Entertainment

How Joan Crawford became a shameless Oscars legend in bed 75 years ago

It was a performance worthy of an Academy Award.

Smiling and radiant despite fighting the “flu,” Joan Crawford laid in bed — in full glam — as she accepted her 1946 Best Actress Oscar for “Mildred Pierce,” photographers popping bulbs to capture the charismatic screen queen’s triumphant comeback moment.

“Whether the Academy voters were giving the Oscar to me, sentimentally, for ‘Mildred’ or for 200 years of effort, the hell with it — I deserved it,” she told reporters 75 years ago from the plush confines of her Brentwood boudoir.

The former flapper, thought to be 42 and already two decades deep into her career, huddled at home on the night of the 18th annual Academy Awards rather than join fellow nominees at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for the first post-war ceremony — a posh affair marking the lifting of wartime restrictions. Despite not being there in the flesh, Crawford, hair and makeup on point and tucked in a Helen Rose negligee, managed to steal the show with the ultimate diva moment oft-overlooked in Oscars retrospective and “best of” lists.

‘She just seemed to have no shame — and no problem showing the industry how badly she wanted the attention.’

Dave Karger, host of Turner Classic Movies

Joan “pushed all the other winners off the front pages,” raved legendary gossip monger Hedda Hopper of Crawford’s publicity stunt seven years prior to the first televised ceremony in 1953 — long before remote attendance on Zoom was even a concept to ban.

“I’m sure she relished it,” Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger told The Post ahead of Sunday’s Oscars 2021 telecast. “Can you imagine how Twitter would react if someone attempted that today?”

Karger noted that “the majority of the talk was about her Best Actress win” despite “The Lost Weekend” winning the most awards that year.

Hopping in bed with Oscar paid off in an era when shameless social media manufacturing wasn’t even a twinkle in tinsel town’s eye.

Joan Crawford famously accepted her award for "Mildred Pierce" in bed rather than in person at the 1946 Oscars 75 years ago.
Joan Crawford famously accepted her award for “Mildred Pierce” in bed rather than in person at the 1946 Oscars 75 years ago. The 2021 Oscars ceremony airs Sunday, April 25 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC. TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar” lineup runs through May — with “Mildred Pierce” screening at 6 p.m. Sunday, May 16.
Everett Collection; Getty Images

“I don’t think there’s anyone who would have the guts, or maybe the lack of self-awareness, to try any of the stunts that Joan Crawford attempted over the years,” Karger told The Post. “She just seemed to have no shame — and no problem showing the industry how badly she wanted the attention.”

As legend goes, Crawford was ill March 7, 1946 — or as “Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud” writer Shaun Considine put it, she had “the flu and a bottle of Jack Daniels bourbon,” otherwise known as “a psychosomatic condition used by Crawford on her Oscar day.”

But in her own words, influenza kept her bed-ridden — or so she said in her 1962 autobiography “A Portrait of Joan.”

Director Michael Curtiz (right) presented Joan Crawford her Oscar right in her bed.
“Mildred Pierce” director Michael Curtiz, once a doubter, presented Joan Crawford’s Oscar right in her bed.
Courtesy Everett Collection

“On the night of the Awards, I was running a temperature of 104. I’d been suffering with flu for the past week, filming ‘Humoresque‘ … Flu coupled with the nervous tension of being eligible for an Oscar had me shaking with chills and fever.”

Crawford claimed she was all “dressed to go,” but her physician, Dr. Bill Branch, ordered bed rest. She also recalled cameramen arriving at her home — “just in case I won” — as she listened to the ceremony on the radio. “It took so long to open that envelope. I was crying.”

Crawford claimed her doctor finally “relented” after her Oscar win, but she was only permitted to “go downstairs, in a flannel nightgown, heavy robe and with a scarf wrapped around my neck” — a far cry from her glamorous nightgown.

Joan Crawford makes a telephone call from her bed while holding her Oscar statue.
Joan Crawford makes a telephone call — to her doctor perhaps? — from her bed while holding her Oscar.
Getty Images

“We feasted on effervescence that night,” she recalled, “and I was so overheated, the fever broke.”

Only many years later did Crawford cop to the full truth: She also was nervous 30-year-old screen goddess Ingrid Bergman, nominated for “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” would snatch her golden glory.

