Sunday, February 25, 2018

Joan Crawford's Oscar for Mildred Pierce

Joan Crawford’s Oscar award was the measure of her success. Arguably the pinnacle of her career, but in a career of so many makeovers and incarnations, so much achieved for the struggling young chorine with the Dickensian childhood and the lifelong need for recognition, with the strong on-screen personality and even stronger off screen, we may wonder not so much what an Oscar is worth, but what it was worth to her. It’s easy to assume she wanted it bad, but what was it worth to her?

This is our entry in the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee from Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula from Paula’s Cinema Club.   

Joan Crawford won Best Actress for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), a movie which represented, yet again, another phase in her career as she had left, by mutual agreement, her over two-decade association with M-G-M, and attempted to rise from the ashes at Warner Bros. We covered Mildred Pierce here in our series on Ann Blyth, who, along with fellow castmate Eve Arden, were nominated in the Best Supporting category.  Both lost to Anne Revere.

Joan Crawford was up against a tough field of other nominees herself: Ingrid Berman for The Bells of St. Mary’s, Greer Garson for The Valley of Decision, Jennifer Jones for Love Letters, and Gene Tierney for Leave Her to Heaven.

Reportedly, Joan feared that Ingrid Bergman was the shoe-in to win.  I would have thought Gene Tierney was the more likely close contender with her powerful performance as the glamorous sociopath.  Ingrid had won the statue only the year before, and Greer Garson and Jennifer Jones were former winners as well.

The 18th annual Academy Awards was presented on March 7, 1946. It was the first post-war awards, and the austerity that marked the ceremony during World War II was gone in a stream of klieg lights and the flash of camera bulbs popping.  Plaster statues had been given out during the war—every metal except the fillings in your teeth was promised to The War Effort—and the post-war Oscars were bronze with gold plating.

Director Michael Curtiz had not wanted her for the role.  Bette Davis had first dibs, and she turned it down.  Curtiz preferred Barbara Stanwyck, who was interested, but he agreed to let Joan Crawford test for the role—as if she were an up and coming newbie—but was bowled over not only by her performance, but her willingness to work hard and humble herself to play a non-glamorous role, and worse still, the mother of a much more glamorous nearly grown daughter, played by Ann Blyth, who nearly stole the movie. Joan was generous to the newcomer and they became lifelong friends.

Bob Hope and James Stewart were co-hosts for the event, which was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  Radio station KECA broadcast the awards ceremony, with a nationwide hookup on the ABC radio network.  ABC was only three years old, having been established in 1943 and formerly known as the NBC Blue Network.  (The NBC Red Network became at that time simply NBC.) The radio program began at 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time.

Joan Crawford came to Hollywood with the name of Lucille LeSueur, and Pete Smith, head of publicity at M-G-M, saw great promise in the young actress, but not in her name, which he felt had to go.  He set up a “Name the Star” contest in Movie Weekly magazine, and fans voted on the name.  Joan reportedly was less than enthused about the final selection, but seemed to immediately grasp that she owed her career even more to the fans than to the moguls, and she courted them for the rest of her life.  Her career, and her ultimate success, came through artifice, and she embraced it.

But she did not go to the ceremony.  She listened to the Academy Awards on the radio that night on station KECA.  So sure she would not win, and fearing losing in so public a setting, she spent the evening at home in her Brentwood mansion, in bed.  She reported that she had a fever and pneumonia. She was 41 years old and undoubtedly wondered where her career was going next after this evening.

Joan Crawford's Oscar ceremony program

Charles Boyer presented the award for Best Actress.  Joan Crawford sipped a few cocktails for courage. 

He read Joan Crawford’s name.

We can only imagine her reaction. 

Michael Curtiz accepted the award on her behalf.

Cue hairdresser and makeup artist, and off to Joan’s bedroom.

After the ceremony ended, Michael Curtiz went to her bedside to present the award, in the company of the press.  Several other well-wishers, including young Ann Blyth, arrived at Joan’s house to congratulate her. It was considered to be an enormous comeback for a woman who had been regarded as a has-been only the year before.  Her bed jacket and nightgown acceptance of the gold-plated prize was plastered all over newspapers, outshining any other victory of the evening.

In a woman notorious for hungering for legitimacy, did it give her the measure of self-worth she craved?

Years later, in a series of conversations in the 1960s and early ‘70s with interviewer Roy Newquist and published in his book Conversations with Joan Crawford, published in 1980, she presents a more complex, even sadder perspective on the event:

I remember how I felt the night the Awards were presented. Hopeful, scared, apprehensive, so afraid I wouldn't remember what I wanted to say, terrified at the thought of looking at those people, almost hoping I wouldn't get it, but wanting it so badly—no wonder I didn't go. I stayed home and fortified myself, probably a little too much, because when the announcement came, and then the press, and sort of a party, I didn't make much sense at all, even though I wanted to spill over...

I think the Academy voters honored me as much that night for A Woman's Face and Strange Cargo and maybe Grand Hotel as they did for Mildred. Or maybe it was for just staying around that long. Hollywood is like that; they compensate for their sins of omission later on, like the special awards they had to vote to Chaplin and Garbo in order not to seem completely ridiculous...

Winning the Oscar did revive her career, splendidly.  She received two more Academy Award nominations, for Possessed (1947) and for Sudden Fear (1952).  I assume she attended those awards, but I don’t know and I hope someone will fill us in.

