Thursday, April 9, 2015

Crawford vs. McCambridge: A Scorching Showdown

Why is it that whenever a film stars more than one woman in it the media always tries to turn the actresses into rivals? It seems almost impossible from them to believe that women would want to support each other, standing in solidarity of their fellow female. Instead they always imagine them having hair-pulling, drink-throwing, eye-scratching cat fights like the only thing to base actual female relationships on is the interactions of The Real Housewives of <insert a place name> (I'm still not convinced all those ladies weren't manufactured in a Dynasty-style warehouse). But juicy stories of on-set rivalries are often greatly exaggerated and actresses usually reiterate their adoration of their cast mates.

And then there's Joan Crawford.

Crawford is perhaps the early model for why this stereotype actually exists in the first place. Her decades-long feud with Bette Davis has become the stuff of legends and fueled further fascination when the two actresses co-starred with each other (and tormented each other) in 1962's  What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (By the way, we need a Mommie Dearest-style film about all that, like, yesterday.) And after we witnessed last week's unhinged interpretation of the actress played to the hilt by Faye Dunaway (making rivalries not just an on-set activity, while vying for attention with her own daughter), this week Nathaniel at The Film Experience had us look at the real thing in the subversive western Johnny Guitar. Despite being named for the bland Benedict Cumberbatch-looking Sterling Hayden's titular character, the manly genre is given a much-needed feminine make-over. The showdown typically engaged in by two macho men in cowboy hats, is instead played out between Crawford and Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge. And to the surprise of no one, the two just didn't get along on set.

Apparently the dispute began because Joan had once dated McCambridge's husband at the time. Crawford also didn't like how director Nicholas Ray seemed to give praise to McCambridge. And one night, Joan took her co-star's costumes (and her actual clothing) and scattered them along the highway. Both women were very much under the influence of alcohol at the time (although you can't really tell in their performances). McCambridge later described Crawford as "a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady". (Which I have now made my life's goal to use this description regarding someone.) But Crawford took the high road in regards to McCambridge saying "I have four children - I do not need a fifth." (Huh, maybe old Joan liked her after all. Considering she wouldn't treat McCambridge the same way she did little Christina...)

Before we get to my choice for Best Shot and since these ladies were at odds both onscreen and off, let's just break down what each of them has in their favor and see who will come out victorious in a little friendly battle.

In this corner, we have our first contender.:

Joan Crawford as saloon owner Vienna

  • Named after a European capital
  • A business owner
  • played by a Best Actress Oscar winner
  • In favor of change. That railroad is coming whether they like it or not - get on board!
  • Skilled piano player
  • Unsullied - Spends a good deal of time in the red dirt while wearing an all white dress (complete with white stockings and shoes) and miraculously somehow avoids any stains or spots at all. 
  • Knows the power of an effective soft focus no matter how distracting it is that no one else is allowed one in their own shot within the same scene
  • Good lighting is key. Had all of her "outdoor" close-up shots redone in a studio so that the light could be controlled. 
  • When in doubt - change your costume. (Has at least three costume changes in the last half hour alone.) 
  • Lucky enough to make any outfit work. Although it's a little suspicious that the clothes of a teenage boy named Turkey included a bright yellow blouse with shoulder pads and high-waisted mom jeans
  • She's a straight shooter
And taking her on:

Mercedes McCambridge as Emma Small, local shit-stirrer 

  • Loving sister. (Sorry about your brother...)
  • Is possibly a repressed lesbian. Sorry, Small, no one is buying that crush you supposedly have on the Dancin' Kid
  • Played by a Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner
  • Take charge kinda gal. Pretty much bullies an entire group of men to do what she says
  • Can really hold a grudge (I'm still not entirely sure why she dislikes Vienna so much)
  • Does her own stunts. Well, willing to fall off buildings and be filmed in the actual outdoors
  • Is possibly a pyromaniac...which, speaking of, it looks like this battle just got a little heated as McCambridge literally sets the competition on fire and blazes in with my Best Shot:

Imagining herself to be the Phantom of the Opera, Emma destroy's Vienna chandelier by shooting it down and setting fire to Vienna's business. It's such an over the top gesture that really rubs her victory in Vienna's face. As if having her rival be dragged out and hanged wasn't enough, Emma's gotta be all small about it and make sure that everything is destroyed. And she is really feeling herself. She slowly backs up and raises her arms as if she's conjuring evil spirits to come and unsex her there. As she rushes out of the burning building she becomes almost orgasmic in her delight. I kept waiting for a witch's cackling to come out. But her power is in this element of fire, feeding the flames of hate. How fitting for an actress that would later go on to provide the voice of the Prince of Darkness in The Exorcist, Beelzebub himself.

Sorry, Joan. McCambridge brought out the big guns. You're gonna have to do a lot better than that tiny flame.

Come on, now don't make that face! To be fair, we'll let everyone else decide:

Who Would Win in a Battle?

Joan Crawford0%
Mercedes McCambridge0%


  1. LOVE this post!

    I have to agree with you that, in this particular case, McCambridge wins hands down. She has this delicious evil little twinkle in her eye throughout the entire film, and then when she sets the saloon on fire, she turns it into a full-on blaze of unbelievably outsized proportions. She's incredible, and easily walks away with the film.

    In real life, though... I think Joan probably would have taken her down.

    1. thank you, daniel! yeah, i'd have to agree. mccambridge steals the film, but no way is joan letting anyone upstage her in real life.

  2. OMG, this post is EVERYTHING! LOL, and the poll! You went all out my friend...ALL OUT!

  3. You write deliciously...............
    I came across you when trying to unearth the famous quote from McCambridge's biography on Joan: "She was a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady'---------this written roughly THIRTY years after "....guitar". So who wins? Well......I am biased, what with having "lived" with Joan for FORTY years, but I also look onto the future. Mercedes' life was a succession of sad breakdowns (her son took his own life after killing his family), but Joan continued spreading her nastiness for decades.
    Your writing is ......superb..........THANK YOU.