The Lure of Failure
If there is a place well known for its elegant execution of life-as-performance, that is Classical Hollywood cinema: men existed only in shades of detectives and cowboys, while women were contained in mother or vixen stereotypes. Femininity was associated with glamour, overly styled costume design, color, sequins, shine, and glitz. And masculine performers within this gleeful world were represented as tuxedo-sporting, tap dancing, Fred Astaires. Here lies the reference and guide for carefully fabricated and heavily gender-coded personas; the construction of character archetypes in studio productions polarized the way in which gender was represented.
The exacerbated overcompensation of gender defining codes eventually opened a space for interpretation that resonated with homosexuals whose lives were essentially hidden or invisible on and off the silver screen. The constant failure to perform gender of Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, or Bette Davis, to name a few, transformed them into non-normative characters who could only exist within the confinement of their own theatricality. They all have personalities that are much stronger than any character they could ever play, and their real life stories surpassed the drama they lived on-screen. These actresses tried so hard to conform to the role that was expected of them as women, but their personas went beyond gender, thus the contrast between the apparently normative settings they inhabited in the filmic world and their excessive personalities made it impossible for them to deliver an acceptable 1950s feminine role model. Therefore, many queers would see in them a manifestation of their own dilemma: failing (without the glamor).
Let us look to Torch Song, a 1953 film that starred Joan Crawford as the actress Jenny Stewart. The rehearsal of the musical’s finale begins with a backstage filled with dancers running to the stage. They are all in their positions before the music starts, as the camera dollies into the center of the stage. The doors at the top of the staircase open, and a sensual Joan Crawford appears, albeit in the macabre and white supremacist appropriation of the black face. In this sequence blackface embodies the dysfunctionality which Crawford’s own character avoids. She has to be physically “othered” in order to make her real persona unstable and her artifice/mask obvious. As if it was not traumatic enough to see her in blackface, the mask is used to point toward her dysfunctional sexuality. As Miss Crawford’s lyrics elaborate: “No man can ever hold me / And yet I never meant to be untrue / Someday I will wake up/ Find out what is wrong / With my dual make-up / I don’t belong. / I can’t help being a two-faced woman.” When the musical number ends, she realizes the man of her dreams will not attend the play’s premiere. She looks for him from the stage and sees him leaving. Ignored and humiliated, she tears off her wig, flinging it at the theater seats. The moment she removes her wig is decisive, for she does so the moment when her performance as an object of desire is not enough for getting the approval of the man she wants. As she removes her wig, she realizes it is only the character that matters, not the woman beneath the makeup.
Act I: The Star
In the 1920s, Joan Crawford danced her way into Hollywood, starting her career off as a stage showgirl. By her own self-promotion, she became the flapper girl par excellence, attending parties and Charleston dance competitions until she made it big, signing a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1925. She later married into Hollywood royalty to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., ensuring her place in the film industry. In the thirties, she moved from flapper girl to femme fatale, gaining popularity by starring in widely well-received Hollywood films alongside Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, and Greta Garbo.
In 1938, her popularity fluctuated, and by the early fifties, she could no longer convincingly play the femme fatale, too old to be sexy, too masculine to be maternal. The fifties were domestic and she couldn’t play the motherly role.
Act II: The Divorcee
Despite having been labeled Box Office Poison, she made a comeback in 1945 in the noir adaptation of Mildred Pierce, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress. The success revived her career as a melodrama queen, always playing along the typecasting as a dissatisfied and dominating woman. The only way her ambition and resilience could be understood at the time.
Crawford’s personal life became more prevalently figured than any role she could possibly perform. The audience of the time was very aware of the dissatisfied divorcee’s problems thanks to extensive press coverage: her inability to have children or keep a husband, and to fulfill the maternal role that was expected of her.
Returning to the film Torch Song (1953), Crawford performs the role of a lonely Broadway actress who is at once neurotic and commanding: the mature actress yearning to be loved and the controlling and alienating diva. There is a constant focus on the character’s femininity. This is demonstrated in the display of her perfect legs as she dances, the dresses she wears in her bedroom, the need for approval of the man she loves. While her assertiveness and bad temperament are presented as a façade for a truly loving and desirable woman. Her character goes through the ordeal of a woman who is ridiculed on and off stage. In short, her character could not possibly be closer to a representation to Crawford herself.
For queers (and especially those in the 1950s), the failure to perform is the relatable experience of role playing versus being. If role is defined as appropriate behavior, then queers have rarely conformed to the social expectations around gender. Just as Crawford fails to perform femininity, her excessive and inappropriate persona loosens the strictly defined role of women, opening a small gap for queers to project our own experiences. Joan Crawford’s failure, as a fictional woman, is linked to a devotion to this failure in spaces of queer sociality.
Act III: The Martyr
Outliers, especially gay men, identified with the unfulfilling, failing, and melodramatic martyrs, non-normative characters played by Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, who could only exist within the confinement of their own theatricality. The martyrdom of the incomplete or broken woman star is overrepresented through the application of layers and layers of make-up and extravagant, designer costumes.
