Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford by Donald Spoto
|Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford by Donald Spoto
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
|Summary: A biography of the film star, who according to the author was a contradictory human being but certainly not the monster portrayed in Mommie Dearest, the memoir by her adopted daughter.
|Date: February 2011
Thanks to the memoir 'Mommie Dearest' by her adopted daughter Christina, the enduring image of movie star Joan Crawford is one of an alcoholic, sadistic monster. Spoto clearly believes that this portrait is a gross exaggeration, and is at pains to rectify the balance. Having previously written biographies of Alfred Hitchcock and Marilyn Monroe among others, he clearly knows the subject of cinema inside out, and has written a very thorough chronicle of Crawford's career. The impression the reader is left with, however, is that in looking at her family life and art he has perhaps striven too far to present her as a person more sinned against than sinning, a legendary talent, beauty and above all a grossly maligned adoptive mother.
He traces the outline of her life efficiently, from her birth and poor background as Lucille Fay Le Soeur in 1906, abandoned by her father, to her initial journey as she says goodbye to her mother, overdressed, overweight and overanxious, to California and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. It was an exciting time to enter the industry, especially as the 'talkies' were about to change everything. At once she proved herself a hard worker, appearing in no less than 27 silent films in her first four years as an actress. Her marriages and divorces, and an on-off affair with Clark Gable lasting some thirty years, are dealt with, in between his account of each of her films in turn – some inevitably more successful than others. 'Mildred Pierce', made in 1945, received several awards and was generally reckoned to be one of her best, if not her best, while a few years later 'This Woman is Dangerous', was disowned by her as the worst picture she ever made, and written off by one major critic as 'trash'. Despite his enthusiasm for her as a person, Spoto is objective enough about each one.
Where he tends to lose perspective is in his discussion of her role as mother to her adopted children, in particular Christina, whose memoir did so much to besmirch her reputation. Crawford was evidently at fault in literally buying four children illegally from baby brokers, as they were known, adopting them in other states where single parent adoptions were legal, and bringing them back to California with lawyers ready to meet any possible challenges to her having done so. At best, it sounds rather dubious; at worst, it seems like the action of a spoiled woman who has decided that money is the open sesame to everything. There is also a bizarre and rather convoluted discussion on Crawford's apparently going psychotic with rage when she goes to her daughter's cupboard and finds her clothes suspended from wire hangers instead of upholstered ones she had provided for the purpose, an error which may have been the fault of the laundry company but for which it seems Christina was held responsible.
To give Spoto credit, he does not paint his heroine as a saint throughout. He emphasizes that she could be a difficult woman to work with, and that she took solace in vodka too often in her twilight years. It is hardly surprising to read that when she made her last will and testament, her adopted twin daughters were the major beneficiaries, while Christina and her son Christopher, a ne'er-do-well, received nothing. As she did not even leave them token bequests, they would later contest the will and were both awarded a substantial sum by the court. His account of her final days, spending much of her time in bed in severe pain until the final release in 1977, is moving enough. Yet for large parts of the book, the feeling persists that he has on occasion been too generous with the whitewash.
Any reader who basically requires a good summary of her movie career and a succinct comment on each of her pictures, good and bad, will certainly find it here. But much of what might be called the family content needs to be taken with caution.
Our thanks to Hutchinson for sending a review copy to Bookbag.
If you enjoy this, may we recommend Grace Kelly: High Society and Hollywood, by the same author.
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