A Look at Joan Crawford and the Gay Icon Phenomenon

The adoption of female stars as icons by gay men isn’t a new phenomenon. Many examples spring to mind, such as Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. But what’s the reason for their gay icon status? And why is this only bestowed on a select few? Why is Joan Crawford, like so many others, deemed a gay icon and why, in the AlterHéros “100 Best Things about Being Gay?” list, does she sit at No. 46 because gay men “viscerally understand” her?

In The Death of Camp: Gay Men and Hollywood Diva Worship, from Reverence to Ridicule author Daniel Harris writes that “film provided a vehicle for expressing alienation from our surroundings and linking up with the utopic homosexual community of our dreams, a sophisticated ‘artistic’ society inhabited by Norma Desmonds and Holly Golightlies who, while breakfasting at Tiffany’s, spoke a type of English heard only in the back lots of MGM and Twentieth-Century Fox.”

And it was film that solidified Crawford’s gay icon status; nothing more so than the cult classic Mommie Dearest (in which she was portrayed by Faye Dunaway). Released in 1981, four years after Crawford’s death, and based on the book by her adoptive daughter Christina, it details the alleged abuse two of her four adopted children suffered at her hand. What stuck in gay men’s minds wasn’t the abuse, it was the image of Dunaway, dressed in black, cold cream on her face, with a slash of red lipstick as she held a wire coat hanger in the air. This imagery solidified the film’s status as one of the campiest movies of all time and a pinnacle of drag-queen imagery.

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Faye Dunaway in ‘Mommie Dearest’, Paramount Pictures.

Camp is a popular term in gay male culture, and synonymous with flamboyant exaggeration. One reason that it’s a beloved style of characterization is that it allows audiences to laugh at others’ suffering. This might be projected in the characters these icons play on the stage or screen, or the personas they choose to project. Many Hollywood stars fell into camp because, long after their careers had begun to decline, the cameras kept rolling. They were stuck in 1960s B-grade hagsploitation horror, playing axe-murderesses (Crawford in Strait-Jacket), psychotic forgotten stars (Crawford and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), or placed in roles fit for someone younger than themselves, like 60-year-old Crawford wearing fishnet tights, fishing for a younger man in Berserk.

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’, Warner Bros. Pictures.

More than half the gay men in Crawford’s fan club will tell you that the aforementioned films were their introduction to the star, with Mommie Dearest being mentioned most frequently. But despite her horrific depiction, she fascinated them. And it’s no surprise that because of the film her popularity began to rise once more, as she began to be referenced in gay pop culture; in television shows like Will & Grace and Feud: Bette and Joan (about the actors’ hostile relationship), and in films like Heathers (where the murder of two football jocks is disguised as a gay double homicide with the use of such “homosexual artifacts” as a Joan Crawford postcard). However, as you explore Crawford’s filmography, it becomes clear that her image as a gay icon was in development long before Faye Dunaway’s Crawford forbade the use of wire coat hangers.

In 1945, Crawford won an Oscar for her role as the determined, resourceful title character in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce. With it, she proved she could take on roles with a degree of strength rarely seen in Hollywood. Mildred Pierce changed the public’s perception of her, and her transition from flapper to shop girl to this more complex and flawed character gave gay fans someone to root for who paralleled their own lives and appealed to them. After leaving MGM, Crawford was determined for her career to rise as she transitioned to Warner Bros., reflective of Mildred’s rise to become a successful businesswoman. What gay audiences loved about Crawford was her determination; an underdog who overcame the odds. They saw this in Mildred Pierce. Mildred’s struggles, not just as a woman, but also as a parent is a reflection of the gay male experience. The mother-daughter conflict between Mildred and her daughter Veda (as well as Crawford’s real life struggles with her daughter Christina), and eventual rejection by her daughter, reflects the rejection and disempowerment of coming out. Emotions all too familiar to their own lives.

Joan Crawford in ‘Mildred Pierce’, Warner Bros. Pictures.

