Joan Crawford’s 75-year-old bedtime transformation into a shameless Oscars legend
It was an Oscar-caliber success.
Joan Crawford lay in bed — dressed to the nines — as she accepted her 1946 Best Actress Academy Award for “Mildred Pierce,” photographers popping bulbs to catch the charismatic film queen’s triumphant comeback moment.
“Whether the Academy electors decided to award me the Oscar sentimentally for ‘Mildred’ or for 200 years of effort, I deserved it,” she told reporters 75 years ago from the plush confines of her Brentwood boudoir.
The former flapper, believed to be 42 years old and already two decades into her career, huddled at home on the night of the 18th Academy Awards, refusing to join fellow finalists at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for the first postwar ceremony — a posh affair commemorating the end of World War II prohibitions. Despite her absence, Crawford, with flawless hair and makeup and tucked into a Helen Rose negligee, stole the stage with the ultimate diva moment that is often missed in Oscars retrospectives and “best of” lists.
Joan “pushed all the other winners off the front pages,” legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper raved about Crawford’s publicity stunt seven years before the first televised ceremony in 1953 — well before remote attendance via Zoom was even considered a term to prohibit.
“I’m sure she relished it,” Dave Karger, host of Turner Classic Movies, told The Post ahead of Sunday’s Oscars 2021 telecast. “Can you imagine how Twitter would respond today if that were attempted?”
Karger noted that despite the fact that “The Lost Weekend” won the most awards that year, “the rest of the discussion was about her Best Actress win.”
In an age when shameless social media fabrication was not even a twinkle in Hollywood’s eye, sleeping with Oscar paid off.
“I don’t believe anyone has the courage, or even the lack of self-awareness, to attempt any of the stunts Joan Crawford attempted over the years,” Karger told The Post. “She simply lacked any sense of shame — and had no qualms about demonstrating to the industry how much she desired attention.”
Crawford was sick on March 7, 1946, according to legend — or, as Shaun Considine of “Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud” put it, she had “the flu and a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey,” better known as “a psychosomatic disorder used by Crawford on her Oscar day.”
However, as she mentioned in her 1962 autobiography “A Portrait of Joan,” influenza kept her bedridden.
“I had a temperature of 104 on the night of the Awards. I’d been down with the flu for the last week while filming ‘Humoresque’… Flu, combined with the anxiety of being nominated for an Oscar, left me trembling with chills and fever.”
Crawford said she was “dressed and ready to go,” but her physician, Dr. Bill Branch, told her to remain in bed. Additionally, she remembered cameramen showing up at her door — “just in case I won” — as she listened to the ceremony on the radio. “Opening the envelope took an eternity. I was in tears.”
Crawford said her doctor “relented” after her Oscar win, but she was only allowed to “go downstairs, dressed in a flannel nightgown, a thick coat, and a scarf wrapped around my neck” — a far cry from her glamorous nightgown.
“That night, we feasted on effervescence,” she remembered, “and I became so hot that my fever broke.”
Crawford admitted the absolute truth several years later: she was also fearful that 30-year-old screen goddess Ingrid Bergman, who was nominated for “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” would steal her golden glory.
“I was afraid of losing,” Crawford admitted in candid conversations with Charlotte Chandler that were later published in the 2008 novel, “Not the Girl Next Door.” “The anticipation is unbearable when you’re waiting. Waiting for the best actress award needs nearly the entire evening. You must maintain a composed demeanor and applaud at all appropriate times… Then, if you lose, as I was confident I would, you’re forced to sit through the most recent awards wearing your best face… I would be at a loss about what role to play if I learned that someone else had won, most likely Ingrid.”
“I suppose we will never know for certain what happened to her that night,” Karger said. “It’s almost incomprehensible to me that she would pass up the chance to deliver her own Oscar acceptance speech. ”
If it’s paranoia or the flu, the TCM host claims “it’s ridiculous that Joan believed Ingrid Bergman would win Best Actress.”
“Given that [Bergman] had just received the same award the year before for ‘Gaslight,’ I’m guessing voters decided to spread the wealth and reward someone else,” he continued.
However, the strain was real for Crawford, as “Mildred” was her first A-list starring role for Warner Bros. following her dismissal from MGM, where she was nicknamed “box office poison” in 1938 alongside other Hollywood’s golden age starlets.
“I recall the night the Awards were presented,” she recounted in Roy Newquist’s 1980 novel, “Conversations with Joan Crawford,” released three years after her death. “Hopeful, fearful, apprehensive, terrified of forgetting what I wanted to say, terrified of looking at those people, almost hoping I wouldn’t get it, but desiring it so desperately — no wonder I didn’t go.”
Crawford even admitted to binge drinking at home.
