The career of every actress—then and now—approaches a hairpin turn at around age forty. It begins with the slap in the face the first time a star loses a coveted role to a younger woman. The box office draw slips and no longer justifies the huge salary earned from your prior successes, leading to the potentially fatal “box office poison” designation.
The actress cannot continue doing what had previously brought her monumental success—if she tries too hard for too long, she will drive her career off a cliff. But if she finds a way to survive this icy, harrowing turn, forty becomes the end only of her first act.
And presents the chance to become a legend.
In 1945, Joan Crawford was going over the cliff and everybody knew it.
After eighteen years as MGM’s glamour girl, she asked to be let out of her contract because she wasn’t getting any good parts. If it was a bluff, Louis B. Mayer called it. He was happy to have her bloated salary and fading looks off MGM’s books.
It looked like she’d landed on her feet when she signed a lucrative contract with Warner Brothers—she was still Joan Crawford, after all—that included control over the roles she played.
This control was nearly her undoing.
Despite the new contract, she didn’t work for two years. Warners sent her scripts, but she kept turning them down. It was true that many of the parts weren’t very good, but what rankled was that they were age-appropriate.
She could not—would not—accept that she was no longer an ingenue.
The flow of scripts slowed to a drizzle and eventually dried up. She was gaining the reputation of being difficult to work with. She was no longer worth the trouble.
No one was waiting for Joan Crawford’s comeback.
The realization that she may never work again ignited her fighting spirit.
She would not go gently into that good night like Garbo or Norma Shearer.
She needed a part—a good part, certainly, but she had to get off the sidelines. She had to convince the world—and perhaps herself—that she had worth as an actress beyond youth and beauty.
She set her sights on Mildred Pierce. Producer Jerry Wald and director Michael Curtiz were adapting James M. Cain’s novel about a woman whose tireless and unselfish efforts to provide for her daughter ultimately turn that daughter into a treacherous monster.
The producer and director had Barbara Stanwyck in mind for the title role, and it’s easy to see why. Stanwyck—famously less vain than other stars of her caliber—had relatively little trouble adapting herself to more mature roles.
Many times when I hear that someone else was slated to play an ultimately iconic role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part. But I can see Stanwyck as Mildred Pierce—she would’ve brought her natural style, and highlighted Mildred’s tough exterior that coated a core of vulnerability.
But although I’d like to see the alternative universe version, I think Joan Crawford was still the right choice. The plot of Mildred Pierce rhymes with that of Stella Dallas, and while it would’ve been interesting to watch Stanwyck play another self-sacrificing mother, Crawford had never played anyone like Mildred and thus brought a freshness to the role.
The wardrobe for a Stanwyck Mildred Pierce would likely have been entirely different—more housewife and waitress, less successful restaurateur and fading glamour girl trying to hold a younger man.
And I am just not willing to sign up for a world in which we are denied the sight of Joan Crawford as Mildred rocking those mountain high shoulder pads.
In any case, Crawford had set her sights on Mildred Pierce as her comeback vehicle and wasn’t going to let anyone—not the director’s dislike, the producer’s wavering, or her friend Stanwyck’s desire to play the part—stop her.
She fought for the part, insisting she understood Mildred better than anyone. She even did a screen test—a humiliating comedown for an actress of her statue—to convince the skeptical director that she could bring the required gravitas to the part.
She got the role.
Mildred Pierce is a first class melodrama. When she divorces her husband, Mildred—who had seemingly never worked outside the home before—humbles herself (much as Crawford did to get the role) by taking a job as a waitress and baking pies. Mildred finds she has a head for business and eventually buys the restaurant. She has more success, turning her single restaurant into a chain.
Like Crawford, she is less successful in her personal life. Her practical business sense does not carry over into the men she picks for romance.
The fuel that drives Mildred’s ambition is providing for her daughters, especially Veda, who has expensive taste and social climbing ambitions. In indulging her, Mildred creates an ungrateful beast who brings them all down.
Mildred Pierce was the triumph Crawford needed.
She received the first Academy Award nomination in her long career. Much has been made of the fact that she did not attend the Oscars due to illness.
Uncharitable readings are that she faked the illness for attention.
A more sympathetic interpretation—and the one I choose to believe—is that Joan feigned illness because she was too afraid to lose that Oscar in public. Her career was riding on the success of Mildred Pierce and her career was her life. Losing the Oscar didn’t mean her career was over—the movie was a success—but winning the Oscar would cement her comeback.
There is a dramatic photograph of her receiving the Oscar in bed in her hotel room, the most glamorous sick woman you ever saw.
She was still Joan Crawford, after all.
She’d made the hairpin turn.
And the second—and in some ways more successful—half of her career began.