Again, on her Mildred Pierce win:

And funny, the morning after, when I realized the award wasn't a dream after all, I realized that Mildred Pierce really rang down the curtain on "my" Hollywood. The character I played in that film was a composite of the roles I'd always played—and a few elements from my own personality and character. (Not the long-suffering bit; I'm too much of a Christian Scientist to suffer very long at a stretch.) My professional and personal worlds had changed so much—good friends were dying or moving away—the public was restless about making up its mind what it wanted to see—the studios were in bigger and bigger trouble. No, my day, my long and golden and often glorious day, had ended, and Mildred Pierce was sort of the bittersweet celebration of the end...

...In some respects everything that happened afterward—except  Alfred [husband Alfred Steele]—was anti-climactic...It's like being a mountain climber: After you've done Everest, what's next? And, why?

She was not one to rest on her laurels, and even apparently did not mind lending her laurels to a friend.  Have a look here at my Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.  blog for the tale of how Ann borrowed Joan’s Oscar for a scavenger hunt.

The Oscar win joined pop culture with an episode of the TV show Saints and Sinners called "The Year Joan Crawford Won the Oscar" in 1963, which we discussed in this previous post. This may have been less a nod to her 1945 win than the buildup to the Oscar nominations in 1963 for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, discussed in this post on the TV miniseries Feud.

Joan Crawford’s film career ended with Trog(1970) and she rang the curtain down herself, taking no further work, disillusioned with the film industry, with her own aging, and as the next few years passed, with ill health.  She did not appear in public after 1974, and suffering from cancer, died in her New York apartment of a heart attack in May 1977.

Her friend, director George Cukor held a memorial service at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.  He said of her in his eulogy:

 “She was the perfect image of the movie star, and, as such, largely the creation of her own indomitable will. She had, of course, very remarkable material to work with: a quick native intelligence, tremendous animal vitality, a lovely figure and, above all, her face, that extraordinary sculptural construction of lines and planes, finely chiseled like the mask of some classical divinity from fifth-century Greece. It caught the light superbly, so that you could photograph her from any angle, and the face moved beautifully....The nearer the camera, the more tender and yielding she became—her eyes glistening, her lips avid in ecstatic acceptance. The camera saw, I suspect, a side of her that no flesh-and-blood lover ever saw....I thought Joan Crawford would never die. Come to think of it, as long as celluloid holds together and the word Hollywood means anything to anyone, she never will.”

The Oscar she won was left to her daughter, Cathy Lalonde, along with all of her mother’s property, and shared an inheritance with her sister Cindy. She sold the Oscar at auction in 1993.  It was only the third time an Oscar was offered at public auction, and it was the first major award to be sold in this manner.  Expected to fetch between $8,000 and $12,000, the winning bid to a private collector was $68,000.

What is an Oscar worth?  It depends on who you talk to.

Almost twenty years later, Joan’s Oscar was sold again at auction, in 2012. For $426,732.  Does a gold-plated bronze statue appreciate in value?  Or is it the reputation of the actress that has cachet?

That Oscar is 13.25 inches tall and weighs 6 pounds, 2 ounces.  The plaque on the base is engraved:

“Academy First Award


Joan Crawford

For Her Performance In

'Mildred Pierce'”

It was described by Christie’s auction house to have, “Light speckling and rubbing to finish and scattered chips to base, else near fine.”  In other words, it had flaws.  But was still, like Crawford's body of work, “near fine.”

The souvenir program from that March 1946 ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theater was also auctioned off, and expected to fetch between $80 and $120.  It sold for $875.

In 1970, right around Trog and before her self-imposed exile from the public view to the confines of her New York apartment, she participated in an interview with David Frost on his television show.  With an expression that seemed to indicate she had re-lived that bedside Oscar win many times in her memory, she remarked as if still enthralled:

“I don’t think the public knows what the Oscar means to us.  It is one of the most emotional things that can ever happen to a human being.” 

Watch the David Frost interview below.

Please take a look at the other blogs in this terrific 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee from Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula from Paula’s Cinema Club. 


Caftan Woman said...

A sterling article that gives much to consider about awards and careers, and the gloriously fascinating Joan Crawford.

That the award signified an end and a beginning, and its increased monetary worth through the years says so much about the import we place upon such things.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, CW. I wonder what Crawford would have thought about her popularity among classic film buffs today, in a reputation resurrected from the tarnish of "Mommie Dearest." Maybe she was right all along to pin her success on her fans.

Silver Screen Classics said...

A fantastic piece that certainly reveals the humanity of 'stars'. I agree that Gene Tierney would have been the toughest contender for her brilliant turn in 'Leave Her To heaven'. Thanks for a great article!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much! Yes, Gene Tierney certainly would have been deserving as well.

Silver Screenings said...

I love how you wrote this! I held my breath as you described the events unfolding that Oscar evening – even though I knew the outcome.

"What is an Oscar worth?" is an excellent question and, like you pointed it out, its value isn't just limited to a dollar figure. As you showed us, it can mean survival in a very tough industry.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you very much, Ruth! Sometimes I think Joan's Oscar has taken on a life of its own.

Brittaney said...

Fascinating article. I'm ashamed of myself that I still haven't seen this film, but I am rectifying this soon.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Brittaney. I hope you enjoy the movie. You're welcome to come back and share your thoughts.

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