Somehow Joan Crawford was always there. She was already doing movies when the Oscar was invented. She watched the reigns of Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, she worked her way to the top and could have won an Oscar for Grand Hotel if the supporting category had already existed back then. She saw the rise of Bette Davis, the arrival of Katharine Hepburn and the sudden road to stardom of actresses like Jennifer Jones, Joan Fontaine or Greer Garson. And yet, by Oscar standards, her success came very late. Sure, she often blamed the fact that Norma Shearer was given the best material since ‘she sleeps with the boss’ as one of the reasons why she did not truly establish herself in the first row of acclaimed actresses but she still had the amount of success, popularity and critical praise over the years that would usually only make it a matter of time before the Academy notices. After all, other actresses reached the top right away – Katharine Hepburn won her first Best Actress award for one of her first movies, Luise Rainer had just come to Hollywood before the golden guy was in her hands, Vivien Leigh had never acted in an American production before Gone with the Wind and Greer Garson was the Academy’s darling right from the start. But despite all this, Oscar took his time with Joan Crawford. Best Actress nominations have more than once been given as a filler but she never benefited from this. And when she suddenly found herself considered ‘box office poison’, things surely did not look much brighter. Katharine Hepburn was able to overcome this label quickly with her comeback in The Philadelphia Story – but where was Joan’s comeback? She had The Women and won strong reviews for A Woman’s Face but after 1943, she stopped making movies – and waited. Considering the well-known feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, it’s one of the biggest laughs in showbiz history that Joan only got her Oscar-winning part after it was turned down by Bette Davis, the studio’s first choice. The fact that director Michael Curtiz famously denied Joan’s request for the part and later insisted on a screen test was another proof that the royal treatment was over – but Joan Crawford would not be Joan Crawford if her comeback would not have been executed and conducted with the utmost precision and attention. A well thought-out combination of anticipation, critical praise, rightly timed word-of-mouth and campaigning finally resulted in one of the most famous comebacks in movie history. And Joan Crawford’s idea to…sorry, her illness which caused her to stay at home and then receive the Oscar in bed guaranteed her an extra amount of publicity no money can buy and helped her to reach the artistic peak of her career – ironically at the same time Bette Davis’s reputation was slowly decreasing.
So, why did Oscar finally pay attention? What surely must have helped was the simple fact that Mildred Pierce was not just another Joan-Crawford-picture but a praised film noir, coming right after the success of Double Indemnity, offering the kind of juicy part that the Academy often loves to honor – a self-scarifying and suffering mother who not only does everything she does for the benefit of her daughter(s) but later has to face the fact that all her hard work and efforts have been wasted since her oldest daughter Veda is not only her biggest treasure but in some ways also her biggest enemy. So, in some ways, Mildred Pierce actually is a Joan-Crawford-vehicle as it is completely focused on its central character and driven by everything she does. Therefore, it is not truly surprising that Mildred Pierce finally earned Joan Crawford her first Oscar nomination and her only win – it was a promise that was finally fulfilled and, like many other actresses before and after, she benefited from the fact that 1945 was her year, when everything was working in her favor and when a win for her just seemed like the most logical decision, even if she was up against a strong field of popular and praised competitors.
