best film:  Johnny Guitar – and it is not terribly close. Johnny Guitar is Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece and a film that lands inside the top 200 of all-time. So, for Joan Crawford this category is neither a great strength nor a great weakness. Certainly, there is no shame in being the acting centerpiece of Ray’s best film – by definition beating out impressive titles that include Rebel Without a Cause, They Live by Night and In a Lonely Place. The next tier of quality films down for Crawford includes Grand Hotel and Mildred Pierce. These are two fine films in their own right, but not top 500 films, so Crawford needs Johnny Guitar to make this list.




best performance:  Johnny Guitar. As discussed, Crawford is not on this list (despite the Oscar win for a big performance in Mildred Pierce) without Johnny Guitar. As Vienna in Johnny Guitar, Crawford is insistent, emotional, and the performance is flashy. This the perfect vehicle for Crawford’s talents – she certainly has an earned reputation for melodramatic performances – and this animated performance and film walks a fine line  (so does Baby Jane which is so close to camp – or maybe it is camp – which it also works as).



Nicholas Ray’s star was ascending in 1954 (one year before helping make a star of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause) – so getting the lead role of Vienna for Crawford was a major coup.



stylistic innovations/traits:  Joan Crawford had a strange career. Her resume does not have an abundance of depth – especially for a studio age actor who did not retire or pass away young or anything. She has nine archiveable films and when you break it down – the four films she is remembered best for – each came out in different decades. This is rare – for most actors there is a cluster of films where an actor gets hot or has momentum (think of Grace Kelly just a few slots ago). For Crawford, Grand Hotel helped put her on the map and this was a big film in the 1930s. Then it is her Oscar win for Mildred Pierce (a wonderful film, too) in the 1940s followed by Johnny Guitar in the 1950s. Baby Jane is another one that she is remembered for and that came well past her prime in the 1960s.  Crawford’s acting style was pushing the limits of melodramatic over-the-top-ness. She had one speed – but she was damn good at it. Crawford is not one for subtlety or interior performance. Having said that, she had a definite screen presence. She is talented – and the reason you know she is talented is that although she was a beauty in her younger years (The Unknown, Grand Hotel – she plays the role of eye candy in both films essentially) – she would not have been offered roles based on her looks alone in her later years and the bulk of her archiveable work comes after the age of forty (40) for her. The comparisons to Bette Davis are not just because of the work with Aldrich later in their careers and working in Baby Jane together. They both had an undeniable star quality that demanded the attention of the camera – and they both excelled at playing the role of diva or bitch. The comparisons to Davis both compliment Crawford, and sort of reveal her for what she was not at the same time.



Crawford in 1945’s Mildred Pierce. Few female Hollywood studio actors had the career she had post 40-years-old.



directors worked with:  Robert Aldrich (2) – both in the later years of her career with Autumn Leaves and Baby Jane. Tod Browning (1), George Cukor (1), Michael Curtiz (1), Otto Preminger (1) and of course Nicholas Ray (1) in her best film and performance.



Crawford in 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? This is opposite Bette Davis – and an oddly successful role and film for both aging divas.



top five performances:

  1. Johnny Guitar
  2. Mildred Pierce
  3. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
  4. Sudden Fear
  5. Daisy Kenyon



archiveable films

1927- The Unknown
1932- Grand Hotel
1939- The Women
1945- Mildred Pierce
1947- Daisy Kenyon
1952- Sudden Fear
1954- Johnny Guitar
1956- Autumn Leaves
1962- What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?