New book explores the life and cultural impact of film icon Joan Crawford

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For decades she was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

She was a powerful female figure in the male-dominated film industry, and while she had her demons, Joan Crawford fascinated award-winning writer and playwright Samuel Garza Bernstein, whose latest book deeply explores the life of this icon.

“The book is about her cultural impact. It’s completely about her but in a lot of ways is about how we respond to her, how we react to her,” said Garza Bernstein, author of “Starring Joan Crawford: The Films, the Fantasy, and the Modern Relevance of a Silver Screen Icon.”

Samuel Garza Bernstein’s new book is titled “Starring Joan Crawford: The Films, the Fantasy, and the Modern Relevance of a Silver Screen Icon.” The author will sign copies of his book June 4 in Santa Monica. (Photo by Joshua Michael Shelton)

It will be released Wednesday, June 5, but before that Garza Bernstein, who is a Stonewall Book Award-winning writer, will attend a book signing event at Diesel bookstore in Santa Monica on Tuesday, June 4, where he’ll talk about his 360-page book that looks at Crawford’s impact as a cultural force and a model of feminist self-determination for women even today.

“Nobody would have used the word feminism in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, but that’s really what she was doing,” he said.

Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1906, in San Antonio, Texas. She began her acting career in the 1920s and by the 1930s Crawford was a well known star who had made a successful career for herself, later winning her sole Oscar in 1945. She was known for often playing the role of a hardworking young woman who is able to juggle romance and find financial success.

Garza Bernstein’s fascination with Crawford was driven not only by the actress’s talent, but in large part by his own unique upbringing.

He was born to an undocumented Mexican mother who passed as white by using a fake name, and a Jewish father who moved the family to Cairo for a year while Israel and Egypt were still at war. According to Garza Bernstein, who now splits his time living with his husband in Portugal and Los Angeles, he had no idea what his father did for a living, but the rumors were that he was in the arms business. .

“According to my grandmother, she said he was selling arms to the Palestinians. I don’t know if that was true. I think he was more involved in supporting the underdog,” he said.

His family later moved around a lot to places like Honolulu, Austin, Phoenix, New York, Los Angeles, and Colorado.

“I grew up amidst a lot of secrets and very strange family situations and everything just felt very heightened. And definitely I think that sense of heightened reality is part of what draws me to Joan Crawford, who is nothing if not full of drama and a heightened sense of reality,” he said.

Garza Bernstein first saw Crawford in her 1928 film “Our Dancing Daughters.”

“It was just amazing. She was this entirely modern woman. You can imagine her being successful right now, you could imagine her on TikTok doing videos and dancing. She was so modern and I just found that really fascinating,” he said.

Five phases

In his new book he breaks down her decades-long career into five phases and begins by writing about her as an “Influencer and It Girl.”

“Teenage girls all over America for years after her first big movie ‘Our Dancing Daughters’ thought of her as the ideal woman. Girls all over the country wanted to grow up and be just like her, wear what she wears, look like her,” he said.

The other phases he explores in the book are her as ”Queen of the Movies,” “Mother and Martyr,” “Dragon Lady,” and “Survivor,” where he talks about the final phase of her career and her drive to star in the 1962 horror thriller “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” which is one of her best known films.

While her career was remarkable, Garza Bernstein acknowledges that many people will likely remember Crawford from the 1981 movie “Mommie Dearest,” which was adapted from the book written by her adopted daughter Christina Crawford. The book and film paint Crawford as a demanding and abusive mother.

While Garza Bernstein does touch on this topic, it’s not something he dwells on in his new book.

“I definitely explore the phenomena of their relationship. What I don’t do is try to take a side. I’m not here to prove or disprove the idea of whether Joan was a great mother,” he said.

“What I do is take a deep dive into all of her work, because that’s really what I hope she is most remembered for,” Garza Bernstein said.

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