Joan Crawford’s work in Mildred Pierce is the essential ‘star performance’ of her career. She was never a character actress or an artistic chameleon but she was often able to use her talents with great effect and mostly excelled when she was playing women who were either terrified or strong, dominant and unforgiving. Her Mildred Pierce somehow falls in the middle of all this, being less strong and terrified than most of her other creations. And so, her Mildred is not necessarily the performance that displays her talents as an actress the most but it is undoubtedly the performance that displays all her talents as a star the most, showing how she could use her personality and charisma to give a performance that is not flawless but still captivating and entertaining from start to finish. Like few other actresses from her era she combined star power with a certain talent for perfecting her own style and presence, a triumph of style over substance. Joan Crawford knew what she could do and what would work – seldom has an actress ever displayed so much confidence in front of the camera and so much ability to dominate everything around her without suffocating her supporting cast or the movie itself. The dominance of Joan Crawford is something that came to her completely naturally as a result of her own style and character. Not even her nemesis Bette Davis possessed such a strong, almost threatening screen presence that dared anyone who would not give 100 percent of his or her attention to her work. Such a presence is obviously a grand help when it comes to playing a role that is the whole center of a movie, carries it and shapes almost every single moment and scene. But the part of Mildred Pierce only benefited from Joan Crawford’s natural advantages – because outside her strengths, her acting could often feel disappointingly empty and melodramatic and since Mildred Pierce is a character that not only needed style but also substance, Joan Crawford’s acting choices often missed important aspects and understanding. On a scale of excellence, she always moved on a certain level, never falling very low but also seldom reaching any heights – there was a consistency in her work that made her performances always strangely satisfying, entertaining and almost always helped her to fulfill all the tasks she was given by the screenplay and the character. She always seemed to realize her scenes with the precision of a robot but expressed them both emotionally and intellectually. Her ability to stay on a certain level without hardly ever leaving it made her work much less distracting than that of other actresses from her era who often combined moments of brilliance with dated over-acting. But – sorry Joan, there has to be a but – the fact that Mildred Pierce is not a character that truly falls into her own comfort zone made it, as mentioned before, often hard for Joan Crawford to truly grasp the motives behind her. She crafted her performance with clear dedication and craftsmanship but there are moments in Mildred Pierce that make Joan Crawford’s limitations as an actress too visible. But strangely enough, these flaws, even though clearly harming her work in many aspects, never truly spoil the effect of her overall performance. Joan Crawford often doesn’t know how handle more emotional scenes and whenever she has to enter this territory outside her comfort zone, she tends to get rather monotonous and repetitious – but thanks to Joan Crawford’s natural screen presence and ability to glide through her movies with that undeniable competence of a gifted performer, her Mildred Pierce is still a captivating and memorable pierce of work. She did not only overcome her own limitations and flaws but made them seem strangely unimportant, too.
Right at the beginning, Joan Crawford is off to a rather rocky start – when she argues with her husband in the kitchen and tells him that her children always come first and also has to handle the emotions of a woman who is very well aware that her husband is cheating on her (even having to listen to him talking to his lover on the phone), Joan Crawford feels rather lost, going through the expected emotions but never letting them become part of her character. Joan Crawford often did not truly develop full characters but rather went from scene to scene, doing what she was supposed to do without having a grip on the bigger truth – this is most visible in these early scenes but actually in an even earlier one, too. The misplaced and miscalculated opening scene of Mildred Pierce might be more the fault of the screenplay than anyone else but Joan Crawford also added this misfire. Right at the start of the movie, Mildred is apparently contemplating suicide, going so far as evidently making up her mind and wanting to jump into the ocean before a police officer stops her. Okay, suicide has always been treated as completely ordinary in many movies, as something that one wants to do in the spur of the moment before everything goes back to normal again. Seen by itself, this might be an exciting introduction to both the movie and the character but taken in the context of the whole story and Joan Crawford’s following characterization, this moment is too out-of-place and too far away from everything else that is going on to be believable in any way. A later scene that has Mildred taking a gun with her just because the screenplay needs it later demonstrates that Mildred Pierce and Joan Crawford are actually doing the same thing – scarifying greater truth and logic for the sake of single moments. In this way, the marriage of Joan Crawford and Mildred Pierce seems like a perfect match and it actually is to a certain extent but it is one with many problems – caused by both sides.
This is also true for the biggest flaw in Joan Crawford’s work – her relationship to her daughters. Considering that Mildred’s whole life is circling around the two little girls in her life, it’s frustrating to see Joan Crawford give barely any explanations for the constant actions of her character. More than anything, Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth unfortunately constantly seem to act past each other. Ann Blyth shows the spoiled, mean, arrogant and hateful side of Veda very well but never once gives any reason why her mother should love her so much. Because of that, Joan Crawford’s own work often suffers since she fails to explain why Mildred either loves her daughter so much that she cannot see all the things that everyone else sees in her or why she is willing to constantly ignore them. Joan Crawford is such a strong force on the screen that any scenes of her appearing either weak or helpless often feels too much like an actress attempting a certain emotion on the outside but failing to be completely convincing. The melodrama in Joan Crawford’s acting style tends to bring her down in those moments even if her ability to stay on her own level on that scale of excellence helps her to prevent her performance suffering from it. So, on the outside, Joan Crawford’s work almost always remains strong and completely watchable – but what are the motives of Mildred Pierce? Why is she so unable to distance herself from her daughter? Joan Crawford never answers them since the screenplay does not help her in those moments. Too often, the script jumps around, taking Mildred from one situation to the other without connecting them in any way. Why did the screenplay treat the fate of Mildred’s younger daughter so nonchalant when Mildred so often stated that her daughters were the most important aspect of her life? It’s refreshing that Joan Crawford refused any overacting in this moment but she basically exaggerated her underacting as a result. And why did Joan Crawford think that a vague ‘Oh…no’ when she hears the news of her daughter’s illness was all that such a dedicated mother would do at this moment? There are endless and exciting possibilities to explore the character of Mildred Pierce, give reason to actions that seem to lack them – but Joan Crawford unfortunately surrendered to the script in these moments, following it too tightly and never trying to go beyond the written word. Her chemistry with Ann Blyth may be excellent and on the short run both women always satisfy the viewer whenever they share the screen – but in the long run, the superficiality of what could have been a deep and complex human relationship becomes too apparent.
