She’s sitting in front of a fireplace, her hair falling gently on a pair of shoulder pads. She’s face to face with a charming suitor. He tells her that she looks beautiful, but she’s not used to such affection. Divorced, she has worked her fingers to the bone to fulfill her dream: a restaurant of her own. She’s a woman in a man’s world, and so she’s guarded, independent. The suitor plays at telling her fortune, flattering her with honeyed words. She takes his breath away, he says. Smoothly, with grace and a hint of aggression, he leans in to whisper into her ear.
Then, with a single cut between two nearly identical frames, we arrive at the turning point of Mildred Pierce—a moment of erotic fulfillment and desire realized. The physical movement in the frame is simple: the woman arches her neck, just as the camera comes closer to her perfectly angled face, her heavily-lidded eyes staring into the distance, her skin a glossy marble-white. The woman, of course, is Joan Crawford. In this single close-up, with the slightest movement, Crawford is at the center of a metaphysical, filmic intercourse; a moment where face and frame align like stars.
In her memoir, My Way of Life, Joan Crawford includes among a chapter of beauty rituals a section titled—entirely without farce—“Create a New Face.” Then in her early 70s, she instructs her readers that makeup, when applied skillfully and with precision, could allow “any woman to reshape her face, [to] create an illusion.” Illusion-making was Crawford’s trade. Her ability to weaponize the features of her face was a hallmark of all her roles, even the poorly executed ones. With gaunt, hollow cheeks, her face was akin to the roof of a Gothic cathedral: the nose a perfectly sloped spire, her eyes deeply set like windows under bulging brow bones. Over time, her skin seemed to tighten, freezing in place; to compensate, her eyebrows were made thicker, her lipliner more curved. It was as if she were sculpting an image of a woman out of the raw materials of her face.
Crawford’s awareness of her face was compulsive and obsessive. Her directors were simply there to photograph it; her acting technique was uniquely designed to harness its architecture. And, inevitably, she altered the films themselves: sumptuous, narratively unmotivated close-ups are inserted into moments of dramatic intensity, entirely to capture, in real time, the movements of Crawford’s face. As an actress, she was often unable to shift gears without recalibrating, sometimes grotesquely, those very muscles. Her best directors understood that cutting away and coming closer to Crawford’s face would give her the chance to ignite the next emotion, to bring a feeling to its climax.
Her detractors will always dismiss these moments as vain, self-indulgent glamor shots. Crawford was undeniably vain and often self-indulgent, but she was also a masterly technician of her own physique. In these shots, when Crawford is alone with the camera, she’s also at the point where her characters come to the surface: they’re animated in the blink of an eye, the upturn of her neck, the parting of her lips—the very real movements of bone and skin and flesh.
Realness as it pertains to Crawford is often a paradoxical concept: her life offscreen was just as performative and constructed. The idea of stardom that she espoused was aesthetically specific, and she refused to be seen, literally, without the costuming of Crawford the movie star. She was not, like her more trained successors, living in the skin of her characters beyond the frames of a film. Rather, she was bringing her daily performance of stardom into the skin of her characters, rejecting the physical separation between the two.
Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film is focused, however obliquely, on Mildred’s desire; by circumscribing the story with a murder, Curtiz deflects from the fact that Mildred is a woman with an unwomanly ambition. Yet Mildred is all woman when she falls for the exotic Monte Beragon (played by Zachary Scott). He’s a self-described ‘loafer,’ a rich man with a wandering spirit, born into a world where all is at his fingertips. Mildred, meanwhile, toils endlessly to better herself and her family. Their attraction is certainly physical, but Mildred is clearly aware that Beragon offers more than sex or companionship, neither of which she needs. What she needs is access to the class that others are born into, something that she can’t gain for her daughters through hard work. And, as we’ve seen up to this point, Mildred is a voracious creature of her desires, and a willing consumer of her own ambition. At the precipice of attaining something that she’ll never be capable of earning, the choice is one of consummation or abandonment.
She’s sitting in front of the fireplace, clearly enraptured in a newly-found, deeply enjoyable lust. But beneath the surface, her ambition is just as engaged. Her face is still, but the mechanics of her decision are at work: as her suitor leans in, Mildred arches her neck, inviting him into the sphere of her longing.
