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Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Queen Bee
on May 27, 2002
A dozen years after her M-G-M contemporaries had settled into their involuntary and disgruntled retirements, Joan Crawford was still in the game. Her "Queen Bee" is not the world's greatest movie, but it's not the worst either, not by a long shot.
Crawford plays Eva Phillips, doyenne of an Atlanta mansion and married to a facially scarred husband she's nicknamed Beauty, which gives a glimmer of how twisted Eva is. Eva gets her kicks out of manipulating hubby, her old lover, her old lover's fiancee (who is Beauty's sister- this is a very close family, if you know what I mean, and I'm sure you do), and dear cousin Jennifer. Crawford also has two pre-adolescent kids, a biological coup for a fiftyish woman in 1955, when this movie was made.
Much has been said and written about Crawford's scenery-chewing in this one, but it's interestingly done. La Suprema Joan uses the movie as a showcase for all the acting tricks she had so painfully acquired over thirty years in front of the camera. So polished had she become, she's able to convey menace simply by entering a room with a smile on her face. And when she gets mean, no one is meaner, as the rest of the cast finds out by slow degrees. Crawford causes one character to commit suicide, and she has a little tour-de-force moment when Eva learns what has happened. She's seated in front of her dressing table, creaming her face, and suddenly, chillingly, loses it when she hears the news. Both the script and the actress have the intelligence to refrain from explaining the reaction. Is she horrified by what she's done? Is she terrified that she has the capacity to do it? Is she just putting on an act expected of her? We don't know, and it's to Crawford's credit that she is able to communicate the ambiguity in the middle of a bit of Grand Guignol.
Most other actors in the cast take their cues from Crawford, acting more floridly than they ever had before or ever would again. Barry Sullivan and John Ireland do well by the husband and the lover, respectively. Betsy Palmer attempts to stand up to Crawford's acting and to assume a Southern accent: both efforts were doomed to failure. The great and underutilised Fay Wray plays a Southern belle whom Eva bested in the race to see who could get Beauty to the altar first; she's lost her mind over it, and Wray's portrayal is touching, if overdrawn. The one cast member who comes out smelling like a rose is Lucy Marlow, whose arrival as a guest sets the movie's plot spinning; Marlow is the one natural and unaffected thing in the cast, and in the movie.
The camp aspects of the film are many, not least of which is Crawford's appearance -- wigged, sporting Kabuki-like makeup, and corseted so sternly Playtex should have gotten screen credit. Her wardrobe's a delight, with one knockout Jean Louis strapless in black velvet with a white satin fishtail, and more jewellery than you could shake a stick at, much of it Crawford's own. The Southern mansion in which all the action takes place is more lavish than anything really found in 1955 Atlanta (I'm from there, and the Coca-Cola heirs don't live this well), but it's properly grand and creepy.
Watch this for what it is- a camp classic. Appreciate it for something else, as well. Crawford was the one star of her generation to have the studio system figured out so well, she was able to survive and prosper during its demise. "Queen Bee" may just look like fun to us today, but it's also a document of how hard one actress fought to keep working in the years when the lights were going out on soundstage after soundstage, all over Hollywood. Crawford may be the most villainous villainess ever on-camera, but her performance also reminds us of how ruthlessly she kicked aside the wreckage that was 1950's Tinseltown, and rose above it to get the one thing she wanted above all else: to stay a star.