Donna Nowak and Just Joan: A Joan Crawford Appreciation!
“And is it such a novel sensation?”
dialogue between Douglass Montgomery and Joan Crawford in Paid
I am here in Palm Springs having a bittersweet trip. I love Palm Springs and am having a wonderful time with friends, interviews, restaurants. Carol Channing: Larger Than Life shows today at the Annenburg Theatre.
Unfortunately, Carol won't be there due to her husband, Harry Kullijian's passing the day after Christmas and the day before his 92nd birthday. I will not be seeing Carol this trip.
Last night, I was walking along Palm Canyon Drive and passed a store with a Joan Crawford doll.
I thought of it as a good omen since I knew I would be writing about Joan today. There is also a Carol Channing/Joan Crawford connection. When Joan Crawford married Alfred Steele, Carol was asked to perform at their wedding. Because they were getting married in Paris, Carol decided to learn a song in French...although she knew nothing of the language. She learned the song phonetically. She thought she was singing about a cream puff; she was singing about something a little more graphic...and X rated! She could not understand why everyone was leaving the room. Carol says fortunately, Joan was in her cups and had no idea! To read more about this, buy Carol's memoir of sorts,Just Lucky I Guess.
I love Joan Crawford. I love her movies. When I was in high school, I discovered her book, My Way of Life. That book became my bible! I still quote the one thing that stood out for me that I truly believe and still practice to this day. Joan says in the book, "Be nice to everyone you come into contact with. The person sweeping the floor may be running the studio tomorrow." I've never forgotten that! I read once that Joan knew the name of EVERY person working on her films behind the scenes. She remembered their anniversaries and birthdays. She did the same for their families! Between takes, she answered her fan mail...writing to every fan in LONG HAND! Plus she is an incredible actress with an Academy Award and a great body of work. THAT is what we should celebrate and not focus as much on her private life.
Don't get me wrong. If Christina Crawford was honest with Mommie Dearest, what a tragic sad story. Most of us have our own demons and skeletons in the closet. But it is sad that today, when you mention Joan Crawford, most people gravitate to Mommie Dearest rather than her body of work.
Like me, Donna is sure she has seen Mildred Pierce and Baby Jane a zillion times. But a film she remembers seeing as a kid was Rain. She was so moved by that film. Joan’s performance ripped her apart and spoke to her. She was in her parents’ bedroom and there was Joan – young then – with her tacky clothes and big eyes and the preacher was towering over her on the stairway and condemning her and, Donna was a Catholic schoolgirl, no less, but it was a revelation to see this girl finally calling out men on their sexual hypocrisy.
That meant so much to her. The thing that makes Joan so incredible to Donna is that she plays these marginalized women and then defies her oppressors and maintains a sense of dignity. She exposes the hypocrisy. She was very raw and young in Rain, but a thousand percent committed and inside this character.
Donna remembers her on that stairwell, looking up at that very stern preacher with those huge orbs and tears streaming down her face and the way Joan snaps back at him, “Your God and me could never be shipmates. And the next time you talk to him, you can tell him this for me--that Sadie Thompson is on her way to hell!” Wow! For Donna, it was almost like having a secret friend or advocate, this tiny girl with the powerful intensity who was fighting back, going outside the box of what was acceptable for women.
Were you exposed to Joan Crawford growing up?
Hell, yeah! I feel so lucky to have grown up watching so many old movies. They were on Channel 48, so I knew everyone – even all the silent film stars. You didn’t have to pay for cable to see them. It kind of kept everyone connected to the culture. I remember seeing Susan and God, too, as a little girl – that scene where Joan is in the white suit and hat with the veil – and thinking that she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Your thoughts on Arts in Education (ALL my blogs focus on that)
To me, the arts are not merely incidental – they’re essential; they’re the whole story, our story, and should be nurtured in school.