But there is nothing gay men love more than their icons’ figurality. This is one of Crawford’s first roles where she exudes feminine masculinity as she usurps masculine power and achieves her own independent success in the world. With her over-accentuating shoulder pads and masculine-looking suits, this suggests Mildred’s sexual fluidity and Crawford having what one fan called a “masculine anima projection, where other female stars of her day held the typical feminine anima projection.”

Her blending of the feminine and masculine and growing camp persona continued as her career reached the 1950s, with such films as Nicholas Ray’s 1954 western Johnny Guitar. The film’s camp effect is emphasized not only by Crawford’s padded shoulders, dark eyebrows and red lipstick, but also on its crossing of a female star vehicle with the stereotypically male western. As Robert Osterloh’s character, Sam, says: “Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.”

The first time we see Crawford as Vienna, she’s being shot from below, the framing emphasizing her power and feminine masculinity as she comes down the stairs of her saloon wearing black jeans, a black buttoned-up shirt and string tie – again, making the audience question her sexuality. The film tips the scales of gender-bending as Crawford alternates between masculine and feminine costume throughout the film, which can be a butch and femme reflection to gay audiences. The gay subtext doesn’t end there, as the relationship between Crawford’s Vienna and Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma emanates nothing but sexual tension throughout the film, but because this is the 1950s, it’s downplayed by the relationship between Crawford and Sterling Hayden’s Johnny.

Joan Crawford in ‘Johnny Guitar’, Republic Pictures.

Crawford’s screen persona, biography, and many of her roles all tapped into the rags-to-riches Cinderella narrative. And why gay men have an affinity to certain female celebrities is because, like them, they have faced adversity, but these women remain equally vulnerable and strong in the face of it. Like many gay icons, Crawford was an outcast who overcame odds, something her fans who spent time in the closet can relate to. She overcame poverty and physical abuse. As a child, she was looked down upon by her mother and peers, yet overcame a crippling accident to become a dancer, and then an actor, and then a star. Her zest for life and gaiety resulted in F. Scott Fitzgerald naming her “the best example of a flapper.” Flappers were a symbol of the 1920s; a young woman who did what society did not expect. They danced to jazz, smoked, wore makeup. They were liberated. Crawford’s flapper image faded quickly, but her evolving style, constant reinvention, and obsession with glamour have mesmerized her gay fans for decades, as they live by her motto: “I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”

The possibility that she was a member of the LGBT community herself has been a topic of speculation over the years. Many sources have claimed that Crawford had intimate relationships with such other female stars as Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo. However, if there’s one thing that her gay fans will tell you they admire most about Crawford, it was her love and support of gay men in Hollywood.

She was friends with many gay men, such as actor Cesar Romero, director George Cukor, and costume designer Adrian. But it’s her special bond with silent film star William Haines that her fans admire most. Haines appeared with Crawford in many films of the 1920s. He was open about his sexuality, and this eventually led to him having to choose between being himself or pursuing his career.

Joan Crawford and William Haines for ‘Spring Fever’ (1927), MGM.

When he quit acting, Crawford stood by him, saying: “He had never kept it a secret that he was homosexual. It was never anything that mattered to me, but most people in Hollywood didn’t like it. I can’t imagine why they thought it was any of their business. What mattered to me was that for a long time, he was my best friend.”

Lucille LeSueur became “Joan Crawford” after the name was chosen by a film fan in a 1925 competition in Movie Weekly. She frequently stated that it was her fans that made her what she was. And it’s her gay male fans that made her into an icon. The women given the title of “gay icon” are chosen because they are relatable; they are survivors. They are seen at their best, and at their worst. According to author Daniel Harris, worshipping these women helps members of the gay male community get in touch with their masculinity the way sports does for straight men. Gay men saw these women participate in a sport where their feminine qualities triumphed over the masculine, and as Harris wrote, “beneath all those layers of cosmetic beauty lies the kind of true grit John Wayne never knew.”

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