Thursday, September 22, 2011

How to Name a Bitch

Just finished reading Gavin Lambert’s The Slide Area, which is a collection of short stories (some call it a novel) about 1950s Hollywood. While it covers a lot of familiarly bizarre territory, there are plenty of moments all its own, such as this (titular) one:
On one section of the highway a crowd has gathered. An ambulance stands by, winking red lights. A sheriff directs operations. From a great pile of mud and stones and sandy earth, the legs of old ladies are sticking out. Men with shovels are working to free the rest of their bodies. Objects are rescued first, a soiled tablecloth and a thermos flask and what looks like a jumbo sandwich, long as a baby eel. Then an air cushion and more long sandwiches, and a picnic basket, and at last the three old ladies themselves. They are all right. They look shaken and angry, which is to be expected. A few minutes ago they had been sitting on the Palisades, in a pleasant little hollow free from the wind.
The prose is consistently this great and there are several unforgettable characters, including Julie Forbes, an unabashed bitch of an actress reportedly modeled after Joan Crawford.

Like Joan, Julie Forbes has undergone a variety of identity reinventions during the course of her career: from the “chorus girl with a jaunty grin and busily tapping feet” in 1927 to 1933’s wholesome and victimized country girl to the cigarette-smoking, frivolous sophisticate to the noble humanitarian, where “(s)he played a famous woman doctor who went blind, and a member of the Norwegian resistance.” After a slump and a false retirement announcement, she reappeared:
Mature but unravaged, she presented a ruthless schemer in For Pity’s Sake, a woman who didn’t care how many lives she destroyed in her quest for … what? She stole other women’s husbands, became rich and feared and famous, drove her enemies to drunkenness or suicide, yet she never seemed happy.
And this is the Joan I know, and the one who seems to remain today, her lifelong ambition rewarded: a Hollywood legend, albeit one recognized mostly as an archetype she embraced for only a fraction of her career. I have to admit, before reading “The Closed Set”—the story that focuses on Julie Forbes—I didn’t realize the extent of Joan’s shape shifting. While I knew she had a long and varied career, it’s always been those shoulders and that malevolent mouth that stuck.


As a child of the 1980s, it makes sense I came to know Joan through Mommie Dearest—as unfair to her as that may be. Faye Dunaway’s “Joan Crawford” fuses so melodramatically well with the roles Joan played during the Cutthroat Bitch phase of her film career; thus, Joan’s most iconic roles remain the ruthless ones.

Anyway, it’s always the villains who get remembered. Survival takes ruthlessness, no? Well, yes, but maybe more importantly, it takes adaptability.

Lucille LeSueur—who was born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, and commonly went by “Billie”—had a birth name with an implied exoticism that defied her small-town roots. She used this name to appear in three films before an MGM publicist decided she should change it. Not only did the name sound fake, the justification went, it also sounded like “Le Sewer”. A contest was held to decide the starlet’s new name; the winning moniker was “Joan Arden”. Because another actress was already using this name, an alternate surname was employed: “Crawford”. So Joan, in a way, was christened by the public, which is funny, as the public is the only boss Joan ever had.

Joan, nee Lucille, initially preferred the first half of her stage name to be pronounced “Jo-anne”. She also turned her nose up at“Crawford”, saying it was too few letters away from “Crawfish”. Years later, after she had been well established, “Joan Crawford” began to take on an aura of security for the actress. Perhaps it was a reassuring constant behind the array of personalities she found herself circulating through.*

Which brings us back to Lambert and his decision to disguise Joan as “Julie Forbes”. For me, while “Crawford” and “Forbes” are pretty much interchangeable, “Julie” is a far cry from “Joan”. Once again, though, maybe this is generational. Earlier this year, I read the autobiography of character actress Mercedes McCambridge, who famously clashed with Joan both onscreen and off.** After dealing with some diva-like behavior, McCambridge insists that Joan was much more of a “Lucille LeSueur” than a “Joan Crawford”. I really had to think twice about this one. Until that point, “Joan Crawford” was so “Joan Crawford”, I had never once attempted to separate her from her name. “Joan”: something about it sounded like a woman who takes no prisoners. It was a name that was brutal in its simplicity.

