Born on March 23, 1905, in San Antonio, Texas, Joan Crawford began dancing at a young age, and went on to act in dozens of films. She was one of Hollywood's top stars of the 1930s, earning an Oscar for her lead role in 1945's Mildred Pierce. She later became known for the horror classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and was the subject of the memoir Mommie Dearest. She died on May 10, 1977, in New York City.
Film actress Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, on March 23, 1905 (though some sources have reported her birth date as 1908). Her parents separated before she was born, and her mother later married theater owner Harry Cassin. Crawford would come to be known as Billie Cassin growing up, and periodically throughout of her entertainment career.
After her mother and stepfather split, Crawford attended two private schools, where she worked on the premises to pay for tuition while also being treated harshly, receiving corporal punishment for perceived misdeeds. Because of her workload, she was unable to attend classes and her scholastic record was faked.
Big Break in 'Our Dancing Daughters'
After a short time at Stephens College, Crawford left to pursue a dancing career, a pastime to which she'd dedicated herself. She eventually danced in the Broadway show Innocent Eyes, and in 1925 started to work onscreen for MGM. She starred in a number of silent films during this period and was given the name "Joan Crawford" from a magazine contest sponsored by the studio. The actress hit it big with the smash Our Dancing Daughters (1928), in which she played a rich, lovelorn girl who moves to Charleston.
A prolific and long-lasting film career was to follow, with Crawford ultimately going on to star in more than five dozen films. She took on talking roles with projects like Hollywood Revue (1929) and Grand Hotel (1932), and her dancing skills were prominently displayed with Fred Astaire in the 1933 hit Dancing Lady. Clark Gable was also featured, and was a recurring co-star in works like Possessed (1931) and Strange Cargo (1940).
Oscar for 'Mildred Pierce'
Crawford was a major, top-earning star of the 1930s, though by the end of the decade, her pictures were meeting with limited success. She rallied again with A Woman's Face (1941) before leaving MGM and signing with Warner Brothers, eventually garnering the lead role in 1945's Mildred Pierce, about a mother who rises from humble beginnings to become a successful restaurateur. The film received several Academy Award nominations, and Crawford won for best actress.
Crawford would receive two more Oscar nominations over the years, one for her role as a schizophrenic nurse in another film by the name Possessed (1947), and the other as a playwright in the thriller Sudden Fear (1952), which she'd also produced. She became known for a steadfast devotion to her career and a willingness to adapt to different vehicles while cultivating a fan base.
Comeback in 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?'
Though garnering a series of notable roles, by the late 1950s, Crawford's career had grown quiet, only to be revitalized yet again with the 1962 horror classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, co-starring with Bette Davis. Crawford subsequently starred in several other thrillers and did television work. She also penned the 1971 memoir My Way of Life.
Joan Crawford died of a heart attack on May 10, 1977, in New York City, leaving a multifaceted film legacy that would inspire analysis for years to come.
Family Life and Abuse
Crawford was married four times, with three marriages to actors, one of whom was Douglas Fairbanks Jr. In 1956, she wed Alfred Steele, chairman of Pepsi-Cola. After his death in 1959, Crawford joined Pepsi's board of directors—becoming the first woman to do so—and went on to work as a spokesperson on behalf of the company.
Crawford adopted four children, one of whom, Christina, wrote the 1978 memoir Mommie Dearest, in which she writes of enduring highly erratic and abusive behavior from her mother during childhood. The book was adapted into a 1981 film starring Faye Dunaway as Crawford.
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