ron gallela/getty images
ron gallela/getty images
Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Phil Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
To this day she remains Hollywood’s longest-reigning star, a career that spanned the era of silent movies, the Golden Age of the 30s and 40s, and the industry’s resurgence in the 70s: a total of 45 years. Always a star, her name above the title, Joan Crawford had to claw her way to the top and fight to stay there.
She received her Cecil B deMille award in 1970, inspired no doubt by her comeback role in Mildred Pierce, arguably one of the greatest screen performances of all time.
Joan was born Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas. Raised in wholesome family life with just a rudimentary school education, she found her calling as a dancer and, spotted by Jacob Shubert, she was hired as a chorus dancer.
Before her 20th birthday, she had two brief marriages, but her overriding ambition was to be a star. A screen test for MGM landed her a contract offering her $75 a week. She appeared in a number of silent films as Lucille LeSueur, but it was the head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, who approved a magazine contest to find a new name for her, and thus Joan Crawford was born.
Even with the name change, the studio wasn’t offering her the roles she wanted; but a talent for self-promotion would eventually yield the first important parts opposite the studio’s biggest stars. One of these, The Unknown, with Lon Chaney changed her life. It was then that she became aware that acting was “not just standing in front of the camera,” as she put it. After appearing in 24 films she finally achieved above-the-title billing on her greatest silent film Our Dancing Daughters. It established her as a star and no less than F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed her “the best example of the flapper girl,” the sex symbol of that pre Depression era.
Her next career step was marrying husband number three Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., heir to the legendary Fairbanks-Mary Pickford dynasty. At first, she wasn’t welcomed into that Hollywood royalty, but she eventually won them over. With the advent of sound, having trained her voice, she successfully transitioned to talkies. By 1932 she was declared the third most popular actress on the screen and was now commanding more sophisticated roles.
After co-starring opposite MGM’s biggest star Clark Gable in three movies, which were all immensely popular, alongside Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, and Jean Harlow, she was MGM’s top female star .
She had a choice role in Grand Hotel which allowed her to shine among MGM’s all-star cast, but the movie that really demonstrated her unique talent was Dancing Lady. To watch her in that film is a revelation, a portent of all the great performances she later gave. To this day no actress comes close to equaling the laser-like intensity she brings to the screen.
Knowing too well that all the choice roles would first be offered to her boss Irving Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer, she got the studio to loan her out for Somerset Maugham’s Rain but neither the film nor her performance was a success. Back at MGM, she had to contend with second-best roles, but even in those, she got great reviews. Husband number four was again one of her costars, Franchot Tone. That marriage lasted only four years, but they remained friends and when he died twenty-five years later she arranged for his ashes to be scattered at Muskoka Lakes in Canada.
She wrested important roles from Shearer in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, A Woman’s Face, and Susan and God, and when playing the scheming Chrystal Allen in the all-star-cast The Women, she stole the film from Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine. What followed, however, were potboilers like They All Kissed the Bride, Reunion in France, and Above Suspicion. And when it appeared her career was going nowhere, she served Louis B. Mayer notice, and they tore up her contract. With nowhere to go, she devoted herself to the three children she and husband number five, an inconsequential supporting actor named Philip Terry, had adopted.
Eventually, Warner Bros came to her rescue and signed her to an exclusive seven-year contract. Her return to the screen after a two-year absence was her greatest triumph. Mildred Pierce earned her the Academy Award, although too nervous to attend the ceremony, she feigned illness and accepted her award in bed, the world press all there to cover it. Ironically at Warners, faced with competition from Bette Davis, Ida Lupino, Olivia de Havilland, and Barbara Stanwyck, suddenly she was queen of the lot.
She followed her Oscar-winning role with scorching performances opposite John Garfield in Humoresque and Van Heflin in Possessed, for which again she was Oscar-nominated. She was able to get Warners to loan here out to Fox for another of her best movies, Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon in which she had Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda vying for her affection.
Back at Warners she was again smoldering in Flamingo Road and The Damned Don’t Cry, and then on loan out to Columbia, she made another of her best movies Harriet Craig. Her last films at Warners were a repeat of her sunset years at Metro. After making a break with the studio, she found a new life freelancing, first at RKO with Sudden Fear which was a box office smash and earned her the only Golden Globe nomination and her third Oscar nomination, and then at Republic with Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar which is now considered one of her classic films. Her return to MGM for Torch Song was a disaster, and the less said about that one the better.
She fared better at Columbia in Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves, and the underrated The Story of Esther Costello, which she made in England. Surprisingly, at this time she was prepared to retire from acting having met and married her sixth husband Alfred Steele, the love of her life and the president of the Pepsi Cola Company. She reveled in her new job as spokesperson for the company, but when Steele died suddenly that career ended.
She returned to acting, reuniting with Jerry Wald her Mildred Pierce producer for a key supporting role in The Best of Everything, which earned her good reviews. But then her career got a new jolt when she was offered the co-starring role in Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane ? , in which she was terrorized both on-screen and off by costar Bette Davis. Even though the film was a huge box office hit, she refused to do its sequel.
Her final starring roles were in slasher movies Berserk, and Trog, in between which she shot an anthology TV movie Night Gallery, accepting first-timer Steven Spielberg as her director.
She was played by Faye Dunaway in the 1981 movie, Mommie Dearest, based on the posthumous memoir written by one of her four adopted children.
It damaged her reputation as a parent — even her close friend Helen Hayes summed it up. “Joan played many great roles. The one role she should never have played was mother.”
But her great performances in a dozen movies remain testament to her spectacular talent. Who more deserving of our Cecil B. deMille than Joan?