It’s through the arts that people survive this crazy world and leave an individual, personal mark on the world. How many people endure through reading a book, going to the movies or theater where hope can be renewed and faith in a more beautiful world restored? You can forget your troubles or remember who you are and discover possibility. Imagination is how any of us make it through. The only thing that really unites people in any meaningful way is the arts. Many kids who are bullied or just going through adolescence have the strength to go on by having this outlet and anchor.
Through the arts you experience other worlds, other points of view and share the universal experience of humanity. It’s entertainment, but it’s also about connecting. Nurturing the soul is the key to greatness and that’s what the arts do.
Is there a Joan Crawford movie that makes you cry out of the blue when you see or hear it?
Joan has some amazingly acute moments on screen. She isn’t afraid to be emotionally exposed and naked and has such intensity. That’s very real even when nothing around her is real, because movies are a completely artificial environment. I call her the Maria Callas of film. Doug Bonner in PostModern Joan said “one doesn’t know where artifice begins and autobiography disappears as she emotes for the screen.” In A Woman’s Face where half her face is scarred according to the plot, there’s a scene that blows me away when she turns and reveals the scar and says, “Why can’t you all leave me alone?”
There is such raw pain on her face and in those amazing eyes. Joan makes you feel as she does – 2000 percent. She had a huge reservoir of pain. But what always brings a tear to my eye is when Joan and Clark Gable embrace at the end of Dancing Lady.
Also, truthfully, there’s something very poignant about Joan at the end of Trog, her final film. Jim Sibal, husband of the late Carl Johnes who became very close to Joan in her last years, wrote the afterwards to my book and said that Carl found her vulnerable and yielding in those later years like a retired general. I think of that when I see her walking to the horizon in Trog after fifty years – an entire lifetime in films.
Your thoughts on Carol Channing (All my blogs focus on Carol Channing’s Foundation For the Arts) I’m campaigning for Carol Channing to receive the 2012 Kennedy Center Honor in 2012.
|Carol Channing with Joan Crawford in background, Helen Hayes, James Stewart at event honoring|
That’s no mean feat. She’s already been inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, won a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award and an Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre. The Kennedy Center doesn’t have a more deserving recipient to honor than Carol. Like Joan Crawford, she has a signature look and is completely unique. I met her a few times and a friend of mine interviewed her for Reuters. She was adorable – every bit as funny and sweet and magical as she is onstage.
I also admire that she and her late husband Harry Kullijian did so much to promote arts in education through their non-profit, Foundation for the Arts. Arts education needs to be returned to public schools. We need to encourage the greatness of human beings through the arts. That’s what keeps us all linked to one another. Creativity is not a marginal experience assigned to geniuses. It’s our birthright.
Donna's most recent appearance in relation to this book
My most recent appearance was over the summer at the Stonewall Inn where I did a book signing for Just Joan. My friend Bonnie, a very talented jazz singer, performed and a Joan fan, Gerry came and gave me an exquisite, joyous portrait he did of Joan. Along with being a fabulous artist, he was a Fosse dancer, so he performed onstage with Bonnie and now the wonderful Portrait of Joan is hanging in my living room. It was a special night. The portrait is from The Damned Don’t Cry, by the way.
Donna's next appearance
Just Joan is distributed in various Barnes & Nobles and I want to arrange some talks on Joan next. I love talking about Joan Crawford. I do believe she is the most fascinating star Hollywood ever produced and an extraordinary woman and many people don’t know the half of her contributions or the obstacles she overcame. So that’s what I’m working on next. (If anyone is listening I want to interview Donna on stage when this happens!)