So, when all is said and done, it seems that there are hardly any positive aspects in Joan Crawford’s work, doesn’t it? And yes, there are flaws – a lot of them, actually. But it’s still impossible to overlook that Joan Crawford still managed to succeed in this role, as strange as it may seem. An actress can make her flaws extremely obvious or she can somehow manage to overshadow them. Joan Crawford did neither of these two things but instead managed to fit her flaws into her performance in a way that never made them truly disappear but somehow they also never seem to matter. Joan Crawford’s inability to move outside her own comfort zone might prevent her from realizing all the possibilities of Mildred Pierce and yet at the same time, the part seems to fit her like a glove. She clearly benefitted from the structure of the movie that made her character the central aspect but never actually a very complicated one. Actually, Mildred Pierce is a rather limited character which often appears grander and more demanding than it really is. And so, Mildred Pierce and Joan Crawford were an almost perfect match – the part is flashy without being too demanding, dominant without any true challenges. It’s the kind of part that almost automatically makes the actress look good even if both the writing and the acting are flawed. Joan Crawford always keeps the movie going, goes from worried mother to tough business woman, from scorned wife to love interest, from strong and knowing to helpless and unaware. In doing this, Joan Crawford might not connect a whole but she knows how to craft the parts. Her instincts don’t lead her to a deep performance but still to one that seems logical and strong even when it isn’t. She makes her worries for her daughter whom she sees singing in a cheap bar just as moving as she believably shows her inner exhaustion and disappointment when she finds two people in the little house on the beach. Joan Crawford’s own strong screen presence also never makes it doubtful that Mildred would pursue any path she decided to follow with the same determination – may it be being a housewife, a waitress or a successful business woman. And when she finally throws her daughter out of the house, Joan Crawford displays all the anger but also sadness that is troubling Mildred at this moment with a beautiful clarity. Most of all, Joan Crawford wisely made the decision to play Mildred as straight-forward as possible – there are no hidden agendas, no secret desires or dark feelings inside of her. Instead, Mildred is a very direct, even simple woman with a single determination – this was another factor that worked in Joan Crawford’s favor since her own direct acting style fits perfectly to a direct character like this. Overall, few actresses have been able to make the flaws in their own performances appear so unimportant and neglectable. The relationship between Mildred and Veda might not be truly explained but Joan Crawford makes the viewer forget all this when she gets to deliver one of her perfect close-ups. These silent moments, demanding her to express her character’s inner feelings without uttering a word, are always golden and never fail to impress.
Because of all this, Joan Crawford’s work in Mildred Pierce is one of the strangest ones in this category – she so obviously lacks many important qualities that the part needed but she also feels so right in the part, so irreplaceable and so satisfying that it’s hard to deny her the respect she obviously demands. And she clearly fulfills the task of carrying the picture and turning it into a captivating and intense experience, making not only the flaws of her own work but even those of the script seem forgettable. Maybe that’s why Mildred Pierce displays the star Joan Crawford better than almost any other of her performances – the role was not an easy one for her and she never actively tried to go the easy way even if she did her best to adjust the part of Mildred to her own acting style instead of the other way around but in the end, it all comes down to the essential Joan Crawford who both saves and harms the movie but always does it with style, elegance and an undeniable force. Joan Crawford is simply on fire, even if it turns into a misfire sometimes. Of course, her flaws and missteps prevent her from receiving a truly strong grade but her sheer ability to move through Mildred Pierce without ever stumbling over her own shortcomings or the ones of the script helps her to receive