These women could not function in society - unable to fulfill the strict roles of femininity in the United States during the 1950s, only able to exist within theatrical confinement of the silver screen. Their failure - on screen and in their personal lives - is our failure. A failure to fulfill certain gender roles, and a celebration of this through extravagance and canonization.
In addition to racial and sexual aspects of identity for any queer person in postwar America, the act of passing within gender roles was an important part of everyday life; necessary in order to receive the benefits of belonging to normative society and critical to safety from harassment or imprisonment. Queer life was an act based on pretending to conform to strict heterosexual ideas of masculinity and femininity to avoid facing the “failure” or “rejection” of falling outside the social norm. In this way, the history of queerness is bound up with that of failure, and the uncovering of stigma happens the moment that passing within heterosexual gender roles fails to seem plausible to a loosely defined “audience.”
Crawford shines in elegance in her every move, as if all dialogue and mise-en-scène was meticulously choreographed – we can only see the embodiment of theatrical intensity failing to convince us of her true emotions. The fictional tragedy of her inability to be loved or fulfill the female role exists concurrently to the non fictional tragedy of her failure in delivering a convincing performance of gender.
This performance of the “unconvincing female” opens a space for the queer imagery to project its own performance of gender and to overturn the importance of upholding both feminine and masculine roles as established by the normative codes of the 1950s, many of which still shape our contemporary understanding of gender roles. Herein lies the failure to perform and the birth of another kind of performance, one that happens everyday on the stage of ordinary life.
Act IV: The Icon
For society’s outliers, the subversive act of camp humor is to laugh at one’s inappropriate position. By reclaiming these exaggerated women as patron saints, one’s invisibility is simultaneously denied and reaffirmed on the larger-than-life characters of the big screen. Hungry for traces and evidence of queerness, those outside of established gender roles may uphold these non-normative women as role models: tragic, funny, intense, and over-the-top. The queer community has reclaimed these stars for itself with such religious fervor that their cultural meaning in the collective imaginary is coded in camp.
The process of interpretation and appropriation of normative cultural imagery changes constantly: the normative develops into more complex (but still strict) models of gender and sexuality. Whether or not Joan Crawford reassures you that there is a space to perform a non-normative gender role, her cultural, personal, and professional failures open up a space for a reimagination of these roles, one in which artificiality and theatricality serve as tactics in providing alternatives to the power of oppressive normative regimes. And even though the movie ends, these icons of our queer past live forever.
The Motion Picture Production Code of censorship guidelines (aka Hayes Code) of 1934, McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities informed strict rules in the representation of any sort of deviant behavior on screen and the personal lives of actors and other Hollywood professionals for decades. ↩
In the context of the 1950s, blackface and minstrel performance were common in Hollywood movies, with the movies screened in segregated cinemas. Through white characterizations of plantation slaves and free blacks during the era of minstrel shows (1830–1890), we understand that blackface characters took a firm hold on the American imagination and that audiences expected any person with dark skin, no matter what their background, to conform to extremely denigrating archetypes and representations. In this context, Crawford’s participation in this disturbing portrayal of race is a reminder of the long history of racialized personas, both on and off the stage. This mass cultural denigration is in the service of, and for, the film industry’s propagators and audience. This is not intended to ignore or dismiss this racially-fraught representation. The premise of this piece seeks to take on the issue of gender failure. ↩
She married four times and adopted five children, one of whom was reclaimed by the biological mother. Before her death, she disinherited her daughter Christina, who would later write the memoir and exposé Mommie Dearest, detailing her ordeal growing up as Crawford’s adopted daughter. ↩
Following the archetype of fiction within fiction typical of the musical genre, in Torch Song Crawford is an actress playing an actress playing a role. ↩
In a similar manner, lesbians revered the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando. The reason for this admiration from the queer audience’s perspective is their gender bending features. Male actors who played vulnerable, emotionally troubled characters could be perceived to be coded as gay, and for women playing strong, defiant and independent characters who did not comply to domesticity, lesbianism was hinted. ↩
These actresses and the characters they played were presented as inappropriate, either in behavior or appearance. Vulnerable but still resilient, undesirable to the normative audience, they involuntarily become allies of society’s outliers. ↩
The importance of theatricality for the gay community is not solely based on the figurative idea of passing for straight or performing gender, but in the very literal sense: theatricality proved to be the best strategy to create a safe space for non-normative identities. Until the 1960s, when LGBTQ movements became more visible, queers could only present themselves publicly outside of normative roles when their appearance or mannerisms were displayed in the context of theater and show business. There was no way of determining if a person dressed in an odd fashion was an actor or an actual outsider. In urban centers like San Francisco, the presence of actors and female impersonators in the theater district allowed to expand queer public space, and homosexuality took a theatrical quality. Being a performer on the stage at that time, permitted public display of a less normative sexual and gender identity behavior. Any sort of dresses, make up, accents and mannerisms known to be characteristic of queerness was fine, as long as it remained on stage. Queers from different backgrounds, all identified in acting a privileged position from which one was permitted more room to explore their gender and sexuality, at least in the confinement of the theatricality, for in reality, all normative codes would always remain the same. ↩