I realized then that maybe Joan had managed to alter the implications of her own name. If people weren’t going to pronounce it “Jo-anne”, well, then she was just going to have to make that name her own.  Before Joan (and this was so unbelievably fortuitous for the actress), perhaps "Joan" was simply some bland sort of comfort,*** upon which any sort of desire could be projected.  Something more like “Julie”, in fact.

This doesn’t explain, though, why Lambert decided on Julie Forbes’s birth name. He writes that the actress came to Hollywood as “Julia Katzander”, a name with a vulnerable awkwardness that’s far removed from“Lucille LeSueur”. Was this perhaps Lambert’s way of humanizing a character who acts so monstrously? In a story that often flirts with  misogyny, the enigmatic narrator of“The Closed Set” relents for a moment, offering a view of Julie that—while not quite sympathetic—is less condescension and more awe:
Regulated as time itself, she was a source of power, energy, habitual purpose. When she entered the brightly-lit set, it was as if somebody stepped up the current. From every side the light glared white-hot.
During “The Closed Set”, Julie Forbes is attempting to transition her public image from Cutthroat Bitch into something hearkening back to the roles that jumpstarted her career 20 years before. She even dons the original top hat, tails, and fish nets that first launched her career, items that—like her face and body, whose preservation portends the soon-to-come plastic-surgery age—she has literally kept behind glass.

It’s hard not to think of Madonna here, the logical heir to Joan’s career strategy: when the public gets sick of you, simply shift your image. In the past few years, rather than dramatically depart from what came before, Madonna has been employing the crucifixes and lingerie that first brought her to our attention. She’s even made her daughter over in her own early image. Like Joan, she’s also been upping the Bitch factor: witness her recent hydrangea moment, which, deliberate or not, she has used to harness the attention offered by the viral video. Madonna’s bitchiness has been intensified by the meticulous British accent she’s been using for years now.**** Is she perhaps taking a cue from Joan? Does she realize she must now present the full extent of her ruthlessness if she wishes to remain immortal?

But Madonna, contrastingly, is just one name (Is this contrast, though? Or distillation?).

Let’s pause for a minute and look at them all, that staggering number of names that exist just outside of the acting roles Joan took on:

Lucille LeSueur; “Billie”; Joan Arden; Joan Crawford; Joan “Crawfish”; Jo-anne Crawford; Christina Crawford; Julie Forbes; Julia Katzinger

Whether or not Joan was really the Bitch she has come to represent (and she is represented as such in The Slide Area), it’s hard not to give her some credit for reaching such a mythical state. Besides, how can you fault someone so tough, her dying words were Don’t you dare ask God to help me?

God, too, has been called by many names; but God, as vindictive as he may have been in his Old Testament phase, suffers from abstractness and undefined shoulders. When it comes down to it, at that moment between this world and the next, if we choose to call on someone to lead our way through, what else can we possibly call that someone besides “Joan”?

* Joan actually gave her adopted daughter (the one who would later write the tell-all that sealed Joan’s reputation as Cutthroat Bitch) the same name as her own adopted persona: Christina Crawford spent the first several months of her life as “Joan”. This gets really weird when you remember the events portrayed in Mommie Dearest: Christina, a regular actress on a soap opera, falls ill, and her famous retirement-age mother weasels her way into playing her 24-year-old daughter’s character on the show.

** It’s a book worth reading for a lot of reasons, one of which is an anecdote McCambridge tells about working with Joan, and the threatening way the actress insists on the dainty size of her feet.

*** Although, as harmless as the name may have seemed in the mid-twentieth century, when you think of Saint Joan, you realize there always must have been some balls involved.

**** Joan, throughout her career, devoted hours a day to purging her diction of its Okie accent.

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