“I was afraid of losing,” Crawford told Charlotte Chandler in candid chats that would later be published in the 2008 book, “Not the Girl Next Door.” “The tension is so terrible when you’re sitting there waiting. Waiting for best actress means sitting there almost the entire evening. You have to look composed and applaud at all the right moments … Then, when you lose, and I was certain I would, you have to sit there through the last awards wearing your best face … I wouldn’t know what part to play after I heard the words that someone else had won, probably Ingrid.”

Joan Crawford played the titular role in "Mildred Pierce," a film noir about a mother who would do anything for her demanding daughter.
Joan Crawford played the titular role in “Mildred Pierce,” a film noir about a mother who would do anything for her demanding daughter.
Courtesy Everett Collection

‘I think she knew desperate times called for desperate measures, and this movie was her greatest shot at reclaiming her career.’

TCM host Dave Karger

“I guess we’ll never know for sure what was really happening with her that night,” Karger said. “It’s almost unfathomable to me that she would even think of passing up the opportunity to give her own Oscar acceptance speech.”

Whether fear or flu, the award-winning TCM host believes “it’s silly that Joan thought Ingrid Bergman would win Best Actress.”

“[Bergman] had just won that same award the previous year for ‘Gaslight,’ so I would imagine voters wanted to spread the wealth a bit and honor someone else,” he added.

But the pressure was real for Crawford since “Mildred” was her first A-list starring role for Warner Bros. after being kicked to the curb by MGM, where she was dubbed “box office poison” in 1938 by the Independent Theatre Owners Association of America along with other starlets from Hollywood’s golden age.

Seen here in 1932, Joan Crawford's earliest film credit is in 1923.
Seen here in 1932, Joan Crawford’s earliest film credit is in 1923.
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“I remember how I felt the night the Awards were presented,” she recalled in Roy Newquist’s 1980 book, “Conversations with Joan Crawford,” which was published three years after her death. “Hopeful, scared, apprehensive, so afraid I wouldn’t remember what I wanted to say, terrified at the thought of looking at those people, almost hoping I wouldn’t get it, but wanting it so badly — no wonder I didn’t go.”

Crawford also copped to boozing at home.

“I stayed home and fortified myself, probably a little too much, because when the announcement came, and then the press, and sort of a party, I didn’t make much sense at all, even though I wanted to spill over,” she told Newquist.

Joan Crawford starred in "Mildred Pierce" alongside Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott and Jack Carson.
Joan Crawford starred in “Mildred Pierce” alongside Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott and Jack Carson.
Courtesy Everett Collection

Even getting the role in the film noir was a major hurdle for Crawford, who, despite having started her career in silent movies as early as 1923, was forced to take a screen test by director Michael Curtiz. He was famously unsure about casting her as Mildred — a hard-working single mama who sacrifices much while building a restaurant empire to support her spoiled brat daughter.

Karger imagines it must have required “a moment of humility” for a fading superstar to be reduced to an audition.

“I think she knew desperate times called for desperate measures, and this movie was her greatest shot at reclaiming her career and trying to boost her popularity again. I’m glad she didn’t let pride get in the way, because otherwise we all would have been denied a wonderful performance,” he said, noting that Crawford’s “Mildred Pierce” is “gorgeous, complex, human performance in a film that is the height of classic melodrama.”

Joan Crawford in 1966. She was dead in her NYC apartment in 1977.
Joan Crawford in 1966. She was found dead in her NYC apartment in 1977.
Getty Images

“She definitely deserved it,” Karger added.

But despite his early doubts, Curtiz sat in bed smiling alongside his leading lady on Oscar night to present her with the statuette as members of the media documented the spectacle — which reportedly began with a scream, per “The Divine Feud.”

“Joan listened to the show over the radio then ‘took a deep breath’ when Charles Boyer read off the name of Best Actress nominees,” Considine wrote. “When he announced the winner … ‘Joan Crawford,’ she exhaled with a scream that alerted the newsmen on the lawn below her window that she had won. Jumping out of bed, the ailing star then called for her hairdresser and makeup man, on call in the next room.”

Joan Crawford accepts her Academy Award for Best Actress for the film "Mildred Pierce" from the film's director Michael Curtiz.
Joan Crawford accepts her Academy Award for Best Actress for the film “Mildred Pierce” from the film’s director Michael Curtiz.
Getty Images

Crawford’s daughter Christina remembered the night with slightly different details in her 1978 tell-all “Mommie Dearest” that became the basis for the Faye Dunaway-led 1981 film. (As for what that “no more wire hangers!” camp classic got wrong, Christina Crawford told The Post: “Everything.”)

