More Wire Hangers :: Re-visiting the Joan Crawford mystique

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday April 15, 2010

For many mention Joan Crawford and an image of a frightening, white-faced harridan brandishing a wire hanger comes immediately to mind. That image - and the classic line "No wire hangers" - comes courtesy of Mommie Dearest, the 1981 film biography of the great Hollywood star that featured Faye Dunaway in an impeccable, but near career-ending impersonation.

The source of the famous scene was taken from the tell-all biography of the same title written by Crawford's adapted daughter Christina in 1978. It was the first and most famous of a series of biographies written by embittered progeny of famous stars who exposed their parents' darker sides. But the question raised by both film and book is just how true was it? Was Crawford the monster her adopted daughter claimed she was or did Christina exaggerate things? At the time of the book's publication some of Crawford's friends came to her defense, while others acknowledged there was likely truth to Christina's accusations.

Now Christina Darling, a new play having its premiere in Atlanta this week at the award-winning Process Theatre Company, explores the Crawford myth: what made Crawford the complicated individual she was and what led her to a disastrous attempt at motherhood? It is the brainchild of Atlanta-based actor/playwright Topher Payne, whose previous work includes Entertaining Lesbians and Beached Walls (2002), Relations Unknown (2003); Bad Mama (2005); and Above the Fold (2006), which won Payne a Metropolitan Atlanta Theatre Award for Best Play. This pay marks his tenth play to premiere in Atlanta. He also writes a column, Necessary Luxuries, that appears weekly in David Magazine. A compilation was released in 2008 and is available in hardcover and paperback.

With the production, which continues through May 8, 2010, Payne is reunited with director DeWayne Morgan, with whom he most recently worked on Above the Fold. Morgan took over as Artistic Director of the Process Theatre Company in 2001.

EDGE recently spoke with both Morgan and Payne about how the play came about, whether Joan got a bad rap from Christina, the nature of camp and their favorite Joan Crawford movies.

De Wayne Morgan :: Is it high camp?

EDGE: How did the play come your way?

DeWayne Morgan: Actually Topher and I discussed the concept back in 2003/2004. At first I wanted him to write a parody of the movie, which is actually what the first draft was more like We workshopped it in 2004/2005, then never produced it. Then last year I approached Topher about bringing it back out of the closest, so to speak, and we ended up with the draft we have now.

EDGE: What did you like about it that made you want to produce it?

DeWayne Morgan: I always loved Mommie Dearest, I am gay what can I say! However the movie is so one-sided and makes Joan the villain. It only gives one side of the story. Christina Darling of course if fictionalized version of what might have happened; but it explores Joan and where she came from, her as Lucille Fay LeSueur, which was her named before it was changed to Joan. Here Joan's mother is introduced. So, we get to the history of what helped shaped Joan and, eventually, Christina.

EDGE: How would you describe it? Considering it has both Christina and Joan Crawford in it, is it high camp?

DeWayne Morgan: Not at all. It has its moments of camp, but the play tries to show who these women really are and tries to help you understand what created them.

EDGE: What is the key to directing parodies, such as the ones by Charles Busch that this show appears to be in the style of?

DeWayne Morgan: I think finding the blend of when to have those real true moments and when to give the audience what they want. For example Topher and I struggled the 'No wire hangers' scene. At first it was just going to be Christina telling the story to her headmistress Ms. Chadwick when she woke up from a nightmare. But in the end we decided to go with Joan recreating the movie version as Christina tells the story.

EDGE: Why is there still such a fascination with Joan Crawford?

DeWayne Morgan: She is everything all of us secretly want to be, strong, beautiful and she didn't take crap from anyone! ("Don't fuck with me, fellas!") She was fabulous. She had a drink in one hand and cigarette in the other and she always looked flawless.

EDGE: Do you have a favorite Crawford film?

DeWayne Morgan: Mildred Pierce

EDGE: Did Joan Crawford get a bad rap from Christina?

DeWayne Morgan: I really don't know. I think some of what she said was true. Then I think maybe she embellished some things. I know for a fact that the movie did. Christina Crawford hated the movie because it was over the top and took a lot of things to extreme.

EDGE: You've worked with Topher Payne before - how would you describe your working relationship?

DeWayne Morgan: I would say "It's one hell of a match," to quote Joan herself. We work very well together and have learned to trust each other over the years. I think this is our fifth play together and they only keep getting better and better. Last year Above the Fold that Topher wrote and I directed for The Process Theatre won best all around show for 2009 at the Metropolitan Atlanta Theatre Award. So, we have a lot to live up too.

Topher Payne :: High camp? Nobody told me

EDGE: How did you come up with the idea of the play?