What do you consider Joan Crawford’s biggest success in Show Business
Joan’s enduring spirit and resilience is her biggest success in show business, the fact that she came into the business raw, learned her craft like a total pro and endured for fifty years, continually reinventing herself, while others got thrown out with the garbage, to paraphrase Stephen Sondheim. Many women in Hollywood were put to pasture by the time they were 35 and they tried that with Joan, but she didn’t allow it. She broke the mold on many levels. Joan gave incredible performances in many films like Letty Lynton, Rain, Mildred Pierce, The Women, Humoresque, Possessed (both the 1931 and 1947 films), The Story of Esther Costello, the Bride Wore Red, Baby Jane, and so forth, but I also feel she was able to create empathy for her characters. She had that quality of transcendence. As someone put it, she plays an axe murderess in Strait-Jacket and she’s the most sympathetic character in the film.
What was Joan's lowest low and how did she surpass that?
I think Joan’s childhood was her lowest low and she overcame all the obstacles on some levels. I talk about many of these things in my book. Her childhood left permanent scars. It couldn’t not leave scars, but Joan was very life affirming and didn’t waste a lot of time feeling sorry for herself. She worked hard and achieved. She was determined and proactive, continually challenging herself and taking risks in her career. I know she went into the tacky horror films in later life and maybe many read that as a comedown. Sure, it is, but I adore those films. Who would want to be without Lucy Harbin in Strait-Jacket or Monica Rivers, circus owner, in Berserk? Joan made even the thinnest, goofiest material memorable with her chutzpah, charisma and thousand percent commitment to the character and to her audience, so those films are every bit as memorable and entertaining as Mildred Pierce in their own way. She truly loved her fans and cared about pleasing them. She always talked about giving value to something and she lived by her mottos. Her standards were high. Joan was the true survivor. Besides the grinding poverty in her childhood, there was a lack of love and, by some accounts (which I tend to believe), incest at the hand of a beloved father figure and it all left its scars, but she made the most of everything she had and went on to achieve this legacy of work in films, television, print ads, etc. It’s incredible. Even as a kid, she dreamed of dancing and then seriously injured her foot. She had to walk a mile to school every day on the bum foot because they couldn’t afford money for the trolley, but she didn’t allow herself to be defeated. She went on to achieve her dream of dancing on Broadway and then became a major star with one of the greatest film studios in the history of Hollywood. There’s an in-joke in the gay community and among Joan fans – instead of “What would Jesus do?,” it’s “what would Joan do?” Well, we all know what she did – she kept going.
What one change would you like to see in today’s industry?
I’d love to see less violence, less testosterone-driven blockbusters with titles thudding onto the screen in trailers. I hate shaky cameras, too. In old films, there was a sense of beauty in the lighting and composition and shadows like fine paintings. That’s missing now. Also it would be nice if theater was more affordable. If you go to the theater, there are usually lots of empty seats. Theater prices need to be brought down to earth, so it can be accessible for everyone the way it used to be and should be.
Who are your TOP FIVE models and influences?
My beloved mother; Joan Crawford; F. Scott Fitzgerald; Agatha Christie; and now I’d like to have about twenty names to put in fifth place. Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel was certainly a huge influence and Fellini and Fosse both made impacts at some point and I deeply adore Doris Day, but the ones I’ve named and many other writers would be it.
What do you think ultimately made Joan become a performer?
Hunger. Joan had enormous focus obviously and she was life-affirming which many people don’t acknowledge or think about when talking about her because she had that volatility and self-destructive element, too. She wanted desperately to be loved and had tremendous drive, energy, and charisma. She had the burning intensity and brilliance of a star. She stood out even before she became one.
Are YOU happy at the point you are right now in your career?
No. I feel I have so much more to do and achieve by far and I’d like to be more financially secure, etc. But I’m happy about the things I’ve done. It’s a great feeling when you have an idea and bring it to fruition and then this thing you imagined EXISTS. It takes on its own life and becomes whatever it does for other people. That’s magical and very rewarding. I recently created this amateur sleuth and I’m having a blast with her.
Do you feel Joan achieved what she set out to do?
It’s hard to say. Maybe she always had an underlying feeling of dissatisfaction because it was such an uphill battle on some levels to get the parts she really wanted and fight the studio system, yet her achievements are staggering. She made her mark at a very young age. By the time she was 21, she’d made a sensation in Our Dancing Daughters and had arrived. She achieved her dream of dancing on Broadway and became a world class film star who is still being talked about today (even if not always favorably in some camps). Her legacy in film is undeniable and she was one of the most photographed, painted, etc. women in the world. For the public and myself, she achieved the ultimate – she’s the ultimate star. But did she have other personal goals that didn’t transpire? Joan herself said that even Hitler had regrets.
What do YOU do to remain positive when life's hiccups get you down?
I escape with wonderful books or wonderful old movies. Once in the middle of a very difficult time because of a devastating family illness, I was withdrawing from the world like that kid in the story who hears the postman coming through the snow (Silent Snow, Secret Snow). The more withdrawn he becomes, the less he can hear the footsteps until his entire world is a world of snow. Anyway, what brought me out of this depression was going to the Chelsea Clearview where Hedda Lettuce hosts classic films and every week there was another great classic film and zany Hedda making everyone laugh. It connected me back to joy and helped me process and put life back in perspective. But I’m an essentially positive person. Anyone who ever suffered through a major illness knows how important it is to think positive and laugh. I survived an advanced stage of cancer. I was lucky. But when I was in the hospital, they distributed brochures about The Power of Positive Thinking and the importance of laughter and that’s a key thing. You can’t take life too seriously because, as the saying goes, no one gets out of it alive. So you might as well allow yourself to have as much fun as possible. No one’s going to tell.
How on earth do you reach theatregoers now that newspapers are obsolete and there are so many channels on TV you can’t pick the right ones to advertise on and with the web being so hit and miss?I don’t think newspapers are obsolete. I’d say if you can’t do it through the web, try word-of-mouth.
A genie pops out of the lamp, he grants you three wishes. What are those wishes?
Health for myself and loved ones; great artistic success; and romantic happiness.
If you could travel anywhere in the world and spend some time there, where would you choose, and what would you do?
I love spending time in San Francisco and California, so I would want to drive down the coast to Oregon and the great Redwoods, follow Sunset Boulevard. But I’ve done a lot of traveling and been to many amazing places. I’ve been fortunate. I still have pet places I’d like to go to - Scotland, Prague, and Romania, to name a few. I’d like to see Transylvania and those Gothic places and the wolves in the Carpathian Mountains, but I’ve seen them in Yellowstone which was incredible. I’d also like to go to Churchill, Canada, and see the polar bears before the ice melts.
What would you ask God if you could right now?
Is there an afterlife where we’re reunited with loved ones?
What is the last stage show you saw. Local or professional.
Follies on Broadway. There’s a Joan connection. Stephen Sondheim based the lyrics for his song “I’m Still Here” on Joan Crawford. Elaine Paige, whom I adore, talked about it in an interview since that’s the song she sings in the show. “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp” – I mean, any Joan fan can recognize her in some of those lyrics. God, Stephen Sondheim was brilliant. I love:
I got through Abie’s, Irish Rose, five Dionne babies, Major Bowes
Had heebie-jeebies for Beebe’s, Bathysphere
I got through Shirley Temple, and I’m here.
What was the turning point in your career?
Actually Joan Crawford was a catalyst. Whenever I start feeling sorry for myself, I remember Joan’s resilience and what she symbolized in so many of her films and it reminds me to keep my eye on the prize and keep going. You can’t let the turkeys keep you down.
Donna, THANK YOU so much for this interview and the gifts you give to the world and for the use of these fabulous photos!
NO COPY WRITE INFRINGEMENT INTENDED. FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY!
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Tomorrow's's blog will be... CELEBRATING Stephanie Wahl!
Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!
Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!
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DR. CAROL CHANNING and HARRY KULLIJIAN FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS
TILL TOMORROW...HERE'S TO AN ARTS FILLED DAY
Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com
This Blog is in honor of Joan Crawford's Body of Worth!