To gay men of a certain age, she is a most important Gay Icon. My young wards (20-30 years old) at my work have no idea who she was, but they know the entire cinema curriculum vitae of someone named Kristen Stewart.
I have enjoyed her considerable talents & glamour in Grand Hotel, Mildred Pierce, & The Women. I also snickered at the camp value of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane, Johnny Guitar & Straight Jacket. But, I would later come to appreciate Joan Crawford as a complex, cryptic, contradictory product of a certain era & her own difficult life. Just as she devoted herself to her fans, she doubtless inspired the downtrodden in the audience to want more out of life & go out & get it. She relied on men as her pathway into a man's world. Crawford was often required to suffer for her ambition but she was living in an age when she was actually allowed & expected to carry & dominate a film. She was up to the task.
Joan Crawford was a convincing creative force; an underdog who embraced good taste, glamour, & fantasy. She addressed & defied the class conscious & the studio system that tried to marginalize & deprive her. Through all her trials she kept her head held high. In her films, as in her life, she demanded to be counted as a woman, & as an outsider. Her struggle was every marginalized person’s struggle, but especially resonant to gay people. She was ridiculed for her excesses & yet the emotion was raw, real & she often underplayed it. Beneath the toughness was the frightened woman.
Gay men recognize & love that vulnerability. Beneath the flamboyance was shyness. Her promiscuity was a mirror of gay male sexuality. Most gays can appreciate why Joan would hide her insecurities & grim past behind a facade of Hollywood perfection & we love it that she did it for her fans. She was always grateful to her fans. One of her directors & lover- Vincent Sherman said her personal life was terrible & that it took hours to bring her down from crying scenes.
As a bad girl myself, I appreciate that her bad behavior seemed to stem from her fears, although, also just like me, she was known as a consummate professional on the set.
Crawford was on a search for love & belonging. She almost certainly had affairs with other women. She never seemed to have found that love. She was a glamorous feminist icon, a fabulous gay icon, & still very human. She was a diva & a survivor who never forgot her fans. Crawford could play anguish & hope on screen, the same complex contradictions she had to play in her own life. This flawed person beneath a stunning glamour & power makes her continue to resonate to gay people.
In 1971, I remember reading her book -My Way of Life. I sat on my blanket at the beach, ready to devour Joan Crawford’s racy tell-all bio, instead I got Crawford's meticulous advice on grooming, wardrobe, exercise, house cleaning, & food storage. Her advice came in handy.