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Beyond Mommie Dearest: The Lasting Legacy of Joan Crawford

 Joan Crawford in her Fifth Avenue apartment in New York (1962).
 Photo: Courtesy of PhotoFest 

by Steve Desroches

If you ask someone what they know about Joan Crawford they’ll most likely say that she didn’t like wire hangers and Bette Davis. One of the biggest movie stars of all time, Crawford made over 80 films, winning an Academy Award in a career that lasted over 50 years. But the 1978 book Mommie Dearest, written by her daughter Christina, and the 1981 film of the same name, starring Faye Dunaway in an over-the-top performance, solidified Crawford’s reputation as a maniacal mother and a crazed actor running through Hollywood like a panicked gorilla doped up on too much Pepsi cola, nearly erasing any popular memory of her many accomplishments. In a new book by writer Samuel Garza Bernstein titled Starring Joan Crawford: The Films, the Fantasy, and the Modern Relevance of a Silver Screen Icon, a more complete and nuanced picture of the Hollywood icon is painted. He will discuss his work in conversation with film critic Howard Karren at the Provincetown Public Library this Saturday evening.

“I wanted to explore what did she mean to us and what does she mean to us now,” says Bernstein. “Why do we still know who she is now? There are so many actresses that have gone completely forgotten. Why do we still know her name? Young people use her image to create memes on social media. Why? Why is she still so relevant?”

Author of such books as Cesar Romero: The Joker Is Wild and Mr. Confidential: The Man, His Magazine & The Movieland Massacre That Changed Hollywood Forever, Bernstein has long had an affinity for all things Tinsel Town. Born to an undocumented Mexican mother and a Jewish father who was a passionate supporter of Palestinian rights and who allegedly sold arms to them when they lived in Egypt, Bernstein had an unusual childhood, moving frequently and living in places like Honolulu, Cairo, Albuquerque, New York City, and more. 

“I was a strange little kid,” says Bernstein. “I was reading things like The Valley of the Dolls when I was seven and it really did form my world view. It was my gateway into the larger world of show business.” But it was one day while at his grandmother’s house in San Antonio, Texas that he saw something that changed his life forever. It was a photo of Joan Crawford in a coffee table book and he was mesmerized by the image of classic Hollywood glamour, in Crawford’s home town no less. From then on Bernstein became a student of Crawford.

As a young adult in the 1980s he was living in New York City and got a job working with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Crawford’s first of four husbands, who was writing his memoir at the time. It was about five years after the release of the book Mommie Dearest, and several after the premiere of the film. Bernstein treaded lightly and respectfully, but peppered their time together with questions about Crawford. According to Bernstein, Fairbanks said he didn’t recognize the depiction of Crawford in either the book or the film, and that while divorced, he maintained a good relationship with her, a sentiment echoed by her other ex-husbands. While home movie rentals and VCRs were becoming staples of most American households in those days, if you wanted to see classic films, particularly in New York City, you had to go to revival movie houses. One day Bernstein went to see the 1928 film Our Dancing Daughters and he was fascinated by her performance in this Jazz Era tale of the “loosening of youth morals” in which she portrays the very essence of a flapper.

“It was the Barbie movie of the day,” says Bernstein. “It made her a star.”

Crawford’s career played like a movie itself with huge ups and downs going from being labeled “box office poison” at the end of the 1930s to winning an Oscar in 1945 for her performance in Mildred Pierce. She starred in classics like Johnny GuitarWhat Ever Happened to Baby Jane?Daisy Kenyon (which has a brief scene set in Provincetown), and The Women, becoming not only a legend, but a bona fide gay icon before even Judy Garland. But she’s largely remembered for her beef with Bette Davis, most recently characterized in the Ryan Murphy television series Feud, starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. Bernstein says while the two did have their issues, they largely respected each other’s work and stamina as aging women in Hollywood. After all, Crawford had a number one film debut in 1970. Granted it was Trog, a bummer of a science fiction horror that would be Crawford’s last film, says Bernstein. But it is indeed a film she wasn’t even in for which she’s largely remembered. Mommie Dearest took the story of a complicated mother/daughter relationship and made into cinema of the ridiculous.

“There weren’t enough gay people working on that movie,” says Bernstein. “They didn’t realize what they were making was high camp. They thought they were making this serious drama and everyone was going to win Oscars. And there’s Faye Dunaway looking like a drag queen instead of how glamorous Joan actually was. Instead of a serious examination of her life it was this kabuki like performance.” 

Film critic Howard Karren will be in conversation with Samuel Garza Bernstein about his new book Starring Joan Crawford: The Films, the Fantasy, and the Modern Relevance of a Silver Screen Icon Saturday, June 29 at 6 p.m. at the Provincetown Public Library, 356 Commercial St. The event is co-produced with East End Books Ptown. For more information on the event call 508.413.3225 or visit For more information on the library as venue call 508.487.7094 or visit

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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