“She was at home in bed with pneumonia,” the now-81-year-old wrote. “Friends called periodically to see if she was going to be well enough to attend that night, but she told everyone she was too ill. Late that night the all-important call came through: she had won the Oscar! Her health seemed to improve dramatically.”

Years later, Crawford was nominated for “Possessed” in 1948 — she showed up in person that year — and “Sudden Fear” in 1953, but fell short at winning Oscar gold. (As for Crawford’s Oscar, the gold statuette infamously sold at auction in 2012 for a record $426,732.)

But ever the diva, she managed to get herself in the spotlight again in 1963 when she accepted Anne Bancroft’s award for “The Miracle Worker,” even posing for photos with winners Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren and Maximilian Schell and making a speech on her behalf — a cringeworthy moment depicted in Ryan Murphy’s FX miniseries “Feud.”

“Miss Bancroft said, here’s my little speech, dear Joan,” Crawford said onstage April 8, 1963, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. “Quote: ‘There are three reasons why I deserve this award: Arthur Penn, Bill Gibson, Fred Coe.’ Unquote. Thank you.”

But her “Baby Jane” co-star Bette Davis said it was more than Crawford wanting the spotlight, telling Barbara Walters decades later that her rival — resentful Davis and Victor Buono were nominated for the film but she wasn’t — was actively campaigning against her in a carefully orchestrated coup, twisting the dagger in their bitter feud.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in 1962's "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in 1962’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Courtesy Everett Collection

“Joan did not want me to have that Oscar,” Davis told Walters. “She worked very hard, campaigned very hard, talking to all of the New York people, saying, ‘If you win, I’ll accept your Oscar.’ I thought I should have had it. The foolish part was that because we were both [receiving] percentages of the profits, an award would have meant a million more dollars to the film. She cut off her own nose, just so I wouldn’t win.”

Karger said “that debacle tarnishes her reputation a bit.”

Gregory Peck (Best Actor, "To Kill a Mockingbird"), Patty Duke (Best Supporting Actress, "The Miracle Worker"), Joan Crawford accepting Anne Bancroft's award and Ed Begley (Best Supporting Actor, "Sweet Bird of Youth") at the 1963 Oscars.
Gregory Peck (Best Actor, “To Kill a Mockingbird”), Patty Duke (Best Supporting Actress, “The Miracle Worker”), Joan Crawford accepting Anne Bancroft’s award and Ed Begley (Best Supporting Actor, “Sweet Bird of Youth”) at the 1963 Oscars.
Bettmann Archive

“That whole Anne Bancroft story is just crazy to me — all of the planning and conniving that she apparently did just to piggyback off of someone else’s glory,” he said. “I really do think the feud between Joan and Bette was real and probably did have a lot to do with Joan’s quest to steal the spotlight at the Oscars that night.”

Backstage At 1963 Oscars: Gregory Peck, presenter Sofia Loren, Joan Crawford holding the Oscar she accepted for Anne Bancroft and Maximilian Schell.
Backstage at the 1963 Oscars: Gregory Peck, presenter Sophia Loren, Joan Crawford holding the Oscar she accepted for Anne Bancroft and Maximilian Schell.
Getty Images

In a final victory lap, Crawford even personally delivered the trophy to Bancroft during a May 1963 curtain call for “Mother Courage and Her Children” on Broadway — with 59-year-old Joan in her Oscars finest and 31-year-old Bancroft costumed in rags and old lady makeup.

The previous year, Crawford, who was a presenter for the 1962 Oscars, managed to steal some thunder from Maximilian Schell when she read his name as the Best Actor winner for “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Smiling wide with those dazzling high cheekbones, she even held Schell’s award for him, longingly admiring it as if it were her own, and posed in photos throughout the evening with the winner.

Or as Hedda Hopper put it in her column after the Oscars: “When it comes to giving or stealing a show, no one can top Joan Crawford.”

The 2021 Oscars airs Sunday, April 25 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC. TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar lineup runs through May — with “Mildred Pierce” airing at 6 p.m. Sunday, May 16.


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New York Post

The New York Post is a daily tabloid newspaper in New York City. The Post also operates NYPost.com, the celebrity gossip site PageSix.com and the entertainment site Decider.com.

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