From the blood curdling screech of the desiccated audio track that announces the arrival of Joan Crawford’s gleaming plane—with all of the subtlety of exploding shrapnel—the viewer knows he is in for the arrival of something otherworldly. It is just moments until we are rewarded with the gauzy visage of that exceptional thing: Miss Joan Crawford, the ailing film legend, who is wheeled down the jetway in all of her late-period Berserk! glory, wearing a modest pink dress and a hat the size of Culver City. A group of children wait eagerly behind a cordoned area, too young by decades to possess any measure of understanding for whom they are waiting but, interestingly, quite responsive to the circus-like energy. A crazy-looking queen in a white dinner jacket—this despite the midday sun—gallantly bestows a dozen red roses in the star’s arms; the broad red gash of her lips now open and close in a sort of Valley of the Dolls slow-mo rapture, as if to say, “Dahling, you musht have known that after sheven Manhattansh and handful of Demorolsh, nothing feelsh more shublime than a doshen roshes!”
A royal reception: the years conflate for Joan Crawford as she is happily seat belted into her throne, a slow-rolling pod that is powered by neurosis, narcissism, and narcotics.
It is 1968 and Joan Crawford is not sober; not even a little. Maybe this is because she has injured both her ankles, or maybe she injured her ankles because she is not sober. Or maybe it is just because this is Joan Crawford in 1968 and this was how she, quite literally, rolled. When someone off-camera queries her moments later about her broken feet, she matter-of-factly slurs to no one in particular, “Jush shattered, that’s all,” before being merrily transferred to a Jet Age golf cart for speedier delivery, clearly feeling no pain. A moment to reset herself and the vehicle begins to move. “Lights! Camera! Action!” Clearly, the legend is hammered, so wouldn’t this be the propitious moment for a filmed interview?
Joan Crawford’s 1968 Drunken Airport Interview is eight minutes of absolutely unscripted, unfiltered, cinema verité joy; it is impossible not to be drawn into the public relations disaster unfolding before us. As is typical of late-period Crawford, the piece is engaging for all the wrong reasons. On a technical level, everything that is wrong about the footage works in its favor today: the jumpy audio; the grainy, dreamlike, under-lit images; the staccato editing; the kabuki makeup; the lost, drunken pauses where Joan appears to reach back—way back—into her grab bag of movie star tricks. It is gratifying that almost 50 years later Stargayzing can fulfill Miss Crawford’s apparent belief that she was playing to a much larger audience by, in fact, disseminating this riveting pop culture artifact to a much larger audience. Lest you think I believe I am better than anyone I’m writing about, I am aware of the fact that in propagating this piece with such Crawford-esque zeal, I have, in fact, become something like the crazy queen in the airport with the white dinner jacket—but for the Internet age—and, guess what? I am okay with this.
“Where did you find her, Miss Crawford?” the interviewer asks of Carol, the terrified six-year-old placed on Joan’s lap as a prop—sort of like the crumpled flowers. One feels for the bewildered child, whom Joan now asphyxiates in the fetid brew of her alcohol- perfume- and cigarette-drenched plane ride. “Oh, I just always pick up children,” the star replies without a hint of irony, clearly unaware that George Cukor is not, in fact, the man behind the camera and that it is no longer 1940.
We follow her all the way out to the curb where her car is waiting. The anonymous interviewer attempts to feed her lines to get the sound bites he thinks are best, but Joan has none of it and goes her own way. “Do you ever give up?” he breathlessly asks as she prepares to traverse the approximately two foot chasm between the cart and the awaiting limousine as if she is about to begin a journey biblical in scope. “Nope,” she replies with the same steely defiance that once propelled the young Lucille LeSueur from a laundromat in San Antonio, Texas to the highest level of the Hollywood hierarchy.
Rising to the challenge of articulating exactly how she will travel the approximately two step abyss between the chair and the vehicle, Miss Crawford declaims in her most practiced Continent-by-way-of-Culver City-elocution, “As a matter of fact I will walk out of this chair and walk straight into the cah.”
With that she stands to her full height—whatever that was—and delivers her parting salvo to everyone and no one in particular: “I’m a shtrong dame!” And with that she did in fact walk straight into the cah and right back into our hearts, where she has remained ever since. “Brava!”