In a sense, no actor ever climbed as high or fell as far as Joan Crawford. At one point in the early thirties, she was the queen of Hollywood, but by the end of her career she was playing ghoulish caricatures of herself. Those demeaning roles were only the beginning of the indignities that would befall her, though, because after her death her daughter published a book that portrayed her as even worse than the onscreen monsters she'd played. In a sense, Joan Crawford is still falling--as her film legend becomes ever more inextricably linked to the sordid facts and fictions of her personal life.
What all this obscures is that Joan Crawford was one of the greatest of all movie stars. The camera loved her, and Crawford bared herself to it unrelentingly. In her youth she was scrappy and beautiful, and as she headed into middle age--as the luster of her young beauty gave way to worry and anxiety--she become something new and unexpected: she became a film noir icon.
There are roughly three phases of the Crawford career: the early MGM beauty queen years, with Crawford playing hardworking gals trying to get to the top; the Warner Brothers noir years, with Crawford playing middle-aged women forced to live (or die) with disappointment and betrayal; and the late, freelance psycho years, with Crawford playing ax-murderers and old hags-gone-mad.
I have a new piece over at Criminal Element that looks at that fertile middle period. This is the period where Crawford gave us MILDRED PIERCE and POSSESSED and THE DAMNED DON'T CRY. It's a hell of a run. It's mid-life crisis as film noir. It's not to be missed.