I’ll always admire Donald Spoto, particularly because of “The Dark Side of Genius,” his 1983 Alfred Hitchcock biography. But I resolved to stop buying after reading “High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly,” which told me that Spoto had become an ally and protector of his subjects’ reputations. Now it’s being claimed that his Joan Crawford biography, called “Possessed,” continues in this vein.
As an Amazon.com reviewer puts it, “Joan Crawford biographies seem to fall roughly into three categories: (1) Utterly Junky; (2) Interesting Curios with Revealing New Biographical and Career Information; and (3) Respectable Tomes that Defend Joan and Primarily Gather Info from Already-Published Sources. Donald Spoto’s ‘Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford‘ falls into the latter category.”
“Spoto, who did good work on Hitchcock decades ago and has since become a rolling mill of star bios, tries to cleanse [Crawford's] portrait,” writes New Yorker critic David Denby, “separating rumor from fact, alleged hysteria from garden-variety unhappiness.
“Must we hate Crawford? Must we think about Crawford at all? Few men go weak in the knees dreaming about her, as they might with Lana Turner or Rita Hayworth; nor is she the kind of woman men could imagine bantering with blissfully as a lover, as they might with Katharine Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck. She’s the date who raises your blood pressure, not your libido.
“Yet if Joan Crawford is not very likable she would, in a just world, be widely honored for a series of fiercely effective performances and for her emblematic quality as a twentieth-century woman. She was no feminist, but, willy-nilly, she got caught up in the dilemmas of strong women who are also the kind of highly sexual women who need men.
“In her more than eighty movies, she played flappers, working girls, adulteresses, matrons, and, most notably, the anguished heroines of melodrama. Any call for justice to Joan Crawford, however, runs into a dead end: the image of her as a madwoman is too juicily entertaining to give up.
“In 1978, the year after Crawford died, her estranged and disinherited adopted daughter Christina, a failed actress, produced a venomous portrait, “Mommie Dearest,” which alleged both physical abuse and a series of bizarre tests and punishments. In 1981 the director Frank Perry made the sensationally vindictive movie of the same title in which Faye Dunaway, her career as a star fading, grabbed at a chance for glory, or at least notoriety, by launching herself into a spangled caricature of Crawford.
“The collective memory of Crawford quickly hardened into the remorselessness of camp.”
Postscript: I had heard stories all my life about Grace Kelly, the hottest blonde in Hollywood history, having had affairs with almost all of her leading men, and then along came party-pooper Spoto, plausibly debunking most of them. But I don’t want truth and realism — I want magic! I want to hear stories about Gary Cooper‘s portable dressing room rocking with passion during the shooting of High Noon. I know now that the tireless and scrupulous Spoto is averse to this sort of thing, and that’s fine, but that’s also why I’m off the boat.