!!!!

I was obsessed with reading bios of classic movie stars when I was a teen. Bette Davis and Ava Gardner were my favs! I read Joan's daughters book but haven't read much on her specifically.

Great review!

Michelle

Lori said...

Michelle, if you like bios of classic movie stars, I would encourage you to read this one, especially if you have only read "Mommie Dearest", which doesn't really go into Joan's professional successes and, IMO, is one-sided and a bunch of hooey.

Thanks for the comment! :)

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

This would be great for someone like me :) I need to learn more about the fab Joan.

Michelle @ The True Book Addict said...

Lori, you have an ally in the Joan camp! I read Mommie Dearest when I was a teenager and, of course, being a teenager, I thought she was just awful. My sister and I used to tease my mom and call her Mommie Dearest and we used to say No Wire Hangers! all the time. That being said, through my adulthood, I have watched and examined Joan's work and she was truly brilliant. I mean Mildred Pierce...come on...AWESOME! Also, as I've matured, I've learned that there are always two sides to every story so I always take biopics/biographies with a grain of salt and remain skeptical to their 100% authenticity. I mean, we weren't there so we will never know what really went down and never will. Better to keep an open mind and not judge too harshly, in my humble opinion.

Great review, by the way!

Note: Mildred Pierce is on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) tomorrow night at 7pm CT/8pm ET. Also, did you know that HBO (I think) is doing a remake of Mildred Pierce starring none other than Kate Winslet. I would normally be a bit wary of a remake, but Winslet is so brill and HBO is known for it's excellent film making. I really can't wait for it!