From How to Go to the Movies, by Quentin Crisp
As a writer and towering, eccentric figure of 20th-century queer New York, Quentin Crisp deserves to be remembered and respected both for his literary output, like his classic memoir The Naked Civil Servant, as well as for his trenchant observations about popular culture as refracted through his brilliant, homocentric sensibility. But there is also another reason for Crisp’s contemporary relevance: he refused to live his life according to proscribed social mores and, in doing so, made the world easier for each of us who came after him.
“We shall never know what wild impulse sent Miss Crawford out on those two fatal shopping sprees from which she returned home with four children”
When I was still in my teens and early twenties, I remember seeing him often walking through the streets of the West Village; he was unmistakable. He moved slowly and deliberately, with a style that was equal parts late-period Katharine Hepburn and part mid-19th-century English dandy. He had great presence—you just knew he was somebody. Those occasional Crisp sightings are still powerful memories, symbolizing both my own youth and the vibrant, vivid Greenwich Village neighborhood he so embodied. I see this now as a piece of gay history that is all but gone—a neighborhood utterly bleached of its identity and drunk with the numbing sameness of it homogenized prosperity, the foppish bohemian now fully assimilated and replaced with a line of tourists waiting for a cupcake. I am so glad I had the chance to experience the very last moment of Quentin Crisp’s New York, a world that can still be deeply felt in his writing, in art, or by walking down Grove Street at midnight while humming “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men.”
As the movie critic for now defunct Christopher Street magazine in the 1980s, he displayed an insight into Old Hollywood that was both highly informed and wickedly funny. His thoughts on Joan Crawford—or, as he would say in the formal parlance of the mid-century homo-speak he favored, “Miss Crawford”—are extremely perceptive and, I would venture, as on-the-nose as anything I’ve ever read about the subject. Only by revisiting the ideas of brilliant gay minds like Mr. Crisp’s can we find true insight into mythic figures like Joan Crawford, an actress whose popularity and longevity, like all cultural figures of such mythic proportion, says as much about the psychology and emotional needs of the people who worshipped her as it did about her.
Luckily for those of us who love American cinema and are fascinated by its attendant popular culture, we have the work of Mr. Crisp to serve as a map. Here is what he wrote in his 1989 collection of film pieces How to Go to The Movies, a collection of his film reviews from Christopher Street.
“In Miss Crawford’s gaze we read the mystery that we are to her”
Miss Crawford did not grow old as other women do, nor did she become a dehydrated version of her former self as other movie queens are apt to do. Age could not wither her nor custom stale her infinite monotony. Instead, her face appeared to undergo what geologists term a process of denudation. As the tides of youth receded, the implacable ambition upon which the critics remarked in her early films emerged slowly like s smoldering volcano arising from the sea. The cheeks became more hollow, the eyes more prominent, and the mouth took on the permanent curve of lips that are determined not to cry. Toward the end of her life, she looked like a hungry insect magnified a million times—a praying mantis that had forgotten how to pray. Even her springy posture started to resemble the stance of a brave soldier facing death.
The mystery of a Garbo or a Dietrich is a veiled glimpse of delights that, out of indifference or sheer perversity, they withhold from us. In Miss Crawford’s gaze we read the mystery that we are to her. Apparently, our presence wounds or angers or terrifies her. Her method of dealing with the menace of human relationships was to become a star—to be unassailable. In this ambition, she was abetted by Mr. Mayer, of whom, unlike so many actresses of her day, she never spoke badly. They were, for many years, in almost total agreement. He told her that it was her duty to him to live every moment of her public life as a star, and this, using her nearly inexhaustible fund of self-discipline, she did. The strain must always have been considerable and in time, if the grim tales told by her daughter are to be believed, it became unbearable.
We shall never know what wild impulse sent Miss Crawford out on those two fatal shopping sprees from which she returned home with four children. A marriage can sometimes become a way to stardom, but motherhood is the most starless role a woman can undertake. This actress and her family learned that the hard way.
It appears that she fell into the age-old error of being unable to relinquish all other aims for the most important. She seems to have wanted the best of everything, as in the film of that name—to be an ordinary mortal at times and, on other occasions, to be a movie queen. She was not alone in her confusion. Many actresses have foolishly imagined that they could be great without being lonely. It is impossible. Only Miss Garbo seems to have realized this. She chose to have no husbands, no children, no friends—only fame.
In real life, Miss Crawford was inured, if not to anguish, at least to hardship and a certain amount of humiliation at a very early age. Her mother really did work in a laundry and she herself found employment in a department store at thirteen, but she never relinquished her hopes, and her persistence was rewarded. She was placed under contract by Mr. Mayer when she was sixteen. At first, in her professional life, she did not seem to be destined to be a tragedienne. Like Miss Harlow, who started out as the inevitable blonde in slapstick movies featuring Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, and like Miss Monroe, who was originally chased around the set by the Marx brothers, Miss Crawford played opposite the comedian, Mr. Langdon. Without any natural gifts except for ballroom dancing, as Miss Crawford once said, she nagged herself into being a competent actress—not for love of the art but as means to becoming a celebrity. Even her fans were aware of her technical weaknesses. They did not think her successful when she played an English woman, nor as a French girl in Reunion in France, nor in a period piece called The Gorgeous Hussy. If she had any ability as an actress, it was never for pretending to be somebody else; it lay in transforming her face into a mask of fear or hatred or grief.
It was not until she was twenty-four that she was given a worthwhile part. This was in Our Dancing Daughters. In 1928, the most wicked thing that a girl could do—or at least be photographed doing—was taking off her dress in public. Miss Bankhead, who at that time represented sin on a grand scale, did it in a play on the London stage called The Garden of Eden and miss Crawford did it in her picture of the Roaring Twenties, but, even in this comparatively lighthearted film, what she symbolized was not really naughtiness. It was desperation. She was later to play in several comedies, the best of which was They All Kissed the Bride, and her comedy acting was highly praised, but this underlying quality of being a troubled personality she was never to lose.
When, after the Second World War, Hollywood lost interest in her, Miss Crawford herself began to search for a movie that could match the face she had now acquired. She found Mildred Pierce. From that moment onward, the quest was over. Thereafter, she would always play desperate victims, as in Sudden Fear, or desperate tyrants, as in Queen Bee.
Finally, in real life, she became a member of the board of Pepsi-Cola. Her movie career and her life were welded together in the unquenchable furnace of her ambition.
About Quentin Crisp: There are few writers who ever commented on Old Hollywood with the keen insight and exhilarating wit of Quentin Crisp. His observations about film and film stars in his fine book How to Go to the Movies uniquely combines a Queer sensibility with common sense analysis and the result, as you will see, is fascinating. Reading Quentin Crisp on film captures a similar kind of joy that I feel when I see a performer like Charles Busch at his best; good-naturedly poking fun and paying tribute simultaneously which, believe me, is a brilliant thing when it’s done with style.
More Quentin Crisp in Stargayzing: