Starring Joan Crawford, 2024, Samuel Garza Bernstein

In Starring Joan Crawford: The Films, the Fantasy, and the Modern Relevance of a Silver Screen Icon, author and screenwriter Samuel Garza Bernstein examines what made the star from Hollywood’s Golden Age a force of feminist self-determination for women today. Covering her five-decade career, Garza Bernstein reveals how Crawford molded and remolded her image while staying true to herself. Embracing her conflicts and contradictions, he describes Joan Crawford as “an essential American archetype.”

Starring Joan Crawford will drop during Pride Month on June 4 from Globe Pequot/Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. $45.00 hardcover.

Drawing on reams of press coverage with never-before-seen restored images, Starring Joan Crawford is a celebration of its subject and exploration of how she informed ideas about wealth and class, femininity and gender roles, identity and fulfillment.

Dividing her career into five phases, Garza Bernstein looks at what Crawford meant to audiences of the time and then looks at how her films and the personas she created still affect us and relate to the way we live now.

Phase 1: Influencer and It Girl. After escaping a harrowing childhood and dancing her way to Broadway, Lucille LeSueur is discovered by an MGM talent scout. She makes her silent film debut in January 1925, and dazzles as the joyful jazz baby. Three months later, the studio’s publicity head launched a “Name Her” contest in Movie Weekly magazine, and Joan Crawford is born. This phase marks the beginning of its end in 1928 due to two transformative events: her marriage to a Hollywood prince, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and the arrival of talkies.

Phase 2: Queen of the Movies. In 1930, Crawford is named the top box office draw in the world, ahead of Greta Garbo. A full-blown star, she sets out to prove she can act and takes on dramatic roles—playing a bitter antihero in Paid and a suicide survivor in Laughing Sinners opposite Clark Gable, with whom she develops an enduring friendship. Rain is her first flop, and she is branded “box office poison.” In 1943, Crawford asks to be released from her MGM contract—paying $100,000 for the privilege—and embraces her most controversial role: mother. Still, her work comes first.

Phase 3: Mother and Martyr. By this phase, Crawford is on her third husband (after a brief second marriage to Franchot Tone). She marries Phillip Terry because he seems like a kind man who will make a good father figure. After buying her freedom from MGM, she is forced to wait two agonizing years before making her first picture for Warner Bros: Mildred Pierce. She wins the Academy Award for Best Actress. With Mildred, Crawford creates a new archetype for not only herself but also American women, with suffering baked into the drive for independence and fulfillment to help ease the guilt of getting what you want.

Phase 4: Dragon Lady. In her mid-forties, she returns to MGM to make the movie that will seal her fate as a dragon icon: Torch Song. She plays the iron lady of Broadway musicals—a star who feels empty because she cannot find love in her private life—a situation that hits close to home. She land roles as bitchy ball-busters in Johnny Guitar and Queen Bee. She marries for the fourth and final time to Alfred Steele, the president of Pepsi. Crawford embraces her role as its public face.

Phase 5: Survivor. Crawford begins her final phase devastated by the loss of Steele (who died of heart failure), their partnership, and the financial security she thought he provided. She signs a contract for her memoirs, searches for her next project, and lands on the story of two aging sisters—one a crippled former movie star; the other a demented, former vaudeville star. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? happens because Crawford finds the novel, finds the director, gets Bette Davis, and convinces director Robert Aldrich to sign on.

Samuel Garza Bernstein is a Stonewall Book Award-winning author, screenwriter, and playwright. He splits his time between Porto, Portugal, and Los Angeles. In Starring Joan Crawford, he reveals a strong, complicated, driven woman and talented actress who refused to conform to gender expectations or let others define her.

—From staff reports