Topher Payne: I have a little recipe box I keep on my desk, and any time I have an idea I don't quite know what to do with, I just jot it down and toss it in there. At some point after seeing Mommie Dearest for the umpteenth time, I wrote down a line for Joan Crawford: "Hello, Christina Darling. I read your book." I became enamored with the idea of Joan having a chance to give her perspective on things. The resulting research introduced me to Joan's relationship with her mother, Anna, and I realized this is truly the whole family's story.

EDGE: Is the play high camp? If so, how do you keep it real?

Topher Payne: If it is high camp, nobody's told me, which is probably best. It's definitely larger than life, by nature of the lives we're experiencing. Nobody in this story feels anything small - everything is enormous to them. But the art of camp, I'm thinking Joan's films from the 60s, or the works of Charles Busch, lies in its sincerity. If you play it broad, it rings false. You have to accept entirely that this is the world they inhabit. I guess camp is in the eye of the beholder.

EDGE: Who have been your influences as a playwright?

Topher Payne: Beth Henley, for sure. Paul Rudnick can write a one-liner better than anyone. I love Charles Busch's range as an artist. Steve Yockey makes me want to take more risks. And Tyler Perry reminds me that the measure of success lies in the audiences you do manage to reach, not the ones you don't.

EDGE: What do you like about Joan Crawford?

Topher Payne: I like her focus. I like her willingness and ability to adapt. I think she was a damn fine actress. And she looked great in hats. But she shouldn't have raised children. Just dogs. Dogs were better suited to her expectations.

EDGE: Did she get a bad rap from Christina?

Topher Payne: I wish Christina had waited a few more years to write the book. She was still so close to the event of her relationship with her mother that I don't think she was capable of approaching it with any degree of perspective. I don't think Christina's a bad person- I think she sought validation from the public because that's what she was taught matters.

EDGE: What do you think of 'Mommie Dearest?'

Topher Payne: The book? It has its moments. Her follow-up, "Survivor," is significantly better. The film? Jesus, that script is a piece of shit. It's a random series of events without cause or motive. The filmmakers never once question why anything happens, it's just a horrible fact, like a tsunami. Which is a real shame, because Dunaway and Scarwid were capable of infinitely more, given half the chance.

EDGE: You play Joan in your play. How did you arrive at your characterization? Did you watch a lot of her movies?

Topher Payne: Oh, you're asking me that on a bad day. I've been knitting and dancing all afternoon, trying to master both. It's absolutely the hardest work I've ever done, finding her poise, her stillness, because I'm a big loud goofball in daily life. I look, sound, and move nothing like Joan. But I studied her, both in interviews and in films, to find the difference between the woman and the performer. Then I worked with Kristin Kalbli, who plays young Joan, to find our common body language. She's so graceful and lovely, I stole a bunch of good stuff from her.

EDGE: Do you have a favorite Crawford film?

Topher Payne: Sudden Fear. Great flick, and quintessential Crawford. On the other hand, Strange Cargo, with Gable, is the least affected performance she gave in a talkie. It holds up with the best contemporary performances.

EDGE: Christina Crawford did have a stroke, but it was sometime after her book was published. Why did you incorporate it in your play?

Topher Payne: The stroke happens in the play as it did in life, in the summer of 1981. Those synapses start firing off in unexpected ways, and Christina's life flashes before her eyes, but it's all a little... off. Between the MGM press releases, the book, the movie, the magazine stories, she realizes she can't trust her own memory. So her late grandmother comes in as a tour guide to help her clear things up a bit.

EDGE: Have you been in touch with Christina Crawford?

Topher Payne: I didn't feel the need - I'm not presenting any of this as fact, just a fascinating "What if?" scenario. Christina's told her version of events plenty of times over the years. But she's doing very well these days. She's a county commissioner in Idaho, and she hosts a public access show that's, well... how to put this? Remember what I said about what makes good camp?

EDGE: This is the first time you are acting in a play you have written - what has that been like?

Topher Payne: Stupid hard. When I wrote it, I wasn't picturing me, I was picturing Joan. As an actor, I want to honor that as much as I possibly can. I can't say unequivocally I was the absolute perfect person for the role- that would be Charles Busch, I suppose - but I know no one would ever work harder than me to get it right. Whether I succeed, we'll find out soon enough.

EDGE: How would you describe your relationship with DeWayne?

Topher Payne: You know how you work with someone for so long, you start thinking alike? Yeah, we don't do that at all. Instead, we are able to anticipate what the other is going to think, and why we vehemently disagree with it. I argue with that man better than anyone I know, and it's that level of commitment we both bring to the table, finding a way to reconcile our individual perspectives, which results in a beautiful collaboration. We respect each other a whole heck of a lot, and he loves new plays.

EDGE: If you could meet Joan Crawford, what would you ask her?

Topher Payne: I would ask her nothing. I'd just pour her a vodka and Pepsi, hand her the script, and wait for her notes.

Christina Darling runs April 16 to May 8, 2010 at OnStage Atlanta
2597 North Decatur Road, Decatur, GA. For tickets and more information visit the Process Theatre website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].