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Just Joan: A Joan Crawford Appreciation
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Donna Marie Nowak's "Just Joan" is a thick paperback with a beautiful cover and lots of lavish B&W illustrations, the quality of which--although there are no color or glossy sections--are much higher than I have seen in recent bios, whose pixeled picture sections are obviously lifted from the internet. Aside from being well-illustrated (with many photos I had not seen before), the author displays in the synopsis section, a sense of humor about the sometimes head-scratching logic of "Golden Age" screenplay writing that typically had me laughing out loud. But never is she disrespectful of Joan.
The book starts with a series of essays by the author that examine her subject from a number of sometimes arbitrary--but compelling-- angles (Gay icon, fashion trendsetter, etc), followed by a fascinating description of some Joan Crawford color home movies that I can only hope--from Nowak's description of them--are made available one day (perhaps, as Nowak suggests, as a DVD extra for "Letty Lynton" one hopes!).
The first half of the book consists of synopses of Joan's film catalog. Normally, a synopsis section is the "filler" that one skims through, but in this case, the author's descriptions, insights and observations of Crawfords canon of characters and plotlines are so refreshingly fun and funny, that as I said, I was laughing along and agreeing with almost every point, all without ever reducing to kitsch, Our Lady of the Big Eyes.
The narrative voice at times lapses into an intimacy with the reader so that one gets the sensation of sitting in the back row of the theater with the author and watching each movie together, giggling and critiquing away with popcorn and soda in hand. And I have to say, her enjoyment of her subject is refreshing after the recent bevy of "textbook" style treatments of the star's career, or worse, moral examinations of Crawford as a mother and human being. It's nice to get a sense of just enjoying her for a change, with someone who really "gets" the fun of watching Joan.
The second half of the book breaks down Joan's many TV appearances, followed by a section on the fiction and plays from which Crawford's screenplays were derived, and ends by reviewing the other biographies written on Joan over the years. The research on this section alone must have been exhaustive (and exhausting). There is virtually no media (except her radio appearances) pertaining to Joan that is not documented, described and examined somewhere in this book, which in and of itself will make it indispensable as a reference tool. At the same time, it's way more fun than academia ever had a right to be! To the point where one can overlook the occasional boo-boo (Joan does not pose as Mrs. Mallard, of all names, in 1931's Possessed, but Mrs. Moreland!)
There's a Crawford Game/Puzzle section in the back of the book which is decidedly not very high-brow, but then by this point, the sometimes-giddy eccentricity of the author's enthusiasm for her subject has become rather appealing.
I would highly recommend this to any Crawford fan who would like a complete reference on "All Things Joan" as well as for the opportunity to compare personal notes with a fellow fan, who just happens to be damn literary, laugh-out-loud funny, and often extremely insightful.
For many years, the author, Donna Marie Nowak has run a tribute website to Joan Crawford. This book is the result, the ultimate compendium of the life and work of Joan, & the culmination of the years of in-depth research that has gone into Ms. Nowak's website. Much like the website, the first impression is of the wealth of rare, unusual and beautiful photographs of Joan's large camera-ready face (she was one of the first "lollipop" shaped stars, teeny-tiny body, out-sized head & features). Ms. Nowak's writing style is engaging and entertaining - like a conversation with an artistic, literate, chatty, informed, opinionated friend.
The life of Lucille/Billie/Joan gives anyone plenty to think about. Knowing that Joan had a well known habit of sex-first-talk-later, I had suspected she had been sexually abused as a child (this being one typical "coping" behavior of previously abused), and Ms. Nowak throws light on this element without exploiting it. Joan's own rags to riches story was often echoed in the scripts tailored for her. Ms. Nowak's observation is spot-on: that Joan's career was a precursor to modern-day singer Madonna, shape-shifting from hoofer to party girl to climbing ingénue to clothes-horse beauty to fine serious actress to character diva to horror queen. (Unlike Madonna, Joan was a triple threat; acting talent has become largely irrelevant in today's film - even actor's agents admit it is the last (& least) element they look for in a client - it is why "under-acting" is the rule today, impassivity passes for naturalness, even though it is the antithesis of reality. Joan never under-acted, she invested fully.)
Do not expect this to be a biography. This tribute (admittedly not impartial, sometimes-fawning) begins with a grouping of thoughtful essays (on Joan's life, work, and influence), and is largely comprised of a clear, organized, grouping of reviews of Joan's extensive filmography, AND - a historian's delight - reviews of the source materials that these films were based on! Then there are the risky, controversial reviews of other author's works based on the life of Joan. Nowak is a reviewer's reviewer. She doesn't pull any punches, but lays it all out on the mat in a very personal, invested manner. While Ms. Nowak is clearly an unabashed fan of the work and the woman, I laud her ability to present the full spectrum of Joan's humanity within the framework of Joan's work and interviews. Ultimately this allows the reader to make his/her own decisions.
Exacting, thought provoking, informed and fun, the essential nature of this book - as a book of reviews - makes it a great vacation book (or bed-time reading), easy to read in segments, easy to put down, and engaging enough to keep picking up. It should come with a warning: this will make you want to see all the films! This is a truly unique book, a labor of love, and a loving tribute. (As the used book is selling for more than new, it is all ready destined to be a collectable.) JUST JOAN is an essential addition to the library of any serious film fan.
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