And in that moment, with a single cut, Mildred’s choice is made. Within a second, we’re transported perhaps only a few feet from where we just were, and yet in that minor leap we’ve crossed a threshold. By arching her neck and angling her face towards the confines of the frame, Crawford signals that this woman has given in. A slight gesture was all that Crawford needed; the cut in the film achieves the rest. Therein lies the brilliance of Crawford’s acting, which was always in conversation with, and often directly guiding, the tangible filmic process. Her acting both necessitates and validates the alteration of the literal film: her technique would fail equally hopelessly in a theater as in the modernist filmmaking of both European neorealism and the New Hollywood. We’d have a lesser Mildred had this shot been a long take, or had it been filmed from an angle that had not so shamelessly prioritized Crawford’s neck and jaw.
Watching this moment, as I’ve done countless times, I’m reminded of a passage in Marguerite Duras’ The Ravishing of Lol Stein: “She freezes because of something going on inside her, what? unknown, savage leitmotifs, wild birds in her life—how can we tell?—which wing through her from side to side, and then are swallowed up?” A similar experience, I believe, can be witnessed in Crawford’s close-ups. For a single breath, she does appear to freeze before the camera: this is not the electricity of stage acting, where emotions are instantaneous. This is the calculated craft of celluloid, where one cannot fake emotion on the spot, but where one can certainly create it. That’s what Crawford does in the confines of the frame—the wild birds wing through her bones, settle under the skin, and leave on her face that which cannot be easily uttered: desire.
The beauty of Crawford’s face was not that of the ordinary woman, nor was it an enviable kind. It was constructed, maintained, and plainly exhausting. The titular character in James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce is supposed to be an average woman, one described as “frumpy” in the novel. Crawford is never frumpy: just imagine the wrath that one would have incurred had they even implied it! The meticulous creation of her Mildred is unexpectedly thrilling precisely because of this tension: here is the face of a movie star, worn as a mask over the persona of an ordinary woman. While this dissonance, with the resulting conflicts between actor and spectator, would carry her later performances into camp, in Mildred Pierce it binds the film together, unifying the artificiality of the adaptation—with its superimposed film noir framing device, to the taboo subtext of the narrative underneath.
The dissonance between her star image and her character first sprayed apart like the vibrations of a late-Callas high note, before finally collapsing all together, making it impossible to separate the articulation of Crawford the movie star from Crawford the actress. She was losing control, slowly but garishly, of her ability to integrate the former into the latter. Only four years after Mildred, Crawford would star in Flamingo Road, as a former carny who climbs the social ladder in a small Southern town. By this point, she’d crossed the visual line with her face; she was easily two decades too old to play a character clearly meant to be in her 20s, and her makeup resembles a clown’s mask more than a wide-eyed ingénue. In 1950, she came dangerously close to playing herself in Harriet Craig, which saw her hair clipped back to her face so as to make her appear closer to an army recruit than a Southern belle. By the time of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? in 1962, even the nuances of her portrayal of the abused, broken Hudson sister couldn’t keep the intrusion of Crawford’s external stardom at bay.
The image of Joan Crawford’s face that’s lived on is another mask entirely: Faye Dunaway, in a deranged drag, a Times Square portrait caricature of Crawford’s signature eyebrows and cheekbones. But even during her lifetime, Crawford’s face was an exaggeration, an advertisement for her performances. It was beyond her corporeality, integral to her stardom, and a source of betrayal as she lost control over its aging ligaments and cells. It was when she could no longer look like Joan Crawford that she withdrew from the public eye. But some of us continue to look back through the past, fascinated by the contortions and magic tricks of Crawford’s face.
I’d argue that we remain in thrall to Crawford’s performances because of what she did in the confines of the close-up. It’s something slightly unrecognizable, particularly to the modern viewer. It’s not acting as we’re trained to perceive it, but something uncannily like acting. We’re aware that this is Joan Crawford, she who conquered the Hollywood system, in her armor of shoulder pads and less-than-scrupulous morals. But that awareness doesn’t make her performances less genuine; rather, it makes them multi-dimensional, full of textual depth that resonates beyond even the dullest of stories. We’re watching the construction of a woman’s face. And those moments, where her characters suddenly come to life, remain electrifying.