Originally published June 17, 1933
Actress Joan Crawford knew the workings of Hollywood inside and out – and she put that knowledge to good use throughout her career. In this first person account, she explained what it took to get to the top in Hollywood.
There are plenty of hazards in getting to the top, or in staying there. In fact, the higher you rise, the more is expected of you. Mistakes are less readily overlooked or forgiven, even though your work depends largely upon the cooperation of others, such as studio executives, directors, editors, writers and the rest.
That being the case, what do I see as I look back, survey my present foothold on the film peaks and peer ahead? My chief feeling about it is one of astonishment, tinged with unbelief, in spite of the driving ambition to make good; and speaking of ambition, I honestly believe that there is no limit to success. I do not believe that any artistic person, any truly creative person, is limited any more than true ambition is limited. I was once asked, “Now that you have realized your ambitions, Miss Crawford, what next?” I answered, “A new ambition.” For when one goal is realized, a new one is ahead.
As I look back over my own career, I see a succession of these changing goals.
The danger of being “typed” by the producers, which, in turn, fixes you irrevocably in the public eye, is one of the haunting fears that an actor must meet and conquer — if it is to be conquered — with cool judgment and common sense. As you may recall, my initial success was in the role of a dancing girl, ultramodern, seeking a good time and having it. I am grateful to that character, for she brought me good luck and success; but I began to feel that if I were pigeonholed too carefully, I would soon be forgotten.
Was I able to do something besides that dancing girl with whom I had become identified on the screen? I thought I was. ere was pent up inside me a great urge to do dramatic roles. I sought advice but believed my own heart, and I finally begged to be allowed to try a real emotional role. It was, perhaps, the most critical moment in my career. If I failed in my attempt, I had nothing to blame but my own impetuousness, and I would lose what audiences I had as that modern girl.
Shivering inwardly — I always do that; I die a thousand deaths a day from timidity and indecision — I began to make Paid. I remember that every time when I stepped away from the camera after having done a big scene, I searched the faces of the cameramen and electricians, hoping for their approval. Once, I remember, I finished a very dificult scene. No one said whether I did well or not. They all started busying themselves with preparations for the next shot. I stood there a moment in despair, and then something impelled me to look up. High above me was the electrician who handles the overhead lights. He nodded to me and, with his lips, formed the words, “Good girl, Joan.” And I knew I had done well.
From that time on, my style in acting underwent revolutionary changes through a step, a leap — sometimes a bad fall taught most — in such plays as Possessed, Grand Hotel and Letty Lynton. It was a thrilling progression, exhausting every resource I had and drawing upon new ones that I had never had the opportunity to use. As I look back now in critical examination, I can hardly believe that the girl who did the Taxi Dancer was the same person who played Letty Lynton. Of course I was young and malleable, for it seems to me that I have been recreated, in a sense, both physically and mentally.
Kaleidoscopic as Hollywood must be in most things; it is rigidly fixed in a few that are vitally important for a star to know and act upon correctly. As an example, a screen star must be a voluntary prisoner in Hollywood in the pursuit and maintenance of her success. She dare not leave her confines for more than a few weeks at a time, unless she wishes to run the risk of returning to find herself forgotten. Time and again I have seen stars try to come back, only to be met with failure. Actually, I have had one real honest-to-goodness vacation in four years.
Another fixed Hollywood principle is that a star cannot afford to be more than half right in a studio quarrel. And half right can be too much! Differences must be arbitrated if the star, right or wrong, wishes to survive. If you win a battle against your studio against its will, where are you if the studio decides to keep you off the screen?
I am emphasizing this side of the human problem that affects all of us, more or less, in every activity, because it is peculiarly poignant in Hollywood, where to make a bad picture is a mistake of the first magnitude, and where, though it may be the result of other hands than your own and factors beyond your control, a star must be prepared and willing to accept the brunt of the fiasco. Mistakes are heartbreaking to a star, because the margin of safety is so slight.
Outside of actual working hours before the cameras, I find it expedient and necessary to give most of my waking time to keeping up with the job. These details are threefold. Let me give you an idea of the various side issues and obligations that must be met if an actress is to keep her place.
Though many actresses — I among them — do not pick their own stories for filming, we should never let up in the search for suitable ones. So novels must occupy a considerable percentage of leisure time. We know the importance of a good vehicle, and whenever I come upon what I think a possibility, I bring it to the attention of the studio. Even if it isn’t right for me, it may prove just right for someone else, although I may not like to relinquish my find.
Because it is necessary for a woman star to be abreast, if not a jump ahead, of the constantly changing modes, it is part of the many-sided job to scan all the fashion magazines, and if I come across the picture of a model that I like, no matter how advanced at the moment, to send for it on approval. A friend in New York helps me to get quick action on the fashion front. This, of course, is for my personal wardrobe. My picture clothes are in the capable and artistic hands of a marvelous designer.
Then there is the everlasting hair arrangement to consider and experiment with. I watch for new coiffures and try them out. I know how important a woman’s hair is, and I think an actress should have the coiffure take on fresh lines and values in each character she plays. The smallest physical adjuncts created for a role lend to it a zest that your audience is quick to appreciate. Men may not know the why — for of the new appeal, but the women do every time.
Physical exercise, correct diet, sufficient sleep are all to be taken into account, and they are more often than not difficult to achieve when you are on the set from 8 o’clock in the morning until 6 at night and have to put in the hours after 6 in studying a scene for the next day and in having your hair done. And if you have days between pictures—which means that you are theoretically free to relax or do what you please—in all likelihood you have settings for gowns to be worn in the next picture, interviews with newspaper and magazine people, dancing lessons for a picture in the offing, and a ton of overdue correspondence to read and answer.
The fans are a dynamic influence — and a highly valued one. The public makes or breaks. And in a star’s life there are two publics to please — the public that goes to see her on the screen and the public that insists on physical contact when she is off the screen and one of the crowd. These two publics are interchangeable to some degree, but the approach to them is entirely different. And they are equally important. Living in the public eye is part of your stardom, and if you really want a private life, you should not have tried to be a star.
Yet I also know that nothing in the world could compensate me for losing my place in them. The stress and strain are terrific, but the fascination and joy of work in films have no parallel comparison in my life.
This article and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood. This edition can be ordered here.