“I stayed at home and fortified myself, perhaps a little too much, because when the announcement came, followed by the press and a sort of party, I made no sense whatsoever, despite my desire to spill over,” she explained to Newquist.
Even getting the role in the film noir was a significant challenge for Crawford, who was forced to take a screen test by director Michael Curtiz despite having begun her career in silent films as early as 1923. He was famously hesitant to cast her as Mildred, a hard-working single mother who makes significant sacrifices to create a restaurant empire to help her spoiled brat daughter.
Karger imagines it would have taken a “moment of modesty” to limit a fading celebrity to an audition.
“I believe she recognized that desperate times need desperate measures, and this film was her best shot at reclaiming her career and reviving her popularity. I’m glad she didn’t let ego get in the way, because otherwise, we would have missed out on a wonderful production,” he said, adding that Crawford’s “Mildred Pierce” is a “gorgeous, dynamic, human performance in the pinnacle of classic melodrama.”
“She most emphatically deserved it,” Karger continued.
Despite his initial reservations, Curtiz sat in bed smiling alongside his leading lady on Oscar night to present her with the statuette as members of the press filmed the spectacle — which allegedly started with a scream, according to “The Divine Feud.”
“Joan listened to the show on the radio and then took a deep breath as Charles Boyer announced the Best Actress nominees,” Considine said. “When he declared the winner… ‘Joan Crawford,’ she exhaled with a shout, alerting the newsmen on the lawn below her window to her victory. Jumping from her bed, the ailing star then summoned her hairdresser and makeup artist, who were on call in the adjacent room.”
Christina Crawford recounted the night in somewhat different detail in her 1978 memoir “Mommy Dearest,” which served as the basis for the Faye Dunaway-led 1981 film. (Asked what the camp classic “no more wire hangers!” got wrong, Christina Crawford told The Post, “Everything.”)
“She was at home, bedridden with pneumonia,” wrote the now-81-year-old. “Friends called regularly to check on her health to determine if she would be able to attend that night, but she told everyone that she was too sick. Late that night, she received the all-important call: she had won the Academy Award! Her wellbeing seemed to significantly improve.”
Years later, Crawford was nominated for both “Possessed” in 1948 — for which she appeared in person — and “Sudden Fear” in 1953, but fell short of winning the Academy Award for best picture. (As for Crawford’s Oscar, the gold statuette infamously sold for a record $426,732 at auction in 2012.)
However, ever the diva, she managed to reclaim the spotlight in 1963 when she accepted Anne Bancroft’s award for “The Miracle Worker,” posing for photographs alongside winners Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, and Maximilian Schell and delivering a speech on her behalf — a cringe-worthy moment captured in Ryan Murphy’s FX miniseries “Feud.”
“As Miss Bancroft requested, here is my brief speech, dear Joan,” Crawford said onstage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on April 8, 1963. “ ‘I merit this award for three reasons: Arthur Penn, Bill Gibson, and Fred Coe.’ Remove the quotation mark. Many thanks.”
However, Bette Davis, Crawford’s co-star on “Baby Jane,” said decades later that her rival — resentful Davis and Victor Buono were both nominated for the film, but she was not — was vigorously lobbying against her in a well-coordinated coup, turning the knife in their bitter feud.
“Joan was adamant that I not get that Oscar,” Davis explained to Walters. “She worked extremely hard and lobbied extremely hard, speaking to the entire New York community and saying, ‘If you win, I will support your Oscar.’ I believed I could have possessed it. The stupid thing was that an award would have added a million dollars to the film’s budget while we were both earning a share of the profits. She deliberately cut off her own nose in order to prevent me from winning.”
Karger said the “that fiasco tarnishes her name somewhat.”
“To me, the whole Anne Bancroft story is insane — all of the plotting and conniving she seems to have done in order to piggyback on someone else’s glory,” he said. “I really believe the feud between Joan and Bette existed and played a significant role in Joan’s quest to steal the Oscar spotlight that night.”
Crawford also personally handed the award to Bancroft during a May 1963 curtain call for the Broadway production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” — with 59-year-old Joan dressed to the nines and 31-year-old Bancroft dressed in rags and old lady makeup.
Crawford, who presented the 1962 Academy Awards, managed to snatch some thunder from Maximilian Schell the previous year when she read his name as the Best Actor winner for “Judgment at Nuremberg.”
She also kept Schell’s award for him, longingly admiring it as if it were her own, and posed in pictures with the winner during the evening.
Or, as Hedda Hopper put it in her post-Oscars column, “No one can beat Joan Crawford when it comes to giving or stealing a display.”
The 2021 Academy Awards will air on ABC on Sunday, April 25 at 8:00 p.m. EST. TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar programming continues through May, with “Mildred Pierce” premiering on Sunday, May 16, at 6 p.m.